Monthly Archives: August 2008

Regarding Affirmative Action: On the Specious Idea of a “Most Qualified” Candidate

[For reasons of expediency, I’ve concentrated my examples on Affirmative Action in the workplace as opposed to school admissions. However, all of the basic points apply to both.]

[P.S. Sorry I’ve been away so long.]

Opponents of any kind of Affirmative Action (AA) preference for minorities often appeal to the idea that we must assess candidates by their “qualifications” as opposed to their race or gender. (And, it goes, focusing on race or gender risks overlooking the best or “most qualified” candidates, who may not always be among the minorities.)

(a) Race and gender as qualifications

Of course this begs the question that race or gender could not itself be a “qualification.” But why not? The idea is probably that qualifications must be merits—things achieved, or worked for, or chosen by the candidate. The candidate is personally responsible for them.

And one is clearly not responsible for one’s race or gender. But the same could be said of many other features normally accepted as qualifications. My talents, and those dispositions of attitude and behavior that led or permitted me to cultivate those talents, or to craft a decent work ethic, are not things about myself which I “choose” in any meaningful sense. Further, the features I do choose can be shown to rest in turn upon other features or circumstances I don’t. If nothing else, possessing a “qualification” today means having sidestepped—by sheer dumb luck—a virtually infinite number of potential obstacles in the past. Had a candidate been lent a different kind of native home life, or health, or been struck by a car the previous year, any number of qualifications (including the “achievements”) might have been stunted or snuffed out.

In this way, the things a person can help about himself and the things he can’t are inextricably “mixed together” in the biography. The burden of proof rests with AA opponents to state why race per se could not be a qualification, while other “un-chosen” features of a person could be.

Even if we accept that some qualifications are entirely the product of the candidate himself, with no credit to accidental circumstance, it would be impossible to tell which ones are and which aren’t. There is simply no immediate way to tell how much work (or sacrifice, or anything else a person can “help”) went into a candidate’s previous performance. You cannot just look at the performance to “deduce” how much hard work (for example) accounts for it. This is because hard work and performance do not correlate in a standardized way. For instance, my own grade of ‘C’ might come at much harder effort than an ‘A’ for a more natural student.

What’s more, if the point is just to choose the “most qualified,” there isn’t any reason why we should care who worked hard or sacrificed. The best are simply the best, no matter what factors conspired to make them so. Indeed, such factors are never evaluated in hiring or school admissions. (No college admissions department has the resources to evaluate it, and no private company cares to.)1

(b) A job is more than the work, so one must be qualified for more than the work

By its nature, a “qualification” always takes an object. That is, one is always qualified for something, some specific role or task. This much is obvious. But AA opponents set about investigating what kind of feature counts as a qualification without first arguing just what kind of thing a candidate is actually qualifying for. Their assumption is always that what a candidate is qualifying-for is limited to the parameters of that job—that the actual mechanics of the work is all that need to be assessed in asking what counts as being qualified.

We might respond: Yes, the qualification is for the job itself, obviously; but surely the job is in turn a part of something bigger than itself—namely, a society encompassing many different such jobs. And we might just as well ask whether a person is “qualified” for his role within that. That is, how a worker contributes, for instance, to the racial or gender distribution across the broader work economy is one of his roles as surely as how he contributes to profit-making or productivity or morale at the company of hire; and just as we ask whether he is qualified to enhance profit or productivity or morale, we can ask whether he is qualified to assist in the desired racial or gender balance at large. And he will be so on the basis of his race or gender.

My point here is that whenever one takes a job, one does, in actual fact, assume a role within and toward securing some specific racial and gender balance in the economy. He performs this role whether or not we hired him to do so and whether or not he thinks of himself as doing it. (Just as a custodian performs a customer service role whenever he, uniformed, greets a customer in the hallway, whether or not we hired him for this and whether or not he thinks he’s doing it.) And if this role is—like customer service—an important one, we must ask whether candidates are “qualified” for it; whether they can be expected to perform the role in a desirable way. And if they are, it is precisely their race or gender which makes them so.

(Now, you can argue that the role the worker performs in maintaining the actual balance is not an important one—by arguing that any particular racial or gender balance is, unlike customer service, itself undesirable or unimportant (or perhaps unachievable). But this must indeed be argued, not merely assumed at the outset.)

