Outline: Arguments Justifying Racial Preference-Based Affirmative Action

Basic Argument for Race-Based Affirmative Action (henceforth “AA”):

I.                    Affirmative action is intended to promote a valuable goal, either (A) equal opportunity amongst races, (B) helping out the socioeconomically disadvantaged, or (C) racial diversity itself

II.                 Race-based AA is successful in promoting its intended goals

III.               Therefore, race-based AA should be promoted


These arguments in more detail:

I.                    Affirmative action is intended to promote a valuable goal, either (A) equal opportunity amongst races, (B) helping out the disadvantaged, or (C) racial diversity itself

A.     Equal opportunity amongst races is a valuable goal.

1.      Fairness and equality tend to resolve dispute and reason to believe in systematic unfairness, therefore suggesting that the system is actually merit-based

2.      Fairness helps to remove problems in perception of dignity or systematic unfairness, which inhibit capable persons from pursuing goals which they are capable of achieving.

a.       Some economists strongly believe that achieving equality practically raises a society’s standard of living

b.      However, in any non-anarchist society, some inequalities must result from applying incentives and disincentives to certain types of societally approved or disapproved actions (e.g., productivity, abstention from crime). Countering these kinds of incentives to an extreme would defeat the purpose of having any kind of goal for a society to promote. (Of course, the inequalities need not necessarily arise along any racial lines.)

3.      However, if equality be accepted as a reasonable goal, why equality along racial lines rather than along other lines?

a.       Equal opportunity for equally qualified candidates?

b.      Equal opportunity for citizens regardless of factors that are beyond their personal control? (cf. Rawls, A Theory of Justice)

i.                     Often economically impractical: often more efficient for better-able persons to be given extra incentive to use their abilities that others lack. However, not always so impractical to do in degrees as many privileged suggest.

ii.                   Equality can run backwards too: If one person (or race) in the community gets an incurable terminal cancer, does total equality of opportunity dictate that all else in the community should get that cancer (so as not to be unfairly privileged)?

iii.                  Perhaps a better proposition is that society should systematically ignore irrelevant factors when trying to live out its ideals. For instance a business or university may ignore such factors as an applicant’s hair color when deciding who is the most capable student or employee to do a particular task. (Irrelevant factor-blind system.)

iv.                 Obstacles overcome should be taken into account when assessing skill. That a person has risen to CEO despite growing up poor or underprivileged by racism probably shows that she has more talent than a “good old boy”-networked kid who did the same thing.

B.     Helping out the disadvantaged is a worthy goal.

1.      Helping out disadvantaged promotes equality directly

2.      However, as mentioned above, to the extent that in a society a person’s or group’s advantage or disadvantage is the result of a well-planned incentive structure, the goals given incentive or disincentive are compromised if society equalizes citizens’ state of being without regard to those incentives.

3.      In short, helping out the disadvantaged can also be somewhat looked upon as an unwitting incentive (or counter-disincentive) to be in a disadvantaged state. (Cartoon: “I suppose one could say it favors the rich, but, on the other hand, it’s a great incentive for everyone to make two hundred grand a year” [Schiller, The Micro Economy Today, 2003, p. 387])

4.      In other words, equality trades off with incentive

5.      Clearly, however, incentive cannot lead a person to change their skin color or things beyond their personal responsibility.

6.      Perhaps, though, in practice, it can lead persons or groups to focus on their race as a means of gaining advantage and distract from the need to pursue other incentive-laden paths. (“I can prove that your ancestors robbed mine; so we shall spend our day in court, or in Congress,” rather than in the office.) Similar to companies being able to spend money unproductively by finding tax loopholes.

