The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

Affirmative Action: Lower the Bar? No. Help People Get Over the Bar? Yes.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman from Arizona, apparently a liberal Democrat, judging by her beliefs. She explained, in a puzzled tone, that she was from the East--from New York State--and had attended a prep school there. Now that she lived in the West, she represented her old school in a special program to reach out to Indian girls from a local reservation; she interviewed them, and recommended candidates who were admitted to a special program at her old school. She had also taken one of the girls into her own family, to work as a baby sitter.

It had all come to nothing. Not one of the girls admitted to the prep school had ever graduated. The baby sitter had raided the liquor cabinet, gotten drunk, been warned and forgiven, but had soon after run away, back home to the reservation.

I told her that what she was describing was a failed program, despite its apparent good intentions. Problems that must be cured upstream cannot be solved downstream.

(Let's examine that concept for a moment: virtually every American problem is routinely attacked at the wrong level. We attack the consequences of crime, not the cause; we try to promote recycling, without decreasing consumption; we are taking teen mothers off welfare, without asking why they got pregnant in the first place.)

I asked whether any of the girls had ever been off the reservation before. They had not. So, what did you think would happen, if you dump someone into the life of an Eastern city, without preparation? If you admit people who have not lived, breathed a culture, been educated, toward the day they would have this experience?

But how else could the school help? It wanted to attack a particular problem in America, the poverty and isolation of Indians, and the best thing it could think of--the act of kindness that was most within its control--was to throw open its doors.

As Norman Maclean noted in A River Runs Through It,

So it is...that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, "Sorry, we are just out of that part."

The school did not know what part to give. If reservation children are to succeed in prep school, (if, in fact, this is the help that is needed and wanted) they must be educated differently on the reservation, and must be exposed earlier to a life outside it. I am dealing with a special case here, but the same obvious rule applies in any of the situations we label as affirmative action.

In my law school, one Mexican-American student I chatted with had LSAT results 150 points lower than anyone else's. Lowering the bar for minority students did them no favor. Everyone believed that the minority students at school were not on the same level with the rest of the student body; this stigmatized minority students, who, for the most part, kept to themselves.

We are all made from the same material and, notwithstanding The Bell Curve, if given the same educational opportunities and attention at the start, we all have the same opportunity of getting over a bar--a fair bar--no matter what level it is set at. But it is a big if. Freedom from hunger and want plays a part in it, as does freedom from violence--all of this before you actually get into school in the morning. Then it is the resources of the school, its teachers, the student-teacher ratio, and so forth. But discrimination at the root level will not be overcome at the branch. There is no substitute for early cherishing; whatever comes later, will not substitute.

This is the only reason I am against lowering the bar: it is unfair to the minorities it is intended to benefit, by denying them the reality, as opposed to the appearance, of equal treatment. Otherwise, arguments against reverse discrimination are hypocrisy. We use reverse discrimination at every moment of our lives, to right injustices. If we made a fuss over our older son yesterday, we fete our younger son today. If you disregarded Rita and paid attention to Ann, you make it up to Rita at the next opportunity. In order to attack reverse discrimination as unfair, you must wilfully disregard a piece of the picture. A group of men on the village green--your neighbors-- beat up a stranger for no reason, tearing his coat and throwing him to the ground. But when he asks you for help, afterwards, you deny it on the grounds that he is dirty and his clothes are torn.

Affirmative action of the reverse discrimination type is a temporary solution, until equity has been restored. Too few black people in our organization? Let's hire some, until proportionally we have numbers in balance with the number in the general population, then get back to blind hiring. No-one is hurt. There is no white out there who had a God-given right to work for us, to the exclusion of a black candidate, so that we could not right an injustice and create a balance in our company.

Preferential treatment or reverse discrimination, whatever you choose to call it, is a conservative straw man. I am certain, even though I do not think it is unfair, that there is much less of it than the right wing radio commentators claim. The most obvious example of this is the recurring claim that gay people are seeking a specially privileged status in this city or that. I have never seen a real example of this; most minority people simply want to be treated like everyone else, and otherwise left alone to live their lives.

We have an ethical obligation to create diversity in our organizations. Those who say we should not lower the bar to do so are correct. But we should cast our nets as wide as necessary, do everything necessary--including setting numerical goals for ourselves, as we do in all other areas of our businesses--to find qualified minority candidates to hire. Anyone who disputes this probably does not buy the underlying thesis: that diversity is important, as well as being demanded by justice.