Sunday, November 05, 2006

On Tuesday, voters in Michigan will confront Proposition 2, which seeks to disallow public organizations from the consideration of race or sex when making hiring or admissions decisions.

I've made several attempts now to write about Proposition 2, but each time I sit down, the post gets longer and more preachy. And that's not what I want to do. I support affirmative action; I think Proposition 2 is a mistake, and I think Jennifer Gratz is a big whiny whiner. But an in-depth defense of an actual policy is a bit heavy for these parts (and plus, who has the time to read write such a thing?). So instead, I'll link to a few good articles, and I'll make a couple of quick comments. As is my way.

Comment 1: From the New York Times piece:

"I don’t know a lot about Proposition 2, but I do know a neighbor kid, a good kid, a local kid with a 3.7-3.8 average, who didn’t get into the university and he should have," said Vicki Smith, who is white, shopping one afternoon at Kohls department store. "I do think there’s something wrong with their admissions."
Now listen, Vicki Smith. Maybe you're a very nice person. And if so, I'm sorry to have to say this. But if you're going to vote in favor of Proposition 2 because some white kid you know didn't get into Michigan (perhaps because his "3.7-3.8 average" wouldn't even have put him in the top half of the entering class), you're misguided.

Comment 2: One of the proposition's most vocal proponents is Jennifer Gratz, the 29-year-old leader of a group cunningly called "the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" (Gratz, who must be one of the whiniest people on the planet, is somewhat famous for her starring role in Gratz v. Bollinger). She notes:
"We have a horrible history when it comes to race in this country. But that doesn’t make it right to give preference to the son of a black doctor at the expense of a poor student whose parents didn’t go to college."
In theory, I don't disagree. But that's not usually the way things work.

Affirmative action was designed to remedy the disconnect between a lofty goal (a race-neutral society) and real life (an anything-but-race-neutral society). It was not, and is not, intended to be a permanent fixture. Rather, it's a Band-Aid: it treats the symptom until we can figure out how to treat the disease. I can't think of anyone who believes affirmative action to be a perfect system, and I can't think of anyone who doesn't look forward to the day when merit-based judgments are sufficiently fair to eliminate the necessity for the consideration of race and gender.* But the allocation of rights and privileges according to merit is only a fair system if everyone has equal access to the mechanisms by which merit is measured. And right now, that is simply not the case.

Flip through any daily newspaper and you'll likely be confronted with a few particularly egregious examples of racial discrimination in action. But these examples tend to be isolated, and thus easily separable: not in my town; not in my country; not in my church. More subtle forms of racial discrimination, on the other hand (not to mention discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation), often pervade every aspect of our everyday lives. Employment, housing, education... these are the bedrocks of our civilization (bedrocks of incalculable importance if our civilization is to be one based on merit), and they are all vulnerable to the pernicious effects of racial bias. If discrimination is allowed to persist in these key areas, then we'll simply never get to a point where affirmative action is no longer required. And yes, racially-motivated affirmative action dictates that occasionally the son of a black doctor will beat out the better-qualified daughter of a white coal miner, and this is regrettable. But to prevent that injustice by prohibiting institutions from considering race at all would be very much cutting off the nose to spite the face. And that would be a shame.

Thanks to an unfortunate quirk in our system of government, one state's residents are generally prohibited from voting in another state's elections. For this reason, my interaction with this issue pretty much ends here. But if I did live in Michigan, I can say with absolute certainty that I'd be looking forward to voting against Proposition 2.

* - Note that I very much don't mean to slight the value of diversity. Instead, I choose to imagine that, in the perfect world of the future, merit will be judged in such a way as to have diversity built right in. How convenient!

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