Affirmative action and equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome

Since the Supreme Court recently decided to take on a case that involves using race in college admissions, I was intrigued to run across a new sociological study that suggests people with more education are not more likely to support affirmative action.

“I think this study is important because there’s a common view that education is uniformly liberalizing, and this study shows—in a number of cases—that it’s not,” said study author Geoffrey T. Wodtke, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan…

Wodtke’s study finds that while being better educated does not increase the likelihood that whites and minorities approve of affirmative action in the workplace, it does increase the probability that they support race-targeted job training. “The distinction between those two policies is that one is opportunity enhancing and the other is outcome equalizing,” Wodtke said. “I think that some of the values that are promoted through education, such as individualism and meritocracy, are just much more consistent with opportunity enhancing policies like job training than they are with redistributive or outcome equalizing policies like affirmative action.”…

According to Wodtke, there could be a couple of reasons why more educated blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to support affirmative action in the workplace than are their less educated peers. “One possibility is that affirmative action programs may have the unintended effect of stigmatizing people who have benefited from them,” Wodtke said. “As a result of this stigmatization, people who have seemingly benefitted from affirmative action may just lose faith in the efficacy of these programs to overcome racial discrimination in the labor market.”

Another possibility is that people with more advanced educations, regardless of race, become socialized in such a way that their own support for more radical social policies is somewhat diluted, Wodtke said. “The data suggest that one ideological function of the formal educational system is to marginalize ideas and values that are particularly challenging to existing power structures, perhaps even among those that occupy disadvantaged social positions,” Wodtke said.

I assume Wodtke addresses this in his article: who then does support affirmative action and do supporters primarily see it as a way to improve their standing in society?

I like the way this is framed in terms of equality and this is a way that I talk about inequality in my introduction to sociology class: as a country (or within other institutions) we could aim for different kinds of equality. Equality of opportunity is a more common American response and suggests that it is the role of government and other institutions to try to offer a level playing field, particularly in education, but then individuals have choices about how they respond to that. If people don’t succeed or don’t take opportunities provided for them, it is their fault. Of course, this view is limited in that it is extremely individualistic and fails to account for structural issues (race, class, gender to start) that affect the ability of individuals to respond to these choices.

On the other hand, we could set up a system that is aiming more for equality of outcome where different individuals end up at similar places. In this view, people or groups may need extra resources or help to get to these more equal outcomes. To steal an idea from my wife, this could be the difference between being equal and fair: acting equally in the classroom could mean devoting the same amount of time to each student while being fair would mean devoting more time to the students who need a little more help. (Another way to put it: if you were the student who needed the extra help, would you rather it be an equal or fair classroom?) This reminds me of a discussion from last year about the education system in Finland where the goal was not to have the highest achieving students but rather to bring up the bottom group of students and have more proficient students overall. This may also take the form of a more comprehensive safety net or baseline standard of living where citizens are guaranteed a certain level of income, health care, and housing.

Having this larger discussion about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes, how far we would want to lean toward one or the other as a country, and what policy routes would help us achieve our stated goal might be more productive in the long run instead of having skirmishes in court about particular policies every few years.

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