Volume 3, Number 71
19 April 2003

Affirmative Action

Dear Friends,

In a referendum earlier this year, 41 percent of the students in the University of Michigan voted for the university's position in favor of affirmative action, while 41 percent voted against it. The rest were undecided. As I write this, the Supreme Court is deciding whether or not the university's position is constitutional. Unlike earlier times, in this case white students are suing because their admissions were denied in favor of black students with lesser academic qualifications.

How silly! Students choose universities for many reasons, including scholarship, sports, specialized fields, specific professors, tuition, family tradition (and, of course, whether they can get in). They weigh positive qualities, from their viewpoints, against negative ones, and make their choices on balance. The universities do likewise. They have been known to admit football players with lower academic records than others not accepted.

Why couldn't affirmative action be one of many considerations? The student who wants (or doesn't want) affirmative action would choose his or her university accordingly. We tout our country as diversified, a meld of many persons and many philosophies. Why must we be uniform on affirmative action?

Because of state-supported tuition, there is a strong incentive to attend the state-supported school in your own state, in this case Michigan, so the choice of college is not a classical "free choice." This is unfortunate — states should have reciprocal agreements on this matter — but we are in a Catch 22, where neither problem can be solved before the other one is first. We must begin somewhere, and I suggest setting free choice on affirmative action.

At the beginning, affirmative action pushed employers to hire minorities. Now it is employers who want to hire minorities, but strangely enough, the courts often say they must hire whites. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, setting up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to oversee cases and take them to trial. The phrase "affirmative action" was first used by Lyndon Johnson in Executive Order 11246 (1965) which requires federal contractors to take "affirmative action to employ without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin" and to treat employees equally thereafter. In other executive orders and legislation the idea was expanded to include women, public accommodations and race and sex discrimination in employment and voting.

Stories of those who benefited by affirmative action are legion. Here's only one of many: Oliver Lee, son of an illiterate garbage man, was sent to Cheshire Academy, an elite New England prep school. He now attributes his success as a lawyer to affirmative action. William Bowen and Derek Bok, ex-presidents of Princeton and Harvard respectively, published The Shape of the River, a study that followed the careers and attitudes of 45,000 students at 28 of the most selective schools, demonstrating the success of affirmative action. A study in the Journal of Economic Literature in 2000 cited the great benefits of affirmative action for women, minority entrepreneurs, students, and workers. Two articles by Ronald Dworkin affirmed the findings of Bowen and Bok. A study of the University of California (Davis) shows that students admitted by race, ethnicity, or unusual experience were indistinguishable from those admitted on academic merit alone.

Yet conflicts abound. Groups demanding affirmative action for themselves are spreading. Corpulent people have sought wide-bodied seats at movie theatres. Hawaii started a school for native Hawaiian children but was forced to accept a non-native, no matter that furious protests, rooted in historical grievances, followed. McDonald's was required to hire a woman with port wine stain, a facial disfigurement that the company said would frighten customers. Employers have been forced to hire persons convicted of or charged with serious crimes, even though they had not done so before affirmative action. Now they were told that discriminating against criminals was a roundabout way of discriminating against minorities, because of the greater percentage of criminals among them. The EEOC sued Exxon for barring employees with substance-abuse problems. "A worker fired from Radio Shack for stealing claimed he was disabled by post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by a previous robbery . . . Radio Shack paid him off rather than spend $30,000 fighting the case" (The Economist, 4/18/98). The EEOC filed suit against United Parcel for its refusal to hire one-eyed drivers on grounds of safety, and the U.S. court of appeals approved a lawsuit against Aloha Islandair for turning down a one-eyed pilot for the same reason.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act has been used to force colleges to expand women's sports programs to make them equal to men's. Brown University claimed that women are less likely to go out for sports than men. Their solution for "equality" was to cut down on men's sports. A teacher in Long Island was shouted down for using a book, Nappy Hair, in her classroom. In fact the book told how Uncle Mordecai had taught the child to be proud of her nappy hair. (It reminded me of Thee, Hannah, a favorite book among Quakers.) Court-ordered busing has failed, because parents want their children to attend local schools instead of being bussed across town.

