Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Affirmative Action and Diversity

The Supreme Court has decided to look into this business. Let's take a brief look, too. By the way, I have been denied employment because I am white and not East Asian. If you see an ad that says, "Chinese Philosophy Professor Wanted," think twice. I'm a specialist in Chinese philosophy. I've lost out to competitors who knew little about Chinese philosophy but who were Chinese. Maybe your child is studying with one of those professors right now. That youngster is being miseducated. So, let us make inquiry.

First: Diversity. The idea behind some university admissions and hiring policies is that ethnic diversity is a value to weigh against individual merit when deciding whether to hire an employee or admit a student. Now, if diversity is a value, this is because it is either an end in itself or a means to some other value. But it's not an end in itself. Anybody who finds it intrinsically appealing to have a mix of ethnicities in a certain location simply has aesthetic tastes, not moral preferences. Whether there is an array of ethnically different genetic material in a certain location, rather than only one ethnicity of genetic material is morally irrelevant because genetic material, skin color, hair type, etc., are of no intrinsic moral significance.

So, diversity must be of instrumental value if it is of value. This instrumental value could be intellectual or socio-cultural. If the latter, then we're talking about the role model argument, the argument that unless an organization of accomplished people is ethnically representative of America, not all young people aspiring to be excellent will have role models to emulate. However, this would hold for short people, too. Short kids would need short people of accomplishment to look up to (sorry). Clearly, that is absurd, so the role model argument is worthless. The point is that ethnic minorities are perfectly capable of finding role models in people of any ethnicity, just as short people are capable of finding role models in people of any height. Am I being obtuse? Perhaps ethnicity has cultural trappings, such that the youth need to see how people from their ethnic culture are able to achieve excellence, while short people don't need short role models because shortness isn't cultural in any way. But the flaw of this idea is to fail to see that excellence in any career is an activity that must be abstracted away from any particular ethnicity if it is to be achieved. Excellence in business, physics, or the study of history has nothing to do with one's ethnicity. To think that a youth needs to see how a person of his own ethnicity does physics or business is an idea with no content. What he needs is to see how the activity is done precisely in the respects in which someone of any ethnicity can do it.

Is the value of diversity intellectual? No. Universities do not gain by having people of various ethnicities on campus. Hiring and admitting by ethnicity is a method that will always be improved upon by using individual intellectual merit as a measure. A university benefits intellectually from diversity of viewpoint and experience, but these are better tracked by hiring and admitting according to individual merit. If the premise is that diversity of thought and viewpoint will cause the mind to learn better, be smarter, and know more, then there is no point in hiring and admitting according to ethnicity when you can cut the chase and hire by individual merit. An analogy: If pigeon-toed people were thought to be better athletes, you'd still be better off recruiting a team by testing candidates' athletic abilities than by using pigeon-toedness as a guide. Two smart and well-educated white people will know more after four years than a pair consisting of a mediocre black student and a smart and well-educated white one. Individual excellence shows that a person has demonstrated the ability to find other viewpoints to evaluate. Besides, what wisdom is it that ethnic minorities bring to a campus that smart and well-educated whites don't get simply by living in America? If the whites hail from culturally sheltered and narrow-minded enclaves in America, and this is deleterious to their scholarly abilities, then this will show up in measures of their individual scholarly excellence. Narrow-mindedness won't get you far. Which do you think would produce better educated graduates: a less-than-excellent person of ethnicity X teaching college classes to less-than-excellent people of ethnicity X, or people of scholarly excellence teaching and studying the history, literature and social lives of ethnicity X in college classes?

What about affirmative action? The idea here is one of two things. It could be that poverty amongst minorites should be alleviated by giving them access to wealth via jobs and education. But it isn't clear what ethnicity has to do with it. Poverty amongst short people also should be alleviated by giving them access to wealth. However, short people don't stay in communities of their own in the way, for example, blacks or Hispanics do. So, maybe the idea is to inject wealth into their communities where there is so little opportunity. But this is a mistake. They can always leave their communities and go after opportunities elsewhere in the country. Anybody stupid enough not to know that is certainly too stupid to pass a college course. Besides, after getting their fancy jobs, the beneficiaries of affirmative action will be unlikely to return to live in the poor ghetto from which they came and create opportunities for others of their ethnicity. Moreover, this social engineering does damage to an institution of central importance in our society: our educational institution. Sacrificing educational excellence for the sake of poor people of a certain skin color makes this country worse: stupider and less educated. This is too great a sacrifice to make for poor people. Further, if the "poor" person we're talking about is able to pass college courses, then if he's poor, it's his fault. Affirmative action at university is like offering free tune-ups for people's cars. Anyone who owns a car is not poor enough to deserve a free tune-up. If you're a remotely plausible candidate for a position as professor or for admission to college, you don't need aid.

