Philosopher: "I’m for Affirmative Action. Can You Change My Mind?"
December 11, 2018, 01:57 PM
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From the NYT:

I’m for Affirmative Action. Can You Change My Mind?
I have a rational argument for my position. But I want to hear yours.

By Gary Gutting
Mr. Gutting is a emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame.

Dec. 10, 2018

… The last step, then, in the defense of affirmation [sic] action in college admissions is an appeal to the moral demand to compensate for the damage done to by minorities by a long history of racial discrimination. Sotomayor elaborates: “Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities being denied access to the political process. … Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society — inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities …. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”

What exactly is the logic here? We know the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow and lynchings, but how could they connect to the somewhat less than stellar academic records of middle-class black students who might not make the cut at Harvard? The connection would have to lie, as Sotomayor suggests, in the present-day residues, the stubborn structural effects of centuries of mistreatment, gradually diminishing but still an undeserved burden.

Are the burdens of centuries of mistreatment gradually diminishing? That would seem likely in terms of straightforward common sense, but instead the respectable media seems to give us the impression that the Burdens of History are increasing as time passes: e.g., there is absolutely no for slavery/Jim Crow.

For example, Emmett Till is mentioned far more often in the New York Times in this decade than two decades ago. Emmett Till was mentioned twice in the NYT in 1990 and 72 times in 2017.

In a 2003 opinion, Sandra Day O’Connor implied that she only thought this rationale would be reasonable until 2028. Of course, we are now 60% of the way there, and virtually nothing has changed, so we don’t hear about the temporary nature anymore.

The burden shows up in both economic and social terms. The wealth (total value of home, savings, investments, etc.) of middle-class white families is about four times that of middle-class black families. This gives white families a decided edge in their ability to survive financial setbacks and resources to provide a better education for their children. Similarly, due to restrictive real estate practices, wealthier blacks still often live in poorer neighborhoods than comparable whites do, reducing educational and cultural opportunities. There are also psychological effects: Black children live in a world where their very appearance presents them as “others,” often objects of either uneasy suspicion or patronizing sympathy.

So it’s hard to deny that blacks as a whole face a distinctive set of disadvantages that are primarily due to the still effective legacy of slavery.

But, by Professor Gutting’s logic, why should recent immigrant groups also get racial/ethnic preferences in United State, when their ancestors weren’t burdened by the sins of American history? Why does getting off a plane from Buenos Aires make you eligible for low interest SBA minority development loans and government contracting breaks in the USA?

Some institutions don’t offer affirmative action to Hispanics from Buenos Aires. I vaguely recall that some college, Princeton?, didn’t give a boost up to Cubans. But most of affirmative action doesn’t worry about fine distinctions like this. Either you are in or you are not in. (This by the way is why Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Diverse is such a beartrap for her: if anybody ought to know how the affirmative action system ought to work it’s a Harvard Law professor who is now a Senator and wants to be President. But she seems opportunistic and clueless, so some of her staff is fleeing, perhaps because they foresee a future of endless discussions over who is and who isn’t eligible for Diversity benefits.)

A reasonable compromise based on this logic might be to preserve affirmative action for the historic victim groups of American history — blacks descended from American slaves (e.g., Michelle Obama, but not Barack Obama) and for American Indians; but junk preferences for groups largely descended from recent immigrants.

Of course, virtually nobody favors this. One reason is because the Supreme Court has over the years created the rationale that affirmative action is reparations to blacks, it’s instead for the benefit of whites: they prosper from Vitamin D!

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