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When Should Race Matter in Decisions?

By Ken Nesmith

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his now famous speech. That particular line has been the source of much controversy.

Conservatives cite it to align King’s legacy with their own opposition to affirmative action and racial preferences, causing proponents of the same to work desperately to wrest and silence from those words the apparent damnation of any discrimination based on race. This line does not comprehensively represent King’s beliefs; towards the end of his life, he became so embittered and disillusioned by the fight against segregation that he began to advocate forced redistribution of resources as the means to rebuilding a just society. However, this line, as well as King’s life’s work in part, raises the question of what use we should make of race as a criterion in making decisions.

Answering that question brings us to analyze what exactly granting the usage of race as a criterion means and necessitates for different decisions.

Clearly, there is no single appropriate guideline for the use of race as such a criterion. In the line quoted, King referred to his dream of an end to formalized, destructive societal discrimination against blacks, where race was unjustly and irrationally used as a criterion to decide who should or should not be able to partake in daily societal life. In selecting who should be allowed to use a bathroom, sit at a lunch counter, or shop at a store, employing race as a criterion is quite difficult to justify.

For the most part, such open discrimination is behind us, thanks to the perseverance of individuals fighting for civil rights mere decades ago in the face of unthinkably violent and hateful opposition. While inequality still exists, it is no longer the product of a formal set of rules designed to keep an entire race in a subservient role.

Affirmative action, however, is a formal set of rules inappropriately employing race as a criterion. It is an inappropriate answer to a problem of resource allocation. Consider two realms in which affirmative action is used: college admissions and federal employment. College administrators and employers each have a limited amount of resources to distribute -- offers of admission and employment, respectively. Awarding them based on who the applicant’s parents happen to be rather than the ability and merit of the applicant is insulting and destructive both to the applicant and to the employer or university. A majority of Americans, including a majority of African Americans, likewise oppose this practice.

Both a student at a university and an employee in an organization assume roles which demand strong qualifications and performance.

Attempting to shatter an invincible linkage between performance and results, ability and production, and merit and reward, practitioners of affirmative action reward less able, less prepared candidates at the cost of qualified, able candidates who are not members of a chosen group. Choosing less qualified candidates for these roles is similar to choosing players for a soccer team who have broken ankles and telling them they’re all set to play. It’s dishonest and insulting, and it ignores the causes of the individuals’ handicaps. In this case, we can look to the public school system’s failure to furnish students of all races a basic education -- not a new problem, but one that has been persistently ignored by the same political forces that promote affirmative action.

Selecting students on the basis of race differs from selecting piano players, football stars, and poets for college admission on the basis of their unique talents because these talents are earned and cultivated by a student’s individual effort and determination. Conferring advantage upon them is an acknowledgement that their hard work has borne fruit, granting them skills and abilities that set them apart from other candidates. Conferring advantage upon individuals of a certain race is an acknowledgement that they were born to their parents-- nothing more. (Legacy admissions do the same thing.)

Just how much advantage does being black confer? A study cited in the Wall Street Journal found that otherwise equally qualified white applicants to the University of Michigan Law School were 247 times less likely to be admitted than black applicants.

Some complain that minorities are underrepresented on campus. Equating this fact with aggressive discrimination completely ignores cultural valuations of achievement and education. While varied representation clearly doesn’t prove discrimination or even strongly suggest it, recruiters can take other approaches to addressing low minority enrollment. Taking the top few percent of every high school’s graduating class is one such approach; doing so rewards individuals who excel in tough environments rather than simply rewarding members of a certain race.

Using race is inappropriate for selecting individuals for positions that need be awarded on the basis of merit because race does not determine merit. However, race obviously does serve at the very least as a visual identifier. To defend the public and enforce the law, law’s agents must make use of every identification tool available, including race. Racial profiling, then, is not uniformly wrong; it is entirely appropriate to make use of race, as it is any other identifier, to make law enforcement decisions.

Security policies after Sept. 11 highlight this point. The government has limited resources with which to defend against terrorism and preserve our security. We know that those most likely to perform terrorist acts against us are of Middle Eastern descent. We then have a choice: do we more closely scrutinize a small number of citizens from all races to prove our lack of prejudice, leading to highly visible searches of elderly women’s wheelchairs as they board airplanes, or do we simply pay attention to those who likely pose the biggest threat?

More generally, if you know that the probability that individuals of a particular race will commit a crime is higher, devoting more resources towards scrutinizing that race is simply in the best interest of minimizing crime. Problems arise when undue scrutiny is given not because of a threat posed by a race but merely because of prejudice. This does happen today, and it’s a problem. Racial profiling, though, certainly has a natural and fitting place as a tool for law enforcement.

Affirmative action is often sold as a temporary fix that will be eliminated as soon as possible. It’s not possible to say, though, when it will be eliminated. We’re clearly not waiting for perfect equality of results between all races. We would not expect perfect equality among any refinement of the population, no more than we would expect or desire a perfectly homogenous population of millions of identical individuals. We can strive for equality of opportunity, but affirmative action doesn’t help that cause. It is a crutch that lets us ignore true sickness. The most prominent of these is K-12 education, which should provide exactly that equality of opportunity. Attempts to reform it are repressed by the same political groups who defend affirmative action.

King sought for his children not to be judged by their race. While a colorblind society is about as infeasible as an outright blind society, we should be very careful what formal use we make of race in making decisions. While we do use race as a tool of judgment, rewarding individuals based on race rather than ability and merit is not a legitimate way to make such judgment. Using skin color as a tool of identification in law enforcement is defensible. Pursuing these two policies demands that we be honest with ourselves and with each other and ensures that both individuals and society are respected and well served.