Greater than zero
is what justice demands
When it comes to quotas, President Don M. Randel
writes, we still have a long way to go before worrying that
we have gone too far.
The birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
this year coincided with President Bush’s declarations
on affirmative action in higher education. What might King
have thought about the president’s remarks, and what
ought we to think about the matter? The president carefully
criticized only the University of Michigan’s methods
of achieving diversity and equally carefully left open the
door to other methods without specifying what they might
be. It remains a door through which we must stride purposefully.
Several incantatory words and phrases
drive the discussion that has ensued: quota, race,
discrimination, and better qualified are
central here. Each is loaded. But the reality with which
we must contend is at least messy and sometimes simply ugly,
and we will not make it better by carrying on the discussion
in polarizing terms.
A quota in the abstract is repugnant
to more or less everyone, appearing to trample on the individual
rights that we so prize. But individual rights are also
trampled on when it happens to turn out that whole groups
of people fail to gain access to the opportunities that
American life is supposed to afford. To that end we might
begin by recognizing that however much we may object to
establishing the upper limits to a quota, we ought
to insist that there is some quota greater than
zero that justice and individual rights demand. If we can
get over that hump, then we can stop arguing about numbers
and recognize that we still have a long way to go before
worrying that we have gone too far.
Then there is the question of quotas
of what kind. Here race is the magic word—whatever
race is. This itself is a much more complicated
question than the current debate seems to admit. But what
about quotas for poor people? Surely they would be every
bit as repugnant as any other kind of quota. Yet the wish
to eliminate anything that sounds like a racial quota turns
out in many respects to be the substitution of a quota that
favors the rich over the poor.
This leads us to discrimination. Why
is it that discrimination on the basis of family
income doesn’t seem to bother many people nearly as
much as discrimination on the basis of race, even when the
two are so highly correlated? Unfortunately, there has long
been a view about in the land that race is something one
is born with, whereas poor people are, in the main, poor
because they haven’t done what it takes to overcome
poverty, i.e., they deserve to be poor. The sad fact is
that kids who are born poor are not at fault for that, and
most rich people have not done what it takes to overcome
poverty either. If discrimination means something
like denying things to people for reasons over which they
have no control, then there is much more at stake than the
popular view of race.
This leads in turn to better qualified.
We do not know nearly as much about what better qualified
means as the current debate would suggest. Better qualified
for what and on what criterion? Test scores and grades are
manifestly insufficient. Both are highly correlated with
family income, and presumably no one would argue for getting
down to basics and admitting applicants to colleges and
universities on the basis of family income. The first thing
to recognize, at least in the case of elite institutions,
is that they admit only a small fraction of the applicants
who would be qualified to do the work and earn a degree.
Given a pool of applicants qualified to do the work, the
important and much more difficult goal is to admit a group
of students who can contribute to the quality of the education
that they will all receive. Enter diversity—and
not just racial or ethnic diversity. The modern world requires
that people of fundamentally different intellectual and
cultural perspectives be capable of engaging one another
productively. A university education that does not take
account of this is a dismal failure. Thus, given a set of
relatively crude, often merely quantitative measures about
who is qualified to do the work, our best institutions focus
carefully on the variety of qualities that individuals bring
and to the sum of the qualities that the group will bring.
To make an athletic analogy, the better qualified
argument is as if to say that, on average, a baseball team
should have people with high batting averages and lots of
RBIs and that it is to discriminate against these better
qualified people if we insist on having one-ninth of
the people on the field at any given time be someone who
can really pitch, even though most pitchers can’t
hit very well.
What is said to be a non-race-based method
for achieving racial diversity, namely accepting the top
N percent of every high-school class, merely substitutes
a different kind of discrimination having to do with the
continuing segregation of American schools, and it makes
an absolute mockery of any notion of better qualified
on conventional measures. That truly is a quota system.
Awarding points for race is, by
itself, surely too crude. Not facing up to the facts of
race in America, on the other hand, is surely too cruel
and too shortsighted. What would Martin Luther King Jr.
— President Don M. Randel