The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Expectations (III: Cui Bono?)

[Further to recent posts here, here and there about the costs and benefits of affirmative action.]

It is clear that my perception of the prevalence of affirmative action differs from Mr. Whitlock's, and I expect this is in large part because we see different parts of the economy. My experience is in investment banking (where it is nonexistent) and before that in academia (where it is omnipresent). [The graduate school I attended had a simple formula for sorting candidates: 0-3 points for alma mater and GPA, 0-3 for GRE scores, 0-3 for recommendations, and then 0-1 for gender, 0-1 for race, 0-1 for disabled status, and a few others. Applications on the cusp (probably 7 points) were considered individually.] [The real world is something I experience only through Mr. Whitlock's reports.]

In this post, I will mainly focus on academia. Since the law on affirmative action is currently so fuzzy (see the Kinsley analysis referenced below), we may assume that policies are driven by perceived public opinion. The personal preferences of the school's administrators may have an impact, but the gain to the institution is purely in public relations. Each policy represents a balancing act, attempting to gain respect for diversity without (unduly) sacrificing respect for research excellence.

Those favored by affirmative action are rewarded in the same currency, of prestige. Academia (outside Computer Science departments) has little money to offer, compared to industry; instead it pays with social status and inviolable security. Law schools may be an exception.

The biggest beneficiaries of this system, though, are the elite students among underrepresented minorities. Assuming there is some truth to the justifications for affirmative action -- that differences in opportunities across racial groups are reflected in the visible qualifications of students emerging from them -- the same must be true within racial groups as well. The poor are not being helped, but the wealthy and powerful who happen to share their skin color are.

What do they offer in return for this benefit? Steady support for the institutions that continue to provide it, and loud public opprobrium for those that cease. The worst of it, though, it that the means of their power is the exploitation of others of their race, who will never benefit from affirmative action at Yale Law, but will suffer the rebound of racism thus created.