Why Affirmative Action Is an Idea Whose Time Has Passed

by Dave Schuler on February 11, 2014

There’s a passage in Tanner Colby’s post on the inadequacies of affirmative action that I think bears some reflection:

Some would purport to remedy this by fixing the tech industry job pipeline: more STEM graduates, more minority internships and boot camps, etc. And that will get you changes here and there, at the margins, but it doesn’t get at the real problem. The big success stories of the Internet age—Instagram, YouTube, Twitter—all came about in similar ways: A couple of people had an idea, they got together with some of their friends, built something, called some other friends who knew some other friends who had access to friends with serious money, and then the thing took off and now we’re all using it and they’re all millionaires. The process is organic, somewhat accidental, and it moves really, really fast. And by the time those companies are big enough to worry about their “diversity,” the ground-floor opportunities have already been spoken for.

A place like Silicon Valley doesn’t have an established pipeline where the government can mandate there be X number of minority applicants per year who can then be tracked up the corporate ladder each fiscal quarter. A system has to have rules in order for authorities to make sure that those rules are being applied fairly to people of color. The legal profession is very mature. It has lots of rules. Municipal labor unions have rules. Silicon Valley doesn’t have any rules. Hollywood doesn’t have any rules. Media and publishing used to have rules, sort of, but Silicon Valley is destroying those rules as we speak and doesn’t seem to be replacing them with any new ones.

The key point here is that affirmative action is a mid-century solution and it isn’t mid-century any more. There are some other points that could be made, for example, in my view mass illegal immigration from Mexico was a specific response to

  1. The end of the bracero program.
  2. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the ascendancy of the Black Power movement.
  3. A basic unwillingness to deal with the problems of inner city blacks.
  4. Demographics and economic conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s.
  5. The amnesty of the 1980s.

but that’s a digression from Mr. Colby’s post to which I would add a couple of observations.

First, the upstart companies like Google, Facebook, and so on grow from a very small core group of people who are generally socially cohesive—college friends, family, and so on. If they numbered blacks among them it would be one thing but the reality is that most frequently they don’t.

Second, affirmative action as it has evolved has provided a mechanism by which well-to-do and politically connected blacks advanced their own positions rather than a mechanism by which most blacks benefited. That this mid-century strategy has proven inadequate and is, as Mr. Colby points out, becoming obsolete doesn’t imply that the problem it was hoped it would address has gone away but that we need new solutions.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw February 11, 2014 at 5:53 pm

I generally support some form of racial preferences for police forces in communities with difficult crime problems that are persistent in large racially concentrated areas. I think that trust issues are important with what I think needs to be intensive policing. But this is probably not a call for affirmative action, as much as preferences, and the preferences are specific to the goal. If the high crime area is Irish, I don’t want preferences given to Nigerians, Peruvians, and Eskimos.

Dave Schuler February 11, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Historically, that’s been one of the problems with affirmative action. Rather than providing new opportunities to native-born blacks, it’s preferentially given greater opportunities to Jamaicans and Nigerians.

... February 11, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Or half-white half-Kenyans.

Forward!

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