William Julius Wilson argues for “affirmative opportunity” rather than affirmative action

Sociologist William Julius Wilson recently made an argument for “affirmative opportunity” rather than affirmative action:

In a paper entitled “Race and affirming opportunity in the Barack Obama era,” Wilson urges a move away from controversial quotas in favor of a merit-based system that features flexible criteria of evaluation, which assess, in addition to exam results, personal attributes such as perseverance, motivation, interpersonal skills, reliability, creativity and leadership qualities. Wilson calls this approach ‘affirmative opportunity.’ He writes:

“These new flexible, merit-based criteria would less likely exclude people who have as much potential to succeed as those from more privileged backgrounds. I call this approach, ‘affirmative opportunity’ not ‘affirmative action’ to signal a shift in emphasis away from quotas and numerical guidelines, which is how affirmative action has come to be understood—and widely resented. Instead, the emphasis is on achieving equality of opportunity, a principle that most Americans still support.”

Wilson dismisses some recent calls for a move to a class-based, rather than a race-based system, arguing that class-based affirmative action would still favor whites, who are not “weighed down by the accumulation of disadvantages that stem from racial restrictions”…

Wilson ends his paper with a plea that no-one should be able to enter a hospital ward of newborn babies and accurately predict their future social and economic position in society solely on the basis of their race and class. “Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in the United States you can accurately make such predictions,” he says, before issuing a final call to President Obama to use the upcoming election debates to argue that ‘affirmative opportunity’ programs are the way forward in offering every American equality of life chances and putting an end to both economic and racial disadvantage for good.

It would be interesting to see some numbers in how this might play out compared to affirmative action. Couldn’t solely judging individuals open up room for more subjective judgments on factors like race and class?

Wilson’s ideas about the hospital ward sound similar to the pitch made in Waiting for Superman: do we really want children’s lives to be determined by a lottery? The documentary suggests this happens when kids are applying to better schools (only a small number are randomly selected) and Wilson suggests is taking place by which neighborhood a kid happens to be born in.

Wilson has long argued that systems to fight racism should help large numbers of Americans, not just specific groups as this breeds resentment.

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