Monday, May 30, 2011

What Would Spock Say About Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action, like most liberal policies has positive intentions, but when you explore its underlying assumptions and concrete manifestions, you encounter a host of problems. The ACLU presents an interesting argument for affirmative action, namely that it is justified on the grounds that diversity enriches classrooms and campuses:

"A culturally and racially diverse environment enhances the quality of our educational system because it prepares students to live and work effectively in a global society. Diversity enriches students' educational experience by exposing them to different races, cultures, languages, philosophies, and ideas both inside and outside of the classroom. By valuing diversity as a goal, the University of Michigan's admissions process ensures that all students, regardless of background, benefit from being immersed in an intellectual and social environment akin to what they'll experience in American life."

While this may be valid, it is important to explore the underlying assumptions and implications. When we assume that an individual will enrich a classroom or corporation simply because of their race or ethnicity, we are assuming that they possess noteworthy differences in values, culture and conduct that stem from their identity. Afterall, if their differences are simply cosmetic, how will they "broaden their classmates intellectual and social environment?" There are multiple problems with this notion:

First, there is a great deal of convergance between students of similar class and educational levels. For example, the white, black, hispanic and asian medical students I met were virtually identical in values and conduct. In fact, I can say with confidence that the upwardly mobile and erudite African-American medical students that I met had far more in common with their white counterparts than with poor and working class African-Americans. So, while the presence of diverse classmates may help make students comfortable interacting with people of different backgrounds, I cannot see how it categorically enriches their experience. Of course, my friendships with diverse individuals enriched my university experience, but not because of their background, but because of the wonderful qualities they possessed as individuals.

Second, students who were truly distinct from their classmates in culture and conduct, rarely interacted (beyond a bare proffesional level) with classmates outside of their group. For example, while there was a good deal of friendship, dating and intermarriage between secular Jews and assimilated Asians, Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims and unassimilated Asians rarely formed friendships outside of their ethnic circle. And the friendships that do exist between culturally distinct students very rarely touch upon their culture and traditions. In other words, I never went to church with my Armenian Orthodox friend or discussed Hindu Philosophy with my Indian friend. I went out with them to the pubs on Friday night, drank beer and hit on girls, just like I did with my less diverse buddies.

Third and most importantly, assuming that someone is distinct in culture and conduct because of their identity logically contradicts assumptions that underly anti-discriminatory efforts. It is correctly considered unjust to make negative assumptions and discriminate against someone because of their background. For example, to not rent to some because you you believe that all African-Americans behave distinctly as tenants is illegal and immoral. And to not admit an applicant into your university because you believe that the norms and conduct of Jewish-Americans is distinct from other students, is equally impermissable.

With good reason, the landlord must only reject the individual, based on their credit, income and rental history. And the university must only decline the individual if they don't meet their uniform requirements. In other words, we must never pre-judge a person because of their background. But, in effect, isn't that what the ACLU's argument is asking us to do? Does it not encourage us to make assumptions about a person's characteristics and conduct, based on their background? To ask us to engage in positive prejudice (assume that an individual possesses a set of positive traits because of their ethnic identity) and reject negative prejudice may be appealing, but as the great Spock would say "it's highly illogical." And FYI, Spock became the First Officer of the Starship Enterprise not through affirmative action, but because he was the best candidate!

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