In bids for Federal contracts, small black-owned businesses may be given a 10% advantage compared to white-owned businesses. But cases occur in which the black businesses subcontract to whites, splitting the 10%. "Colin Powell and O.J. Simpson joined a group of blacks who bought a television station benefiting from preferences for blacks and gave them a tax break in doing so. Then they sold if for a healthy profit" (Wall Street Journal, 11/08/95). Some black firms have complained that they cannot raise needed capital from whites, because they would fall short of their 51% quota and thereby lose their affirmative action privileges.

Unfortunately, affirmative action in recent times has not fulfilled its original purpose. Some studies show that schools are more segregated now than before. Black students tend to sit at black tables in the dining rooms, and to room with other black students. Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard found that black and latino students are now more isolated from their white counterparts. At Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA, where I taught for one semester in 1993, I had only one black student in my class. After getting to know her well, I asked if she was intimidated by the whites. "No," she said, "they're kind to me." But I did notice that every time I saw her "hanging out," she was with other black students.

Increasingly, prominent black leaders such as Julian Bond, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Ward Connerly have come to recognize affirmative action as a taint upon those selected for universities or jobs. They resent the assumption that every minority student or employee was not accepted by merit. Steele wrote, We Shall Overcome — But Only Through Merit.

At the same time, universities and businesses are increasingly recognizing the merits of diversity. In a globalizing world, businesses learn that employees of many races and colors hold an advantage in knowing the customs and needs of clients the world over. Universities find that students of different backgrounds enrich the campus, a factor in the Michigan case.

From all the above, I conclude that forced affirmative action is a failure, with one possible exception. I do not know whether affirmative action has helped change the hearts and minds of people, or whether those hearts and minds have been changed by economic growth and globalization aside from government action. But I do know they have changed — I have lived through the period of change and have seen it myself. We are now ready for affirmative action without a law.

So I conclude that the main "achievement" of affirmative action laws has been to increase conflict, advantage-taking, hatred, costs of litigation, and miles and miles of paperwork. Therefore, I agree with The Economist (4/5/04) when it says, "End it, don't mend it." I also believe in the goodness of people, such that when they see what is best for everyone, they will do it, provided no one in authority stops them. The best, here, means that everyone makes a choice, and people make their decisions around the choices freely made by others.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson


Baird Brown of the Central Philadelphia Meeting, Russ Nelson (the publisher of The Quaker Economist) and I have been having a discussion on the points that Jim Caughran raised in a letter. Here are the essentials of the discussion:

It all began with a letter from Jim Caughran, which I reproduce below:

To quote from TQE #71, "Economics has no values and does not depend on them. Like physics, it merely tries to explain how the world functions." I can't believe this without further amplification. Physics is an axiomatic system. If [these assumptions] are true, then [the following] is also true about the universe. That is, a description of the universe follows mathematically from the assumptions.

What are the assumptions of economic theory? A possible example: More money is preferable to less money (other things being equal). John Woolman would not have agreed.

— Jim Caughran, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Jack: Economics examines how people live in the economy. "More money is better than less" is an observation of people's behavior. Therefore, it becomes a postulate of economics. If economists observed that we were mainly John Woolmans, and people preferred less money to more, that would be the postulate. The value always belongs to the people. The postulates of economics reflect the values of people, but economics itself, having no brain, has no more values than a telephone pole.

This is an important distinction. It says that people drive the economy; economics does not drive people.

Baird: The study of economics is a cultural activity, one of the many chapels in the "church" of the university. As Thomas Kuhn and others have pointed out, the study of any science proceeds from a paradigm, a cultural construct that is reformulated from time to time. The basic heroic assumptions of traditional microeconomic theory about the perfect rationality of economic man lead to bias in the outcome of many studies and more importantly lead to many inappropriate policy conclusions.

I have heard a number of economists insist with a straight face that racial discrimination doesn't exist because it is not economically rational. I particularly remember one economist at the Federal Reserve Board (where I then worked) who, when confronted with strong evidence of redlining by traditional banks (comparable, income controlled census tracts in city after city showing much lower proportions of conventional loans in predominately black areas), stated with a straight face, "Well, blacks must just prefer loan sharks."

