Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Liberals, Conservatives, and the Use of Racial and Ethnic Classifications:

Prof. Ilya Somin has a great post at the Volokh Conspiracy in which he discusses Liberals, Conservatives, and the Use of Racial and Ethnic Classifications, brining to light a wonderful dichotomy of thought in both camps:
I have long been fascinated by the fact that most conservatives support racial and ethnic profiling for national security and law enforcement purposes, yet are categorically opposed to the use of racial or ethnic classifications for affirmative action. Most liberals, by contrast, take exactly the opposite view. Both ideologies oppose racial and ethnic classifications as a matter principle in one area, yet defend them on pragmatic grounds in another.


In both cases - terrorism profiling and affirmative action - race or ethicity is used as a proxy for other characteristics in order to help overcome the problem of imperfect information. If we knew who is a terrorist and who isn't, there would be no argument for security profiling. If we knew each college applicant's degree of victimization by racism or degree of contribution to diversity, the case for racially based affirmative action would be greatly weakened. Since we don't know these things and it would be difficult or impossible to find out, race or ethnicity are used as a crude proxy for them.
Admittedly, the post intially brought a bout of defensiveness about my, dedicedly, conservative thoughts on the matter. But after some reflection, admittedly, race and ethinicity are indeed used as a proxy for a lack of information. But for the the lack of information and the proxies that are used in place of that information is a matter of probability and statistics.

The use of racial profiling in all criminal investigations and counter-terrorism efforts is merely a projection of probability, statistics and the finite resources that can be applied in a given circumstance. Is it a cure-all? No and I don't profess to believe that profiling should be used as a substitute for good police work. But, when most of the terrorism, or crime, is perpetrated by an identifiable group, why should a law enforcement agency use that information to its advantage and concentrate resources accordingly. If terrorism were perpetrated more by Scandavian women over the age of 50, that is were I want resources devoted.

In short, racial profiling for terrorism and crime fighting is simply a matter of devoting governmental resources, already finite, in a way calculated to produce the best results. Put crudely, but unabashedly, racial profiling imposes costs on a small number of people for a demonstrable benefit to the greatest number of people.

But on the other hand, affirmative action, or racial preferences, in academia or any other field, imposes costs on both sides of the dispute, with no demonstrable benefit to either. Affirmative action costs everyone in a school because it perpetuates the fallacy that a person's skin must reflect a difference in upbringing. While this may be true, how do account for poor white kids trying to be the first in their family to go to college?

As I have advocated before in this space, where do we draw the line? How much "racial diversity" is enough? How long must we, the current generations, pay for the sins of our fathers? How much is enough reparation? (one of the commenters to Somin's original post argued that conservatives should put up money for reparations or shut up)

For me, I can justify my opposition to affirmative action in terms that Somin presented--race is a poor proxy for the achievement of the stated goal of affirmative action--that of achieving a diverse student body or workforce. I will admit to the proposition that race can play a role, but, as one commenter noted, elite universities recruit economically well off minorities and even non-American blacks and hispanics to achieve diversity--leaving out the so-called intended beneficiaries. For example, if you have two kids who went to elite private high schools, whose parents have professional degrees with a combined family income exceeds $500,000 per year and one is black and one is white--what have you accomplished in terms of diversity?

But affirmative action continues to punish the very class it seeks to help. Instead of pushing students of all races to succeed, affirmative action implicitly tells minorities "you don't have to do as well because there will always be set asides for you. There will always be a place for you because you are black or hispanic." Instead of pushing a more inclusive society, affirmative action continues to perpetuate the notion, among minorities and non-minorities, that there exists a class of second-tier citizens. The paternalistic nature of affirmative action does little to actually remedy the very ills it seeks to address, rather it perpetuates the matter.

Finally, race has become a ineffective and crude proxy for socio-economic status. But in doing so we ignore large segments of poor who are not minorities. We punish those groups who have no official policy as a recourse. How do we as a nation reconcile our efforts at helping poor blacks or hispanics achieve greater academic or business success, while at the same time denying the same governmental preferences to poor whites or asians? The answer is we cannot do so with any degree of finality.

Admittedly, these distinctions are based upon a rationale I have created, which appears internally logical to me. Each policy is inherenly discriminatory and such discrimination carries consequences. So while I don't have a resolution, or perhaps even a good defense of my actions, I will readily admit that I believe racial profiling to be an effective policy and affirmative action not. I am open minded enough to listen to evidence to the contrary.

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