Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Mitch Webber, over at the very thorough and truly impressive Yale Pundits weblog -- I'm saying it's impressive because somehow Mitch has the energy to consistently comment intelligently on virtually every topical issue in the news, while I can barely read the New York Times sports section without drifting off to go watch some mind-numbing reality television -- has a relatively severe, but very well-expressed and certainly thought-provoking, reaction to my thoughts on affirmative action (below).

Mitch says affirmative action isn't fair to people who are better qualified and get denied a space in a specific university that they've earned through their academic performance and hard work, and that we ought to expect the same performance from everyone, and that eventually people from every group will be able to perform up to that standard and Harvard Yard will look like a cross-section of America. Mitch is probably going to hate that I threw the word "eventually" in there, because he didn't write it, yet it's what I'm going to react to. But he kind of wrote it: "Diversity will come... [R]epresentatives from every ethnic group will perform... It may take a while for Harvard Yard to look like a cross section of American -- it may never quite make it -- but at least the diversity in a world without affirmative action would be meaningful..."

But I think we have to look why it isn't here now. Why don't we have diversity now if we eliminate affirmative action? Mitch gives some of the credit to culture differences, and that may be fair. He says that Jews and Asians put more of an emphasis on education. I'm not going to say I necessarily agree or disagree with him, but intuituively I can't help but think that if certain groups are placing more of an emphasis on education, it may be because it's harder to focus on education when you're worried about where your next meal is coming from. Demographically, a larger percentage of some groups live in poverty, and maybe just can't worry as much about homework when they need to worry about the phone bill. And I know it's all interrelated -- worry more about education and maybe not as much poverty, but given poverty how can you worry about education. I have no data and no conclusions I'm trying to make. Just saying it may not be as straightforward as just saying it's culture differences.

So if it's not culture differences, it's something else. Socioeconomic status, quality of education, access to books, parents with college degrees... can be all sorts of things, and most of these things tend to fall to some degree on certain demographic groups more than others. So as a society, we ought to be trying to address those problems. I don't know that everyone is playing on the same field. And if the playing field isn't level, it's not fair to expect the same academic performance out of everybody. So we might need something that helps find the most talented people in every group when the numbers may not be really indicative of everything.

I don't like affirmative action. In a perfect world, obviously we wouldn't need it. But given the unequal playing field, it's hard for me to say we don't need it. And in part because a university's mission isn't necessarily to train those students with the highest SAT scores. If we don't do something to increase diversity, we're perpetuating the problem -- we'll continue to have an elite that's not very diverse. It doesn't help address the underlying inequalities if we perpetuate this lack of diversity. Affirmative action done in a good way should help to eliminate the need for itself -- in theory. I would hope. I would strive for. Otherwise it's kind of pointless. I realize I'm rambling. Mitch did a better job than I am of making his post organized and coherent. But I'm not done yet.

Mitch says: "And what about those who are harmed by affirmative action? You know, the students perhaps better qualified to sit in the classroom than those who were aided by affirmative action? ...Admissions is largely arbitrary. He -- and we -- got lucky. Many others just like us don't get so lucky. The least we can do is to try and make the system a little less arbitrary, a little more predictable and fair."

I'm going to seize on "many others just like us don't get so lucky." Who's luckier? The brilliant kid who went to prep school and, despite taking a Kaplan course, still aced his SAT (pardon the unnecessary jab at SAT prep courses), gets rejected at Harvard perhaps due in part to affirmative action and ends up at Penn. Or the equally brilliant kid who grows up in the projects, can't afford the prep school or the Kaplan course, doesn't ace his SAT, and, in our world without affirmative action, ends up at McDonalds because he can't get in anywhere. Suppose both of these kids are equally brilliant. Both can thrive at the top universities -- probably kid A gets better grades because he's better prepared, probably kid B struggles. But they're both smart, and neither one is a poor addition to any sort of elite group of well-educated people this society may have. If the choice is making kid A go to Penn instead of Harvard, or kid B go to McDonalds instead of Harvard, I choose to help kid B. Yeah, I'm oversimplifying, and yeah, it sucks for kid A. It sucks big time. But he's gonna get into a fine school with or without affirmative action, and have a great chance to do great things in life. Why isn't it fair to make sure kid B has that chance too? I know Mitch can probably tear this argument apart with his keyboard tied behind his back, but I'm making it anyway. At midnight. Without reading it over. Because I'm a risk taker. Ha. [edited to add: I know I'm just being sloppy here. I know it's often not the Kid Bs who are helped, but the Kid As who just happen to be of a certain race or ethnic group -- and that may be a problem with affirmative action as practiced, I don't know that it means the whole thing is useless. Emphasizing "I don't know."]

My favorite part of Mitch's post: "Any good Jewish mother would by dying to marry her daughter off to Jeremy." Well, Jewish mothers reading my weblog, if you're out there...

P.S. Mitch writes: "Jeremy, despite his guarded political stances, reveals today what I'd consider a typical Ivy League response to the decision." I hope that's not really true. It may just be that my education has shifted me farther along the political spectrum than I realize, but I don't really consider myself a typical Ivy League liberal, if there is such a thing. I like to believe that I'm much more moderate than that, and even, on a lot of issues, fairly conservative. It may be that my views on affirmative action are more liberal than I realize. But it certainly wasn't my intention to parrot the liberal party line, or anything like that, and if I've come closer to doing that than I thought I was, then maybe I'm just wrong about thinking I'm fairly middle-of-the-road...