Tuesday, October 18, 2011

UC Berkeley Affirmative Action Bake Sale


The Berkeley College Republicans mounted an attack on affirmative action based on race and gender. They sold cupcakes for different prices to different group (White Males were $2.00, Hispanics $1.00, Blacks 0.75 and and Native Americans $0.25).

In the view of Evil Black Economist, the sale is a simplistic and superficial publicity stunt on a complicated issue. We are getting kind of tired of this same old attack and the amount of press coverage. While the amount of press accounts exceed the norm, the coverage of the bake sale was slightly negative, no coherent alternative was offered. So we present some alternatives.

The bake sale points out the need to have your arguments ready to support affirmative action! So here is how to counter the argument. At the end, I have also included a freebie: a rational alternative to these arguments.

These attacks on fairness and social justice usually depend on the strict interpretation of some law or principle that has not been followed in the past but should we followed now to the specific benefit of the protester.

[Just for the record, the Evil Black Economist is for social and economic justice. We believe a certain level of guaranteed minimum outcomes is the basic for a happy society. As part of that philosophy, we support affirmative action based on race, gender, national origin and ethnicity for those who continue to suffer the effects of past discrimination. We also strongly support class-based and income based affirmative action.]

Now back to the Bake Sale. What the protesters are really saying is: I am opposed to one policy out of many in the larger society that favors one group in a particular circumstance.

1) Their are several points of attack but the best one is that society is NOT fair: the government, corporations and society and institutions unfairly play favorites all the time: R&D or mortgage subsidies, veterans benefits, hiring a neighbor or a fraternity friend of the VP. These favorites are usually decided by the majority and do not benefit the minority. Many of these favorites, preferences, or subsidies are hard to recognize. They cannot be easily eliminated but serve to disadvantage minorities.

2) A another story you might hear is how some people have succeeded due solely to their own smarts and hard work. They have achieved, you must be able to do the same. However they are ignoring two key facts: 1) the stable, secure and prosperous environment in the US is paid for by the taxes of all; 2) it is extremely rare for a poor individual to make it with absolutely no help. A more honest person would admit their "luck". They would try to create an environment where other might also get "lucky" too. Basically, everyone stands on the shoulders of some one else, but it is never called affirmative action.

3) a third area here the argument is weak is the historical context of the US. The US has a long history of discrimination: Native Americans had their land stolen, Blacks were slaves, and Women could not vote in the 1920s. You can also point out that White men have benefit from "Affirmative Action" in the United States up until recently and have developed a huge institutional advantage they can pass on.

What they are conveniently forgetting: Racism does exist in the US currently, though greatly diminished. However, it's stain (the institutional effects) lives on long after official racism has ended. Poverty and isolation are more prominent among Black, Hispanic and Native Americans than middle class Whites. For reasons of social cohesion and justice, we may want to encourage under represented groups to participate in society's institutions.

4) The argument against affirmative action can also be attacked on moral and social justice grounds. Helping those less fortunate than yourself is a moral activity.

Here is the freebie: When they say affirmative action is based on race then counter by proposing affirmative action based on income.

The discussion of affirmative action is really a larger discussion of how we should allocate societies basic resources ? How do we handle public goods like universities ? Should they benefit just a few or the large community ? What is merit ? What is success ?

Almost everyone has stood on the shoulders of someone else. We should just be honest about it.


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