Friday, March 12, 2010

Playing the Devil’s Advocate for Affirmative Action

I serve as the faculty advisor (otherwise known as the resident adult) for the political science club here at the Hebrew Academy. We have a very talented and outspoken group of guys and even a few girls and I am honored to be able to work with them. (I think it would make for an interesting study as to general male to female ratio in high school political science clubs. Is there something about being in a room full of people arguing with each other, often with raised voices, that pushes teenage girls away? I do make the extra effort to make sure that girls get to say their piece and are made to feel at home.) I guess it says something about white male Orthodox Jewish teenagers from middle-class backgrounds attending private school, but it is a fairly conservative group in terms of its politics. This has put me in a funny position. Politically I am what most people would view as a conservative, even if I am still to the left of many of these kids. Regardless of my politics, I do not think my role as a teacher is preaching my politics. I am here to pass on a method of critical analysis, one that will likely lead students to very different conclusions from mine. In general, I think this is the critical defense in terms of keeping one's own biases in check. It is okay to have strongly held opinions as long as you care more about the process that leads to such ideas than the actual ideas themselves. This leaves me in the ironic position where for me to be silent would be to guarantee a strongly conservative tilt to discussions. My solution to this problem has been to speak up from time to time to play the role of the "liberal." Not because I wish these students to become liberals, but because, regardless of what I might think, I am not about to allow, on my watch, students to walk away without hearing what an intelligent liberal sounds like. I may be speaking to the future leaders of the Republican Party, but a general political science club should not be the same thing as the Young Republicans.

This past week, I ended up speaking more than I usually do. The reason for this was that the topic of the week was affirmative action. Certainly a good topic to discuss since it directly affects these students in the here and now. Within a year or two, all of these students, if they have not done so already, will be applying to college, many them even to elite colleges. This is also precisely the sort of topic to bring out the most conservative tendencies in the group. The group is the very picture of an argument against affirmative action. These are white male middle-class private school students and in this case being Jewish is not going to win them any minority points. Looking around at the group, I know someone here is going to lose out on their college of choice. Essentially affirmative action in this context translates into: kids you need to sacrifice your slot at an elite college, which you have earned through your hard work and intelligence, to a total stranger for the good of society; all of this despite the fact that no one in the room, including me, is old enough to remember segregation.

So for the first time in my life, I found myself standing in front of a public audience and defending affirmative action. What I learned from the experience was that the case for affirmative action works to the extent that it is a moderate short-term pragmatic solution to a present-day problem. No, affirmative action does not mean that you are going to get a D+ black doctor working on you. It might mean that you end up with a B+ doctor, but you need to keep in mind that the focus on grades privileges the white student at the expense of other means of evaluation that might favor our black student. No one is going to be getting anything, not a job, not admittance to college, which they are not qualified for. I went to Ohio State where much of the student body comes from rural Ohio, which is predominantly white. Many of these students have grown up not personally knowing many blacks. We have a societal interest in changing this; no one should be able to go through four years of college and not regularly interact with students of a different color. You can talk all you want about improving education and that might help students in kindergarten, but we have to deal with students applying to college in the here and now. And let us be honest, you kids have benefited, even if it is just a little bit, from the legacy of racism that continues to live on in this country, just as your black competition has suffered ever so slightly from it. Is it not fair and reasonable to agree to at least a moderate level of affirmative action?

I eventually got stopped and asked: but you are a libertarian, how could you support affirmative action? I must admit that this was an argument I could not talk myself around. At the heart of my Libertarianism is an attempt to get around and deny the very relevance of the sort of liberal arguments I was using.  Only direct physical suffering is relevant to the government so all side effects of a racially charged culture are off the table. I do not recognize the existence of racial groups, only free and equal individuals. Government serves to protect people from physical harm not to make people more moral or build a more tolerant society. Bent over a barrel, I had to admit to playing the devil's advocate here. I guess I might be able to personally go along with affirmative action if we were talking about private institutions. I already am willing to put up with Aryan coffee shops.

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