Affirmative action, fairness, and America’s future

Affirmative action, fairness, and America’s future

On Election Day, California voters decisively rejected Proposition 16, which would have repealed California’s constitutional ban on discrimination. This result has, understandably, been overshadowed by the presidential race. But it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what Prop 16′s failure says about our culture and the future of our politics.

Supporters of the initiative — who outspent their opponents 17 to one, by one reckoning — wanted the ability to grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. One justification they gave was that this would help promote diversity. But California’s voters — who are perhaps the nation’s most liberal — said no.

I was not surprised. People really don’t like being discriminated against because of their race, or their gender, or their sexual preference, or their appearance. People don’t like being discriminated against on any ground other than merit. We know this from decades of research in economics, social psychology and experimental philosophy. We know that it is true of liberals and conservatives alike; men and women; Blacks and whites.

For example, in general, Blacks support affirmative action and whites oppose it. It is commonly thought that the reason why is that Blacks benefit from affirmative action and whites are harmed by it. This is a simple explanation for this difference in opinion between the races.

But it’s wrong. In fact what is going on is this: Whites oppose affirmative action because they believe it violates merit-based hiring. Blacks support affirmative action because they believe it enables merit-based hiring, by nullifying racial bias and other forms of disadvantage.

Despite appearances, when it comes to affirmative action, there is no moral disagreement. Both Blacks and whites believe that the best-qualified applicant should be hired. What we disagree about is a factual question: Does real-world affirmative action enable, or detract from, our shared moral goal?

One reason merit-based hiring is important is that it is the only way to choose between applicants that does not create resentment. When we lose out on a job because we’re not the best-qualified applicant, we can make peace with that. We may not be happy about the result, but we accept that it is fair. We bear the successful applicant no ill will, because we recognize that she was fairly judged to deserve the job more than we did.

But discrimination on the basis of race or gender is not like that. It generates resentment — and not just among the “losers.” Those who benefit from racial and gender preference must live with the knowledge that they may not deserve their positions. As a result, some are unable to take full pride in their achievements.

Prop 16 and efforts like it pose a further, insidious threat. We live in a moment in which those who would benefit from preferential treatment are often — but by no means always — disadvantaged. There is no guarantee that this will remain the case.

Supporters of Prop 16 thought they were promoting racial and gender justice. In fact, it was the opposite. What might they have proposed, instead, to advance the cause of justice? I have two suggestions.

First, we can use forms of affirmative action that do not involve discrimination. For example, suppose a business wants to increase its number of Black employees. It might do so by advertising vacancies at historically Black colleges and then judging applicants on the basis of merit alone. Merely increasing the pool of Black applicants can create demographic change.

Second, and more important, we can pursue bold structural reforms to our economy. The reason there are disparate outcomes — in education, hiring, income and more — between Blacks and whites is because there is enormous inequality of opportunity between the races. The average white child is born into a family with 10 times the wealth of the average Black child’s family. These inequalities of opportunity shape our prospects from an early age — and so it is at an early age that we must intervene. Policies like a strong inheritance tax and investment in public education can level the playing field.

On March 26, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met for the first and only time. They were in Washington to listen to debate on the Civil Rights Act. The Act passed soon thereafter, and ever since it has prohibited discrimination, at the federal level, on the basis of race, sex, color and national origin. It is one of our nation’s greatest, and most hard-fought, moral victories. California’s voters honored its legacy on Election Day, and I commend them for it.