Jack: Many persons, including unfortunately some economists, start with the assumption that profit maximization is rational and any acts that do not make that assumption are "irrational." I do not start with that assumption. I assume that whatever an individual does is what that individual wanted to do, including actions stemming from racial prejudice or alternatively from a desire for affirmative action. Thus all the assumptions of economics arise out of observed behavior.

Russ: The only economists of my study who assume perfect rationality of economic man are the wrong ones. Let's try an assumption that serious economists use: that people prefer money now to money later, if all else is the same. You can predict why the assumption should be true, and you can find many examples of people actually behaving that way.

Baird: My point wasn't about good or bad economists, my point was that the assumptions that were made by all the textbooks and most of the professors in my undergraduate and graduate education in economics had the effect of leading to particular cultural takes on statistical outcomes. I think this is the inevitable result of any set of assumptions, and is why we need to go back and evaluate the assumptions every so often from a vantage point outside the discipline, to the extent humanly possible.

Russ: Economics is a young science. People are still inventing theories like Lysenkian genetics, of phlogiston, or the ether. Again, making bad assumptions is just an error. It doesn't falsify what Jack wrote: "Economics has no values and does not depend on them. Like physics, it merely tries to explain how the world functions."

Baird: I agree that it is a young science, and like any science prone to error along the way. My point is that there is no such thing as no values in a cultural activity. Assumptions are necessary, and assumptions tend to have value content, even in physics. They have a larger value content when they are assumptions about people. The assumption that it is even fruitful to study economic behavior as distinct from human group behavior is one of the most audacious and perhaps misleading.

Russ: It sounds to me like you haven't read Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises. I highly recommend that you do. I found it to be very slow reading, because every few sentences I'd raise my eyes from the book and go "Aha! So that explains ..." and go off on a mental hike.

Jack: All three of us are right. Economics, like any tool, has no values. In the way it is used, however, cultural values usually come up. But not always.

Readers' Comments

This one I liked very much. Go Jack go!

— Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

One form of affirmative action is colleges' and universities' special attempts to recruit blacks. The supply of blacks with good academic performance in high school is proportionately smaller than the supply of non-blacks. Thomas Sowell at Stamford, always a breath of fresh air on racial issues, addressed the effects of this in his 1989 book, Choosing a College: A Guide for Parents and Students. In a chapter giving advice to American black students he cautioned that competition among colleges for blacks led to admission of blacks with lower average SATs than those of average non-blacks. Blacks would therefore tend to be in the bottom part of the class. Being collectively inferior academically would diminish their willingness to interact with non-blacks, reinforcing incentives to eat at their own tables, stay in black dorms, and have their own clubs, which works against integration. Sowell advised blacks to select colleges in which they could do relatively well, increasing their confidence and self-esteem, fitting in more naturally with college life. Sowell's comments are clearly not the whole story, but they seem to conform to some observed behavior.

— J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.

The Bowen & Bok study was flawed, as it studied "all" students admitted under affirmative action rather than those whose academic qualifications were demonstrably lower than the school average. Many studies have consistently showed that the results of affirmative action are academic mismatches, leading to lower graduation rates for minority students. Whom does this help? After California banned affirmative action,the University of California system has more blacks, they are just distributed differently across the campuses.

— Javier Martinez

When I was in college there was a serious debate on my campus (a Quaker school) about why African American students preferred to socialize with other African American students. We white students took it as a sign of implied racism and were anxious to either disprove the allegation or to remedy the fault. Of course we resolved nothing. But now after years of living abroad and finding myself automatically gravitating towards people who are similar to me — often other Americans — I am more sensitive to the subtleties of the issue. It is possible to feel completely welcomed by a community and still value the company of outsiders who are similar to you. This is especially true when you feel that you are living inside of the other community, under their rules and under their influence. I imagine the African American students at Swarthmore felt that they lived most of their lives in a white world and that having lunch and dinner with other African Americans was their right. The problem is that the same pattern can be evidence of racism or evidence of a lack of racism. We cannot look at where African Americans eat their lunch as evidence of racism.

