Conflicting Rationales for Affirmative Action in Higher Education:

I agree entirely with David Bernstein’s previous post: affirmative action in higher education should not be categorically forbidden, but it should be both more transparent and better designed. As David writes, “it’s important to . . . have a theory as to which people you are giving preferences to, and why, rather than just give a preference to anyone who meets rather arbitrary ancestry rules.” This is particularly important in light of the fact that different rationales for affirmative action imply very different admissions policies. If affirmative action is based on the “diversity” rationale, which holds that students benefit from having classmates with varied backgrounds, then it might make sense to give affirmative action preferences to white immigrants from countries such as Sweden or Russia. Such people will, on average, contribute more to diversity than native-born American whites. The same goes for black immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean relative to native-born blacks.

By contrast, if the justification for affirmative action is compensatory justice – trying to redistribute wealth to groups that have suffered from discrimination in this country – then a very different set of affirmative action priorities is called for. The issue cannot be avoided by saying that we should pursue both goals at once. Given a limited number of affirmative action admission slots, places allocated under the diversity rationale will not be available for compensatory justice purposes and vice versa.

I discussed these issues in more detail in this post, which addressed the controversy raised by the fact that a substantial proportion of black affirmative action admittees at elite schools are African or West Indian immigrants.