Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Equal Opportunity is Good, Discrimination is Bad

by Daniel L. Bennett

Last week, IHE featured a story describing the results of a new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, which presents new data on the impact of affirmative action admissions to college. I have not read the book, so will not comment directly on the results. Rather, I want to respond to the comments elicited by the story. Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity was the first to comment on the story and his remarks propelled a flurry of responses. Roger commented:
There are two forests here that should not be obscured by the trees: First, there is a lot of racial discrimination in admissions taking place; and, second, the purported beneficiaries of such discrimination perform significantly worse academically than other students. The justification for such discrimination is the supposed educational benefits of a racially diverse student body. Those benefits are dubious, but even if they exist, they are simply not worth the costs of racial discrimination, namely: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure or academic underperformance for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.
This is the type of comment that I've come to expect from Roger, one that is sensible but not politically correct. A response by Carson Byrd poses the questions:
Are we to simply forget the historical discrimination and the structural inequality in society that exists today when we discuss college admissions? Is it all about today and not yesterday with this debate?
In which my response, and likely Roger's, is yes. Sure, most of us look at past discrimination with disdain and wish that things would have occurred differently. We should never judge a book by its cover, but rather by what is inside. But, we should learn to forgive in order to make progress -the objective is to move forward. By permitting preferential treatment for one or a few groups, we are discriminating against other groups, which is not a path towards progress. According to Byrd's claim that we need to make up for past discrimination, almost every group today needs to be given preferential treatment. But if every group receives preferential treatment, then where does that leave us? Basically, all preferences cancel out to produce an arena for equal opportunity that is based on merit.

I whole-heartedly support the notion of equal opportunity, but not entitlement. America was founded by immigrants who flocked here because of the opportunity to make a better living through hard work, not to mention the right to avoid religious oppression. Egalitarian principles is what made this nation great. One of the great moral teachings of Christianity is that we must learn to forgive past hurt in order to make progress in our spiritual lives with God. Whether you are religious or not, forgiveness is a sound moral principle that leads to progress, and is equally applicable to society and the economy. Where would the world be if the Japanese did not forgive the Americans, if the Americans did not forgive the British, or if the confederate states did not forgive the north? My guess is that the world would likely be filled with much more violence, hate and societal stagnation than exists today.

By permitting affirmative action policies, we are perpetuating the problem by discriminating against different groups. It is an attempt at social engineering that is simply bad policy. No policy should pick the winners and losers. By doing so, we are only breeding disdain of the new victims of discrimination, while attempting to appease the previous victims. The long-run outcome, like other policies that pick winners and losers, will be chalked full of unintended consequences that will further distort the notion of equal opportunity.

In terms of higher education, we should judge applicants by their merits and potential to succeed, not by the color of their skin, religious beliefs or sexual organs. Colleges benefit by admitting and graduating the strongest possible students, and organizations benefit by hiring and promoting the strongest possible employees, without regards to skin color or religious beliefs. Economic theory suggests that wage discrimination is inefficient, as it costs organizations more when they engage in discrimination, whether it be racial, gender, ethnic, height, etc., because it distorts wage levels. Moral principles and economic theory agree that equal opportunity is a great ethos, and that discrimination is a horrible one.

1 comment:

Steve said...

They do have a valid complaint that the critera we use to determine "merit" isn't exactly a measure of intelligence or ability.

SAT scores correlated too much with income and the school you attended to be a good measure of your innate ability. Resume-building acitivites are obviously strongly influenced by culture.

I had a friend who was saying it was easier for me to get into the school we go to because I went to a normal public high school whereas he went to a private school. He said this was a type of oblique "class" affirmative action (I'm white). But look at the data: I had to have a much more impressive record agianst my peers to get considered. I have to best the best student at my school in the past few years, he just had to be in the top-10% at his. My theory predicts that people like me will have higher GPAs in college and lo and behold it was true in our case.