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Government, Politics & Issues

Affirmative action needs to change to affirmative opportunity, sociologist says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 28, 2012 - To be more effective – and have greater appeal to more Americans – people who traditionally have pushed for affirmative action should switch instead to a call for affirmative opportunity, sociologist William Julius Wilson said Tuesday.

Such a change, he told an audience at Washington University, would take into account broader, more flexible criteria for possible success and move away from rigid rules like quotas for minorities and women. Most polls and research show that such strict numerical standards have far less support among the American public than the notion that everyone deserves a fair chance at improvement.

Citing himself as an example, Wilson, now a professor at Harvard, told of how he was hired as a tenured associate professor at the University of Chicago in 1972, even though he didn’t have any of the traditional achievements on his resume that would have prompted such a move, such as an Ivy League diploma and a published book.

Instead, he was invited from his job at the University of Massachusetts, first to give a lecture – “Luckily I gave one of the best lectures I had given at that point in my career” -- and then to work at the Chicago campus with no teaching responsibilities. He had the luxury of time to finish his first book, not knowing he was in effect being auditioned for a job.

And, he said, “the gamble paid off.”

But for minorities who can’t attract the chance to be the subject of such a gamble, Wilson said, the road to success can be far more difficult. Schools and businesses that use traditional measures of potential and aptitude, such as scores on the SAT or ACT and grade-point averages, risk missing out on applicants whose backgrounds have not nurtured the kinds of skills those numbers measure.

Instead, he said, minorities and women need to be judged on other attributes, including their ability to navigate obstacles and hardships as well as characteristics like initiative, motivation, interpersonal skills, leadership, self-awareness, specialized knowledge and civil and cultural awareness.

Such flexible criteria, Wilson argued, amount to affirmative opportunity, not affirmative action. They not only will cast a wider net for people with the potential to succeed, but they will be viewed more positively by more Americans.

Quoting from a variety of polls and studies, Wilson noted large majorities disapprove of preferences for minorities in hiring, promotion and admissions when they are tied to strict numerical formulas. Such criteria, he said, give the impression that people are being given special treatment that they do not deserve.

That opposition, he added, is particularly pointed when supported by explanations of past wrongs such as slavery and the discrimination and other hardships that grew out of it.

“It is an incontrovertible fact,” Wilson said, “that Americans tend to de-emphasize structural origins and socially significant explanations of poverty. The popular view is that people are poor or on welfare because of their own individual shortcomings.”

For example, Wilson cited a 2008 Newsweek poll in which two-thirds of the respondents agreed that blacks who can’t get ahead in the United States are mostly responsible for their own condition. Even a slight majority of blacks felt that way, he said.

When questions of affirmative action shift to taking class, not race, into account, results don’t necessarily change much, he added, and the potential for progress isn’t all that great either.

“It could take several generations before adjustments in socioeconomic inequality could product full benefits,” Wilson said, adding: “If we are really concerned about the fate of people of color, I am certainly not persuaded that class-based affirmative action would be an adequate substitute for race-based affirmative action.”

But, Wilson added, when people are questioned about race-targeted scholarships or training programs, their views become more positive.

“Surveys show support among whites for spending more money on schools in black neighborhoods,” he said, “especially for early education, and for granting special college scholarships to black students who maintain good grades in school.” The same is true for job training, he said.

The difference, Wilson said, is that the latter programs appear to be giving consideration to easing obstacles or hardships, and potential is measured in part in terms of successful navigation of difficult circumstances.

So paying closer attention to individual effort, talent and training, and moving away from rigid numbers and inflammatory code words like quotas, would be  helpful in two ways: gaining broader popular support and helping a wider spectrum of those who might otherwise go unnoticed.

Wilson emphasized he is not saying that measures such as the SAT should be abandoned altogether, only that they be given less weight and other, less quantitative factors be given more.

People who have been given every conceivable advantage from the day they were born will naturally have a better chance to succeed, Wilson said, than those whose lives involved obstacles at every turn. He said that he hopes the White House will emphasize affirmative opportunity programs, with flexible criteria, as the best chance to remove the cumulative effects of chronic racial discrimination. Simply paying attention to race and class is not enough.

“It is so very important,” Wilson concluded, “to pay close attention to how one frames the discussion of affirmative action.”

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