C.     Racial diversity is a worthy goal

1.      Difficult for many to see inherent value of restricting participation in some institution to a variety of skin colors and not just based on whatever other factors would bring person to participate

2.      Diversity of backgrounds argument

a.       A diversity of backgrounds is preferable to a lack thereof

i.                     Sometimes true: a debate including more sides considers a wider range of views

ii.                   Not always obvious: e.g., a farm might work most cohesively if owned and worked by the same family

iii.                  Admits that background is relevant to success: so why not also say sometimes privileged people have a better chance of succeeding at certain goals? A politician’s son probably knows more about politics than the average person and should be given preference; this unfair reality is usually naturally built into society’s decision-making, but has a legitimate basis on the grounds of the “diversity of backgrounds” argument

b.      Members of different races tend to have (correlate to) different backgrounds

i.                     Saying that people of different races are more likely to be different in non-racial ways as well

ii.                   Is that racist? Or does this propose the possibility of “rational prejudice” about differences between races? Or should that can of worms be kept shut in favor of non-racial standards?

iii.                  If members of different races are different, then why not discriminate against races which have historically performed poorly? (In one ad on monster.com for a computer-related position: “An Indian would be preferred for this position.” That is, African-Americans, Caucasians, American Indians, etc., were less preferred. Is this not blatant racial discrimination?)

c.       However, if varying backgrounds are useful, there are more direct ways to test background

i.                     Favoring computer position applicants who have been through India’s rigorous computer science educational program (whether racially Indian or not)

ii.                   A company could not popularly uphold a policy that explicitly favors a majority or advantaged race on account of correlated advantages of that race

iii.                  Seems inconsistent, then, that other races can be preferred by similar justification in similar contexts, even though this has happened in practice

d.      Intellectual diversity argument

i.                     Used to justify race-based AA in many universities

ii.                   Special case of “different backgrounds” argument

iii.                  Presumes members of different races differ in intellectual background. Is that racist?

iv.                 If intellectual diversity is preferred, why not just include a short multiple-choice questionnaire with college applications directly asking students about their ideological leanings? Would tell you more about their intellectual beliefs than their race.

II.                 Race-based AA is effective in achieving its intended goals

A.     Equal opportunity amongst races

1.      AA is a “band-aid”: simple, direct preferences to members of disadvantaged races

2.      Often does not address root causes of inequalities (cultural differences such as preference among one culture [which correlates to a given race] to studying, etc.)

B.     Helping out disadvantaged

1.      As stated above, overcoming disadvantages is a skill in itself that can be taken into account at hiring time

i.                     If applicant can relate how he or she has overcome obstacles, this information may be relevant

ii.                   Having a certain skin color is not in itself the overcoming of an obstacle, though overcoming racism or irrational prejudices on the path to success (when that has happened) is definitely an ability of a kind

iii.                  Still (not to be cold-hearted), not all abilities are the kind that happen to be relevant to a given position

2.      Giving preferences to disadvantaged persons in hiring or in the application process does not always guarantee success beyond the hiring: note high drop-out rates of AA-acceptances in universities with aggressive AA policies

3.      If applicant for a position is underqualified at application time and needs a boost from AA to get foot in the door, the problem originated before, not during or after, the application process. As such, AA sometimes does not address many problems at their roots

4.      Other solutions should be considered when preferences do not eliminate the problem

5.      Why not directly compensate for socioeconomic disadvantage rather than directly reward race? A poor white janitor’s son from Appalachia would be preferred over Michael Jordan’s son under this system

6.      Favoring applicants at hire-time for non-qualification-related abilities may place them in a job for which they are underqualified

i.                     Can be unfairly demanding, discouraging and demoralizing to the applicant

ii.                   Getting accepted to Berkeley only to be later weeded out does not obviously help the accepted applicant over being rejected at Berkeley and accepted at a less demanding university

C.     Racial diversity:

1.      Participation issue: who is included in “disadvantaged” race? (Whites born in Africa? Half-hispanic Americans?)

2.      Some scientists argue against the concept of race

3.      As stated, increasing representation of underrepresented races at hiring or application time does not guarantee retention and long-term success

III.               Therefore, race-based AA should be promoted: Follows from premises if race-based AA does not entail opportunity costs exceeding benefits of AA. (Could resources be spent better than they are in implementing AA?)


Conclusion: Race-based affirmative action (AA) is founded on the idea that there are certain differences between races which are relevant at hire-time. However, these differences merely correlate to race, and might not be caused by it. The most reasonable goal of AA is to ensure that society’s primary goods are distributed in accordance with reasonably fair principles. As such, AA would, in the view of the author, be better replaced by another policy if that policy can more successfully compensate for socioeconomic disadvantages in a way that does not lean against existing beneficial incentive structures at greater cost. Socioeconomic affirmative action would do a better job of directly tying disadvantage to compensation than race-based affirmative action.


- Ryan Renn