Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why I support affirmative action

On Essembly (my favorite time-waster), the perennial hot-button topic of affirmative action arose yet again. And as always, I threw myself into the thick of it. One person asked:
Ryan do you recommend forcing the NBA to have its players reflect the percentage of qualified applicants from each race so that 70% or so of them are white? You're going to answer that the best applicants happen to be black. To that I'll respond this way: who's to say the best applicants for any given medical school won't be overwhelmingly white or Asian? Would you rather have the best possible basketball player or the best possible surgeon? Which is more important? By forcing quotas you are going to end up with less quality (though perfectly qualified) doctors, lawyers, cops etc. and that's exactly what's happening.
My response follows, and I essentially laid out my full case... which means it's pretty long.

Why do college admissions departments care if you've done community service? Why do they ask about extracurricular activities? Does it make any difference in your ability to be an engineer, a doctor, an architect, if you played varsity tennis for two years in high school? It doesn't. None of these things matter, but all of them are considered for admissions to universities, in addition to more mundane factors such as GPA and test scores. The reason is that there is not some magical measurement of "qualification" for college, and schools want what you always hear they want: a well-rounded student.

In the NBA, it's fairly straightforward what qualifications will get an athlete hired. They're either good at scoring a lot of points, or at helping someone else score a lot of points, or at stopping other people from scoring a lot of points. While there is some room for subjectivity in which emphasis is most important, it would be fairly easy to rank all potential players on the basis of their records and simply pick the best. You ask if there should be affirmative action for white NBA players. The answer, of course, is no, because there is neither evidence nor even accusation that the selection process for NBA players is biased by race. If there were, the NBA should be held to the same equal employment opportunity rules as any other organization.

But colleges are different. Your statement about qualifications presupposes two things, or seems to. One: that colleges are a reward for good prior performance, and therefore admission should be based on this prior performance. And two: that there is some objective measure of what makes a good, qualified student. While you may want the system to work that way, in reality, it doesn't.

On the first point, colleges are not a reward, they are an opportunity. Colleges exist to educate the population, not to educate some of the population. But clearly there are logistical limits, and so there must be some criteria for admission. But this criteria is arbitrary, and is only a means of choosing for limited space. I'll get back to that in response to point two momentarily. But the question here is "what is the purpose of college?" I have argued that it is an opportunity for higher education, but for whom? If there are groups that are underrepresented in a field, this isn't in and of itself bad. As you point out, cultural factors influence career paths and choices all the time, and certainly anecdotal experience suggests that, for example, Asian families are inclined to push towards medicine.

But college, and education in general, is an instrument of society. It exists for a purpose, and that is the purpose of improving the intellectual resources available to society. Greater minority representation in "higher" professions that college makes accessible is desirable to society, because for those groups which have economic disadvantages, bringing members up and out to the middle and upper classes can end these cycles of poverty. Doctors and lawyers from these groups have a better understanding of the problems the groups face, and can bring their services to people who wouldn't have otherwise had them. It is not a matter of simply saying, "Johnny went to a decent school and got decent grades, so he should be fast-tracked for medical school." It is a matter of asking, "What would be best for everyone in the long run?" And a well-educated populace, of all races, is preferable to a de facto caste system, regardless of how and why is arose.

Regarding point two, there is no particular admissions criteria that is "superior." The courts have held that race cannot be the sole basis for admission, as in quota systems, and this is as it should be. But there is no reason, in light of the above, that race can't be one factor among many. Recall my opening paragraph. Why should extracurricular activity, or athletic ability, or community service matter in admissions? Some people are good at memorizing things for tests, some people are good at writing long, winding essays (guess which of the two I preferred?), some people get the gist of things and are murky on the details. Some people, as silly adolescents, just screwed around more than they should have. Does any of this matter, when it comes to their potential for being a social worker, or a dentist, or a biologist? A little, probably, but how do you know in advance?

There is already "discrimination" against people that has nothing to do with race. If I have a 4.0 GPA, and you have a 3.99, but I didn't do anything outside of school, while you were in the Honor Society and volunteered at the nursing home, you may well get accepted to a college while I am turned down. Is this fair? Of course it is. GPA is a measure of how well you performed on certain metrics, but it doesn't say anything meaningful about your potential as a well-rounded, useful member of the educated class.

Here is the crux of the matter: people don't have a "right" to be admitted to any particular university. Universities set their admissions criteria on those factors which they believe will further their goals of educating society. If one of those goals is, say, diversity, or helping those who have been disadvantaged, there is no reason why race should not be one of the many factors that influence decisions. Since people with high academic performance do not have a "right" to be accepted, there is not violation of their rights if they are rejected in favor of someone else who brings a non-academic factor to the campus such as athletic ability, leadership potential, or even simple diversity. These are all valid things for society to desire in its instruments of learning.


  1. Absolutely love your article on affirmative action. Finally someone who realizes it isn't a handout, but one of many factors. I agree with you 100%! Quotas are evil and getting something because of your race is wrong. However if it is a factor involving several others, especially if diversity in the upper echelons is important for the society and a critical mass is needed for diversity in a college setting, so be it!

  2. got the idea that the NBA is a reward and not the necessity and no reports of discrimination has come through.I doubt admission to an ivy league school is not a reward for the deserving candidate. And NBA admission has got no social purpose.You will get ur idea asking anyone of them.lastly if we could expunge all the bull-shit of social work,athletic ability from the admission process,would you still prefer the race based preferance.