Thinking About Affirmative Action

Others will tell us that not all blacks suffered, so affirmative action is imprecisely targeted and hence unjust. But not all veterans suffered either. Consider, for example, Ronald Reagan: he was eligible for veterans’ preferences even though he spent the war in Hollywood. Those who enacted veterans’ preferences decided — reasonably enough — that it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to determine on a case-by-case basis who was a deserving veteran (one who had truly risked life and limb or genuinely sacrificed for the country); instead justice would be reasonably approximated by offering preferences to all who served. Likewise, to "treat each person as an individual" and figure out exactly how much each person suffered from U.S. racism and sexism in order to decide what she or he was "owed" would be a bureaucratic nightmare. But it is a reasonable approximation to assume that racism and sexism have harmed members of discriminated-against groups.

Some might further claim that veterans’ preferences undermine meritocratic principles far less than does affirmative action. It happens that there is some evidence bearing on this matter. In 1995, the General Accounting Office did a study of Federal hiring. They asked government personnel officers which legal requirements helped in the hiring of qualified employees and which hindered. Each of the three groups of personnel officers surveyed thought veterans’ preferences made it more difficult than affirmative action to obtain a quality pool of candidates; among service center managers, 77% said veterans’ preferences hurt, and none said they helped; for affirmative action, 7% said it hurt and 23% said it helped.

So none of the arguments suggesting that veterans’ preferences are more defensible than affirmative action are very compelling. The real reason that the former is taken for granted while the latter evokes virulent hostility is the identity of the beneficiaries. Veterans’ preferences benefit mostly white males, affirmative action women and minorities.

Of course, showing that opposition to affirmative action is hypocritical does not prove that affirmative action is fair. If we think of life as a footrace, some will ask, shouldn’t the prize go to the fastest runner?

Surely it would be wrong for the runner who placed second in a race to be declared the winner. But that’s true only if the contest is in fact a fair one. Unfortunately, life in the United States was never, and still isn’t, a fair contest. And even if someone wanted to argue that discrimination is not currently a serious problem — though lots of evidence demonstrates otherwise — no one can deny that past discrimination was horrendous. And past discrimination still affects us today. As Lyndon Johnson pointed out in a speech in Austin, Texas, in 1965, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others.’"

But this analogy doesn’t capture all the harm of past discrimination. Because wealth and privilege are passed on from generation to generation — our current success is in part a function of the accomplishments of those who have come before us — a better analogy is that of a relay race, where the baton is passed from one runner to the next. If early runners on some relay team have had weights tied to their legs, later runners on that same team will be disadvantaged even if there are no weights on their legs.

The foot race analogy has another problem. We can talk about "the most qualified runner" in the 100 meter dash. But what does it mean to say "the most qualified basketball player"? Doesn’t that depend on the capabilities of the rest of the team? If your team has a lot of good outside shooters, but no rebounders, then the most qualified person to be the next player on your team may be a rebounder who’s only a mediocre shooter. Is the rebounder a better player than the good shooter you passed over? The question makes no sense. We don’t care about who the best possible player is, but who will make the team the best possible team. (For proof that this is so, consider that professional basketball franchises often trade players, something that would make little sense — why trade someone who’s better for someone who’s worse? — unless a player who is the most qualified for one team may not be the most qualified for another.)

This same principle — that we seek not the "best individual" but the individual who will contribute the most to the whole — applies in other walks of life besides sports. Consider the example of college admissions. Should a school look simply for the students who individually are the best academically — assuming there were a way to measure this? Or should it also be concerned about which mix of students will create the environment that can best contribute to the educational experience at the college, and which mix of students will lead to the graduating class that can best benefit society? A richly diverse student body enhances the education of all students. And students from previously excluded groups are likely to have the greatest social impact after graduation.

So if someone asks, "who is more qualified to go to a particular College, person X or person Y?" the question can’t be answered unless you know something about the rest of the student body and what X or Y can contribute to that student body and graduating class. You can’t pick the best player unless you know what the rest of the team is like.

As every veteran can tell you, individual merit is not nearly so important as how the unit works as a whole.



Veterans’ preferences are compared to affirmative action in John David Skrentny, _The Ironies of Affirmative Action_ (University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 37-50.

The GAO study is U.S. General Accounting Office, _Federal Hiring: Reconciling Managerial Flexibility With Veterans’ Preference_, GAO/GGD-95-102, June 1995. It is available online at: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/aces160.shtml?/gao/index.html.

Versions of the relay race analogy are suggested by Lester Thurow, _The Zero Sum Society_ (New York: Penguin, 1980, p. 188) and Gabriel Chin, Sumi Cho, Jerry Kang, and Frank Wu, "Beyond Self-Interest: APAs Toward a Community of Justice: A Policy Analysis of Affirmative Action," 1996, II.A.1 para. 2, available at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/aasc/policy. The latter is an excellent discussion of Asian-Americans and affirmative action.

Evidence that affirmative action in university admissions leads to socially beneficial outcomes is in William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, _The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions_ (Princeton University Press, 1998). See David Karen’s review of the book in _The Nation_, 16 Nov. 1998, for a useful critique.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. He is the author of _Imperial Alibis_ (South End, 1993) and is currently working on _Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics._


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