Residential College Professor Carl Cohen, a longtime ideological opponent of affirmative action at the University, has sent an email to the large “RC.Political” email list in support of the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative. Here’s an excerpt of his email, followed by my response:

“You will have noted that the battle over race preferences in Michigan has begun. It is not a battle over affirmative action; affirmative action, vigorous steps designed to extirpate all discrimination by race and ethnicity, are untouched by the proposition to be voted on. Ours is a country in which racism has penetrated very deeply; one would be foolish indeed to suppose that there is no need to continue the battle to uproot it. But that battle, in a decent society, will certainly not involve the very discrimination that is to be eliminated. The proposition on which the people of Michigan will vote in 2004 aims only to forbid all discrimination by the state and it agencies, including the University of Michigan, and to forbid all preference by race, color, ethnicity, or national origin.

If you come to believe that it is wise to oppose the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, that can only be because you believe that the State or it agencies must be permitted to give preference by race, sex, or ethnicity. I find it hard to believe that our university colleagues, proud of the principle of equality that we universally profess, would on reflection support such preference. […] “

What the fans of “colorblindness” fail to understand is that discrimination itself isn’t the issue. Discrimination is itself a neutral, yet powerful tool. With or without this ballot initiative, state government and state universities will continue to be extremely discriminating in every competitive decision they make, whether for hiring, admissions, contracts, or in other areas. The issue is simply whether we believe in taking into consideration a broad array of criteria, or whether gender and races are in fact irrelevant to understanding individuals.

Good science has shown again and again that criteria of “merit” itself contains a tremendous bias towards maintaining the status quo, and in many cases works to discriminate against some irrespective of ability, talent, or potential. In higher education, the work of Claude Steele and others have shown standardized tests and other measures of so-called “merit” are in fact rigged against minority students, who experience a phenomenon known as stereotype threat – if a negative stereotype exists for certain groups, in a high-stakes testing situation they score lower than if they were simply told to just take the exam and the results would mean nothing. In addition, many other criteria and qualifications which on their face have nothing to do with race or gender often in fact contain unearned privileges. The subtle and nuanced reality of prejudice mean in order to ensure true access to state resources, the state must be given the ability to take into consideration a broad array of criteria, including race, sex, and ethnicity.

In fact, this realization: that discrimination exists, and can have a positive or negative effect on society has been broadly accepted. Whether it’s the work of the Center for the Education of Women to help women achieve in academe (where in many departments they remain to be underrepresented) or the support of affirmative action from many sectors of our society, it is a commonly recognized fact. Once one begins to believe there may be more qualified candidates in almost every discriminating situation, and that is it impossible to rigidly rank human beings according to “qualifications,” then one sees the proper way to view selection is in fact from the point of view of the organization selecting. The question isn’t how best to select the “most qualified,” because clearly people harbor a broad array of qualifications, talents, and privileges, most of which can’t be expressed on a resume or as a number. The question then becomes what type of qualified people should be selected to move this university, organization, or society towards where we’d like it to be.

Those who insist on “colorblindness” are intellectual dinosaurs fighting for an outmoded, simplistic, and most importantly disproven way of thinking.

Author: Rob