Race-based solutions don’t work

Elton Wong

One issue that has played a prominent role in this presidential race is affirmative action. In the final debate, Gore and Bush exchanged words over this topic. Well, maybe “exchanged words” is too strong a description. Bush tried to describe his own stance on affirmative action, but provided no real information as to how he would deal with the issue if elected president.

For instance, he outlined something called “affirmative access,” whereby the top 10 percent of all graduating classes could automatically attend college in Texas. Bush went further to say that he opposed quotas, but Gore quickly struck down this pseudo-objection by pointing that quotas are illegal anyway. After Bush spoke, Gore asked him if he supported constitutional affirmative action as defined by the Supreme Court. Bush was unable to respond to this question.

Overall, though, the candidates have been slightly more specific. Bush has outlined a system of rewards (government contracts, tax restructuring) that would encourage minority-owned businesses. This is a form of affirmative action, to be sure. Gore has stated affirmative action needs to be fixed but not gotten rid of it. It is safe to say that Gore probably does not disagree with Bush too much on this issue.

Now, Gore is right to say that quotas are illegal. Thus, no affirmative action program officially endorses quotas, whether in hiring or college admission. However, implementation of affirmative action in the real world almost always leads to de facto quotas. This phenomenon can easily be observed through “minority retention rates” and other measurements used by universities.

A seemingly unrelated issue has also surfaced in the presidential debates: racial profiling. Racial profiling generally applies to the police. Several departments across the country have admitted to making arrests and to pulling over motorists based on the basis of race.

Both major party candidates have strongly condemned the practice of racial profiling, and Gore has even promised an executive order banning it as soon as he is elected. What neither candidate has grasped is the irony of supporting race-based policies in business and education while simultaneously decrying race-based law enforcement practices. The term “racial profiling” has a strongly negative connotation, but those two words could just as easily describe what we call “affirmative action.” There is no real difference between the two.

If you supported affirmative action but hated racial profiling, there are some arguments you could try to make. You could argue that racial profiling is unacceptable because it involves harm (arresting and pulling over innocent people). You could then try to argue that affirmative action is desirable because it involves benefits (college admission and hiring).

However, these distinctions (and the argument) are flimsy. In any society, good things and bad things should be distributed according to the same principles. In this case, affirmative action and racial profiling are based on the exact same principle: a person’s race should determine how you treat them. The cop who pulls over a driver for being of a certain race is no better than the admissions board that admits a student for the same reason. Both are lazy, and both fail to find more just solutions to the problem at hand.

As a way to treat individuals, affirmative action is dehumanizing because it treats people as mere members of a group. As a way to correct social injustice, affirmative action is ineffectual, because it is a Band-Aid solution to a serious problem.

Take race-based college admission policies. Why would anyone think that such policies are necessary in the first place? The answer is that certain racial groups tend to display poorer academic performance than other groups. Affirmative action tries to deal with this discrepancy by arbitrarily lowering academic standards for certain groups rather than investigating and rectifying the underlying causes of this discrepancy. Again, affirmative action is a lazy solution.

Why is it that African-Americans and Latinos tend to score lower on academic tests than other groups? Race is not the cause of this. Race only correlates. Therefore, a solution that deals only with race can only fail.

The only possible causes for the test discrepancies are institutional racism, inequality in pre-college education, socio-economic inequality and cultural factors (anti-education mindsets within these groups). None of these problems can be fixed by lowering admission standards at the university level. These problems demand more involving solutions.

If we want to run a meritocracy, we had better be sure everyone receives equal opportunity. Equal opportunity is not served by affirmative action, because affirmative action treats people differently according to race.

Equal opportunity will be served when everyone lives in safety and has good schools to go to. When the playing field is leveled in this way, we will be able to treat people as individuals instead of members of groups. Whether we are talking about law enforcement, employment, or college admission, this should be our ultimate goal.