— Ken Leonard, attender at Brooklyn (NY) Meeting, member of Strawberry Creek Meeting, Berkeley (CA).

When people act (including those "in authority"), do you think it is usually because they see what is "best for everyone"? I think it is usually because they see what is best for themselves. The presence of someone "in authority" tends to bring an individual's interest more into line with the general interest. Even so, what is best for everyone is often not what is best for an individual. That is why the effort to vaccinate against smallpox is failing: most people nowadays perceive the risk of vaccination as greater than the risk of smallpox. That is why I don't voluntarily increase my tax payments, even though I think the country should be paying for the services it demands, rather than passing the ever-increasing debt burden to our children and grandchildren. When the tension between self-interest and general interest gets too great we pass laws, to be administered by "someone in authority."

— Tom Cooper Lafayette (CA).

Thanks for Letter #71. By all means be against affirmative action, but in the context of State Universities, the answer is to enable anyone to go. Yes it should cost enough for students to have to wash dishes, or work on campus, but they should emerge debt free with a degree (if earned).

— Will Candler, Annapolis (MD) Friends Meeting.

Lots of well intentioned legislation works at first until the lawyers get ahold of it and reinterpret. Legislation should expire! It would need renewal from generation to generation or some such time period.

— Charlie Thomas, Cascabel (AZ) Worship Group.

It is grammatically improper to write "Whites" or "Blacks." Those are proper names if capitalized.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

Point well taken. I have edited this entire Letter to conform with this principle. — Loren Cobb (January 2005).

I agree. It begins to look like admission to college is going to require that you be the son of a Bush. About the same time that Bush was admitted to Yale, my alma mater, out son was rejected because he was a Quaker. They were candid. It was during Viet Nam and they were not going to have demonstrations on their campus. He graduated summa cum laude from Amherst.

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr., Friends Meeting of Louisville (KY).

Your letters are truly a breath of fresh air. Well reasoned, well written, insightful and, well, something else. Probably has to do with being a Quaker.

— Jim Joyner, Murfreesboro, (TN) Worship Group

I think your statement below is generally true, but that the same amount of truth, and possibly more, would be expressed by changing from "affirmative action" to the words in caps below:

So I conclude that the main "achievement" of [THE STATUS QUO ANTE] has been to increase conflict, advantage-taking, hatred, costs of litigation, and miles and miles of paperwork.

I refer to the overtly segregated and/or covertly racist "status quo ante" at most US universities which predated the civil rights movement and what is called "affirmative action." It contributed greatly to the "achievement" of social disruption and agitation of the Sixties from which all this emerged, warts and all. And it is a "status quo ante" which is increasingly being reestablished in many sectors of our society. The idea that ending affirmative action will somehow free the good angels of all these institutions seems to me remarkably optimistic, even naive.

— Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville (NC).

Chuck: Have you noticed that the Michigan case (and others as well) is brought up by white students complaining that places belonging to them by academic qualification were given instead to black students of lesser qualification. Hardly the status quo ante, is it? — Jack

I read that the World Bank and the IMF might be "invited" into Iraq. Red flags went up when I read that. Please remind us about the history of the disasters that these two organizations leave when they manage the currencies of any country.

— Herb Clark-Homewood Friends Meeting, Baltimore (MD).

Thomas Jefferson gave his all to keep under bright lights those who would do nothing to share truth with their families, to expose the real reason they refused to speak out about government terrorism. If I were to allow people to muffle my good conscience and knowledge about a power determined to annihilate my children, what kind of father is that? Would you want me as your dad?

Accept the comments I gave you, or simply admit whom you stand against — my children and yours, if you are a parent. It's that simple.

— Claude Armstrong, Lakewood (WA) Community Church.

An admirer once said of Leon Trotsky: "Proof of Trotsky's farsightedness is that none of his predictions have come true yet."

— Passed on by Steve Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting, Assistant Principal Editor.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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