Saturday, March 25, 2006

Affirmative Action for White Men?

Katha Pollitt has an interesting (and by "interesting" I mean "wrong") couple of blogs on The first is entitled "Affirmative Action for White Men, Chap. 4,651," and here is my response:

I have to agree with Katha -- the goal should be excellence in college, not some heavy-handed attempt at "balance."

So...when are we going to make all college sports coed, and choose just the best athletes?

Equality isn't something you pick and choose a la carte. Demanding equality in one area and then demanding preference in another is hypocritical. I'd be quite happy to have everything decided based on ability rather than on what group a person belongs to -- even if it puts me at a disadvantage in some areas -- but it is clear that there are some who are only interested in what personally benefits them.

She was apparently not satisfied, though whether with her first article or simple the response to it, so she wrote a second entitled "Affirmative Action for Men, Part Deux." I recognize the futility of arguing with a blogger, especially one who tries to create a strawman out of steel (she makes a remark that she believes will provoke a chorus of "oh noes" but instead elicit "That would be fine with me" instead), but here is my response:

Katha Pollitt tries to use sarcasm in her remark, "Much better not to take race into account, and let excellence be the only criterion." Apparently, this is designed to have men (presumably of pale complexion) fall back in terror of equality. To her I say, bring it on.

BUT -- and this is a big "but" -- no picking and choosing on where you want to be equal. If an occupation or sport has a physical requirement, then the standard should be the same regardless of sex. If men are required to register for selective service in order to get student loans, then women can fill out forms with them. If lines form outside female restrooms, no "potty parity" rules to give the distaff side twice the toilets per capita. Finally, in fields where the very top tends to be male dominated -- math, science, and art -- no creative accounting in order to balance gender, just a critical examination of each person's talent.

I'm willing to live in such a world of pure equality. The question is, is Katha?

Another responder apparently rose to her bait, and argued that an under-performing class maybe should have preference for equality's sake. I then responded:

The solution to flawed criteria is to develop better criteria, not to add a fudge factor to make the solution fit one's perception. That's what led us to the current problem -- we confused "Men and women are equally deserving of respect" with "Men and women are equal in all respects." Rather than say "Men as a class tend to have different strengths and weaknesses compared to women as a class," we said "There are no differences at all between the sexes, so the numbers in every field of endeavor must be precisely equal in order to be fair."

I personally think using even flawed criteria consistently and without prejudice is better than using quotas. If the mix of men to women on campus is 30-70, then fine; if the mix of male to female mathematicians is 70-30, then that's fine as well. Demanding a percentage of any group must be a certain sex or race is harmful to the group as a whole, as is demanding equality in one area and preference in another.

As an addendum, if students -- male or female, black or white -- are falling behind because of curriculum and teaching style rather than ability, we should of course fix the problem. That doesn't mean giving a bonus to a group simply because it's underperforming, though.


I can certainly understand the rationale for Affirmative Action for those currently being discriminated against.

I don't, however, agree that someone should be given preference simply because of what their ancestors may have suffered -- neither guilt nor virtue is hereditary. For African-Americans, many of their historical oppressors are in their family tree (slave owners not being known for fidelity or even common decency), and for women fully half of their ancestors are men -- if their grandmother suffered under sexism, it was their grandfather (or someone very much like him) that was the cause of it. Forcing me to pay for something your grandfather did is not a basis for fairness, it is a basis for madness.

This is one reason why the criteria for both men and women (as well as blacks and whites) should be uniform, consistent, and fairly applied. There is no way we can solve the racism and sexism of people long dead, we have to concentrate on the equal treatment of those now living. If we don't, we'll end up like the Palestinians and Israelis, each claiming victim status as they fight each other.


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