(c) Why do we care about getting “the best” candidate when we don’t care about “the best” anything else?

It is odd that we should take concern to secure “the most qualified” candidate in an industry or academia when we don’t ever look for the most qualified—that is, “the best”—of anything else in everyday life. Rather, we look for something that is adequate, satisfactory for present purposes.

Consider: If I’m receiving adequate service, why do I care that somewhere, out there, there is a “best” service provider? How does the existence of this distant provider affect the one in front of me? How can her service determine how good or bad this service is?

Of the millions of entities that confront us, very few could be said to be the “best” of their types. (And even the best are not at their best at every single moment.) Do we lament a zoo trip that didn’t offer “the best” elephant? How often would we dine out if we felt compelled to patronize “the best” restaurant within distance? Do we seek “the best” hammer before driving a—the “best”—nail? (Are we distressed when our airline pilot is not “the best” there is, but automatically relieved when we find that his betters have died off or retired over the weekend, leaving him to be the best after all? The logic here gets very silly quickly.)

If we were truly distressed at the thought that our, say, airline pilot were not the “the best” or “most qualified” among the applicants for his job, why shouldn’t we take it further?: For surely, even if our pilot were the best of these candidates, he is almost certainly not be “the best” pilot in the world, probably not even at the airport or in his smaller circle of peer pilots. Indeed, the whole spectrum of “qualification”—ranging from the least to most qualified—represented by the applicants for a single open position at a single moment in time pales unspeakably to the spectrum represented by an entire industry of workers. If we can live with the idea that a given worker who services us is almost certainly not “the best” in the world, how much easier to accept that he might not be “the best” among the much tinier group of persons who applied for his job.

To paraphrase the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce: “Let us not pretend to care about, in discussions of Affirmative Action, what we do care about in our hearts.” Nobody gives a damn about finding “the best” anything. And this is perfectly rational: The simple fact that other people, somewhere, are worse at something (“less qualified”) has no power to make me more or less adequate to the task at hand.2

(d) The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action match or outperform white, male counterparts

Opponents of AA object that when race or gender is considered in hiring or college admissions, it will yield a dangerous preponderance of candidates entering positions for which they are unqualified, and in which they are destined to underperform. (This is also supposed to hurt their self-esteem.) However, there are no less than 200 studies that refute this claim: The American Economics Association analyzed these and determined that beneficiaries of AA programs perform equal to or better than their white, male, “meriting” counterparts. (This is partly because they expect the “free rider” stigma from the start and feel they must work all the harder to shake it.) And in education, when economic background is controlled for—comparing black students with white students of the same wealth and income bracket—these groups are a statistical match in grades and rates of graduation.

On their side, AA opponents have the feeling that AA should select for bad candidates, but zero evidence to confirm it ever actually happens. (That they don’t feel the need to provide any evidence reflects the clinical abstractness of their arguments in general, and that of the neoclassical economic prejudices that underlay them.)

* * *

Bonus Video

Tim Wise debates AA on a panel discussion. I’ve linked the parts he appears in but you can link to the other sections from there: Tim’s opening statement. Q & A Part 1. Q & A Part 3. Q & A Part 4. Q & Q Part 5. Tim’s closing remarks.


1 This discussion points to another anti-AA confusion. On the one hand, talk of qualifying or “meriting” a job over other candidates suggests that a job is a kind of reward for something. It is earned, thus in some way owed to the candidate. This is why opponents speak of AA as unfair to non-minority candidates who are passed over by lesser qualified ones. This is a kind of moral argument against AA. On the other hand, there is the more pragmatic argument that we must promote the best candidates, for the sake of economic efficiency or consumer quality control, for example. But again, why should these two standards yield the same outcomes? Only if we can assume that “the best” will always match “those who worked the hardest or otherwise did something on purpose to merit being the best” does it make sense to collapse these two standards into one. But again, these things won’t correspond. AA opponents need to decide: If they want to allocate positions to “the best,” then so be it. If they want to allocate them according to who earns them, they should articulate extensive methods of researching how much hard work, etc. has gone into each candidate’s resume.

2 As the next section shows, this is not to suggest that black or female beneficiaries of AA are underqualified in any way, that they are less likely than anyone else to be “the best.” Only that when it comes to AA, the way we talk about being qualified is so out of line with our regular speech as to be almost certainly not what we mean to say.