The language of the racial-preference debate

The University of Michigan has a program under which membership in various statistically underrepresented groups has value under a point system used to control admission decisions. What should we call it? The term used above, “racial preference,” seems to me neutral and descriptive, though few proponents of such programs will agree with me.

Their preferred term is “affirmative action.” The program described certainly fits that label, but the label doesn’t describe it very well: literally, “affirmative action” means any action designed deliberately to increase the participation of statistically under-represented groups, including sending recruiters to schools with large African-American enrollments. Targeted marketing programs aren’t very controversial; it’s the use of race or analogous factors in choosing among applicants that raises hackles, so calling a controversial program by a name that includes lots of uncontroversial programs seems to me a trifle sneaky. Under the program, some people will, at the margin, get in because they’re black, and others will not get in because they’re white. It seems to me that “racial preference” is the right description.

Certainly “quota” is the wrong description for the Michigan program, though its opponents, including the Administration, keep saying they’re against it because it’s a quota. That description is false at two distinct levels. Historically, a quota is a ceiling, not a floor; it was brilliant, but rather dishonest, of the neocons to apply the term used to describe the programs that used to keep minority enrollment down, and hated for that reason, to programs designed to push black enrollment up. Setting aside, say, 10% of the slots for African-Americans would indeed create a “quota” of 90% non-African-Americans, but that’s hardly analogous to saying “No more than four Jews per class.”

[“Quota” is also used to describe enforcement programs for anti-discrimination laws that rely on achieved outcome levels rather than process measures. It ought to be, but isn’t, considered strange that the folks who support enforceable numerical targets as a way to monitor and manage educational quality oppose enforceable numerical targets as a way to monitor and manage integration efforts, and vice versa. But let that pass for now.]

Even if we grant the use of “quota” to mean merely “enforceable numerical target,” and even if we regard “quotas” so defined as bad, the Michigan program doesn’t seem to fit. The point system may be designed to achieve a target level of African-American enrollment, but nothing guarantees that it will do so in any given year. That’s the reason the Administration had to invent the concept of “imprecise quota” to explain why a system that established no enforceable numerical target was still a quota. The disinclination to tell the truth if there’s any feasible alternative is one of the distinctive characteristics of the Rove Administration.

UPDATE here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: