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.

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.

Page: Policies based on social class, not just race

Columnist Clarence Page writes today on comments made last week by Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb. While writing in the Wall Street Journal, Webb “called for an end to government diversity programs.” Page’s conclusion on Webb’s (in Page’s opinion: sometimes muddled) thoughts: “Our colleges and workplaces could benefit from diversity by social and economic class, too, and not just by race.”

This reminds me of William Julius Wilson’s suggestion that Americans don’t like social policies that benefit one group over others. Instead, Wilson suggested we need programs that benefit people from many or all groups in order for such programs to draw widespread support. Webb’s and Page’s suggestions about providing help by social class across races would seem to fit this idea.