Affirmative Action

2018/04/23 writing

Someone asked "Should affirmative action be based on economic status instead of race?".

Its seems that this would still provide the same support for disadvantaged minorities and may even be better since today poor american blacks are losing spots to wealthy foreign blacks because universities look at race more than economic status.

There seemed to be a growing consensus that any race-conscious approaches should be dropped in favor of pure income ones, so I tried to present the case for visual-minority-sensitive affirmative action.

I don't know exactly where I stand on Affirmative Action as it pertains to university admissions. I certainly don't practice an equivalent when I have discretionary power over admissions to other things. However, since the discussion so far is kind of circle-jerky about how obviously it should be based solely on income, I'm going to present a dissenting opinion.

Affirmative Action should be based partly on outwards appearance and not solely on income because it is correcting for an issue that was rooted in outwards appearance in the first place (or, perhaps not rooted, rooted in productive exploitation, but guided by visual markers). Black people and women weren't oppressed because they were low-income, they were oppressed becasue they were black and female [0]. If we commit to ignoring the "visible minority" clause, we ignore the reason why AA is needed in the first place. We imply that racial hurdles are insignificant compared to economic ones. That case can be made, but it shouldn't be assumed.

The case against AA is usually advanced by presenting an absurd extreme. For example, Obama's daughter getting a leg up over an Appalachian miner's kid. Putting aside that this is not at all a representative scenario, we can nevertheless acknowledge that this appears egregiously unfair. I won't argue that this scenario never occurs, but I will argue that if wealthy black kid gets an edge over a middle-class white kid, or a middle-class white kid over a poor black kid, this is probably fine.

A quick aside, though: Even though people claim to be furious at the idea of a rich minority taking over a poor white kid's place because of AA, I very rarely see people rail against Legacy admissions programs, or the way that Financial Aid is assessed. If you apply to any Ivy League, there's two outrageous questions, far more conducive to abuse than any related to AA: "Do you have family members that are alumni of our school?" and "Will you be requesting financial aid?". The "Are you a visible minority?" checkbox pales in comparison to the blatant corruption hinted at by the other two, and so the selective outrage here is very telling. Aristocratic families and the new rich flex their influence, and yet many people fixate on the unworthiness minorities sneaking in. Absurd.

Anyway, the central idea here is that the beneficiary of AA isn't the kid who gets into Harvard. The kid who gets into Harvard is the agent of AA, part of the team that is trying to solve the problem, not the recipient of its goals. The real beneficiaries of AA are meant to be black kids 20, 30, 40 years down the line, who, when looking at history books or television shows, get to see people that look like them.

Consider how television shows have "accidentally" engaged in a massive, unexamined affirmative-action program over the last few decades. Not because of any realism or pro-social justice activism, but simply because audiences demanded romance in their Law, Police, and Medical dramas. Audiences expected hot women, and so tons of were cast explicitly to allow for these storylines. Nowadays those professions are much, much further ahead in terms of rectifying the gender gap than less showtime-friendly fields like engineering, or math, or philosophy. The plethora of role models women had available to them, even if "artificial", was critical to breaking the vicious circle. If you're skeptical, try asking people who had the luxury of pursuing some of these careers why they went into them specifically. Citing fictional heroes as inspiration is not at all rare.

So, it's a role model generation project. We're trying to change people's view of what is achievable.

Another point that gets brought up a lot is the devaluing of existing minority achievement. As in, the proliferation of the suspicion that many people made it far solely because they got a leg up. I also find this disingenuous. Growing up I looked up to people like Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein or Neil Armstrong, while knowing basically nothing about their biography. Nothing about their wives, what university they went to, whether they were part of this or that royal family, that they were in a frat, etc. Honestly, I barely know key familial details of most of my coworkers and classmates. And it goes without saying that people who got into Harvard via legacy admission don't seem to lose much sleep over it. It's hard to imagine getting a small break is the degrading and humilliating experience oppnents of AA make it out to be.

In summary, AA should most definitely take into account visible minority status. It needs to be weighed alongside income considerations, no doubt, but the latter by no means trounces the former.