A Conversation on Affirmative Action – Part 1

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , , ,

Harvard Law Review Board of Editors, Volume 29, 1915-1916. Image from the Harvard Law School Library.

A friend of mine at Harvard University recently wrote a blog for The Harvard Crimson titled “Affirmative Dissatisfaction: Affirmative action does more harm than good. (new window)” In the article she argues that the way in which affirmative action is currently applied “imbeds racism in the lives of future generations” and that it gives people permission to view high achieving black Americans with a grain of salt. Below is my good-spirited rebuttal to my friend’s argument.

Over and over again I feel like I understand the arguments against affirmative action to a greater extent than the people who hold those views understand my arguments for it. I understand the logic behind the arguments that affirmative action creates racial resentment, that it is inherently a racist policy, that it is unfair. It is absolutely an imperfect system. But it is an imperfect system that when viewed through a broad lens does more good than harm. In this three blog series I will present my arguments that affirmative action is vital to a strong economy (which will be the topic of this blog), extremely complex, and morally justified.
I’ve tried to put myself in the mindset of my economically conservative friends, to understand the Friedmanesk market worship that sees the world through a set of algorithms, existing completely separate from human values. And I don’t buy it. The market is far from linear and far from objective, it is fundamentally affected by complexity and chaos usually stemming from human emotion. To suggest that the market is not impacted by human values and biases is to suggest that it would exist without us, but is a human creation and functions accordingly, plummeting when we feel fear, evening out when we feel safe, skyrocketing when we feel courageous. Its momentum is directly affected by our emotions because there is no such thing as separation between humans and the economy. Don’t tell me that people do not make illogical financial decisions because of racial bias, because they do (new window).
Affirmative action is fundamentally an economic policy. This is because there is a direct correlation between our economic and education systems. As we are hearing more and more, if you do not have some sort of post-high school degree you are looking down the barrell of a life of poverty. Furthermore, the fiscal burden of the undereducated is tremendous since they tend to take much more out of the economy than they are able to put into it. One of the reasons people clamor to get into top-tier universities is because of the subsequent jobs they get and the money they make.  There is no divorcing the economy from education.
Affirmative action attempts to diversify our economy by breaking apart the monopoly held by rich, white men. Studies have shown that diversity breeds innovation. Thus by diversifying the economy and increasing its innovation we improve it. However, because of the way our system works, this diversity will not grow without outside intervention. The rich, white men demographic functions in our economy within an increasing returns economic framework that minimizes diversity. This framework is based on the idea that  momentum is compounded by different elements, some logical and some illogical. (Lock-in and path dependency are terms we techies use to describe technologies that are not efficient but still in popular demand. They play an important role in increasing returns and are further evidence of the market’s imperfections). In this case, the momentum of this demographic is compounded by its place within the network of education, industry and the economy. Businesses, like private universities, do not exist in a vacuum. They are an integral part of the global network, connected to the network by many nodes. Businesses intersect with social networks, economic networks and industry networks, all of which are inextricably linked. As more wealth and power is concentrated in one particular group, that group increases in size.
I know that rich, white men are a favorite punching bag of many, of mine to be sure, but the demographic does provide us with a clear example. They control most of the world’s power and wealth and that has changed very little over time. As this group expands, more like members are added, and others take the place of the ones who die off. Greater diversity is not added because of the way the system functions: education begets wealth and wealth begets education; rich, white men beget heirs of rich, white men.
As we come to understand the way in which our financial, industrial, racial, educational and socio-economic networks influence one another, we see that fixing racial and socio-economic segregation within this matrix is not possible through a market-only approach. It is this complexity, in both the history and current application of affirmative action, that will be discussed in the second blog.