The other idea behind affirmative action is that it is payback. The white men have wealth and ability because of past injustices. Ethnic minorities and women are less skilled because of those past injustices. So, the white men should pay back by having to forego jobs which will be given instead to ethnic minorities and women. However, this argument is invalid. Present-day young women have not been victims of oppression. They are the offspring of men, so they are not victims of historical sexist injustices. Women are not one society that has been cheated by another. So, affirmative action should certainly exclude them.

What about payback for ethnic minorities? In the past, ethnic minorities were oppressed. But their descendants are not poor as a result. Poverty goes away after just a few years of intelligent and skilled hard work. If it stays for generations, then its cause is lack of intelligence, skill and hard work. But let us consider the handicap that comes from being Joe, the child of A, who suffered terrible injustice at the hands of B. The central premise of affirmative action is that B was able to provide his own child, Mary, with a little bit better opportunity because of the wealth he garnered by oppressing A. Mary is a better applicant for a job than Joe. Should an employer hire Joe, on the grounds that Joe would have been better? No. Mary should still be hired. Children should return property their parents have stolen and given to them, but it's difficult to see how the goods stolen from A are to exist in, or even account for, Mary's superiority to Joe. Her excellence is explained by her innate abilities and hard work, rather than by any opportunity resulting from her parent's unjust actions. Whites kept blacks down in the '40s and '50s. This didn't make white children richer as adults. It hamstrung the economy and thus constrained their accumulation of wealth. Mary has not profited from the harm done to Joe. Are there fewer applicants to compete with? No. If A hadn't been oppressed in the old days, he'd be hiring people now, too. By oppressing A, Mary's parent B has made her worse off. Besides, now it is fifty years later. Nobody's position is a result of economic conditions of fifty years ago. Poor people rise into the middle class all the time in America. Any pattern of poverty continuing in a family from the generation of 1950 until the present generation of twenty-year-olds is a result of household culture. And anyone can change his household's culture if he likes. No one deserves a handout because he was raised to be unskilled and lazy about education and work. To think that white slave masters account for anyone's character flaws today is obviously a mistake. Any undesireable character traits that are not genetically determined can be eliminated by the parent raising the child to avoid these flaws. I've got character flaws. I'm going to help my son avoid them. Do children have to have the same character and values as their parents? Of course not. The idea that ethnic minorities have character flaws resulting from the actions of whites many decades ago is absurd. The central claim of affirmative action, that unjust differences in parental wealth account for differences in qualifications of applicants today is false. Too many other factors are more important. And by now, we're not talking about parents but grandparents or even more distant ancestors. Those wrongdoings are ineffectual now.

Moreover, the idea that employers and society at large should pay for B's wrongdoings is also absurd. Affirmative action sees us as two groups: whites who are skilled applicants and employers, all of whom have ripped off blacks who are now applying for jobs and places in college. This is a distorted view of reality. There is only one group - Americans - and some of us harmed others of us in the past. In some cases harms were done by people of one ethnicity to people of the same ethnicity. There were murders, grand theft, assaults, etc. But those harms are not grounds for bias in favor of the grandkids of the victims now. That in other cases the ethnicities of the wrongdoer and the victim were different should not matter. Think about a poor white kid applying for a job. Now think about a poor black kid applying for a job. If you have a different gut feeling of guilt for the black one, then maybe that might make affirmative action seem justified to you: irrational guilt. Does anyone think that a poor white kid who can get into Penn State's engineering program but not Brown's deserves to be let into Brown's by affirmative action? No. This kid's going to be well-off. So, it shouldn't matter if he's black instead of white. Furthermore, many white youngsters are children of people who were either not in America during the oppressive periods of our history or who although present did not take part in the oppression. To deny them places in universities for which they pay tax just because they are white would be terribly unjust.

So, the Court should get rid of affirmative action. Or if they don't, then they ought to mandate that Irish and Jewish be ethnicities on the list. My people got stepped on a fair bit in history. I want payback.