When I first read of the Jayson Blair fiasco now unfolding at the New York Times, I didn't pay much attention. "Dumb reporter, ruined his career," I thought, and went on to other reading. What's unfortunate - and what I'm loathe to admit - was my reaction when, a couple of days later, I saw his picture. "He's black," I said as a foul thought emerged from the darker corners of my thinking: "probably an affirmative action case."My reaction was the same. But unlike Balko I am not ashamed of it. We have stereotypes for a vital reason: they are a cognitive shorthand that allows us to act in the world; to act in real time. Without stereotypes, we'd all be sitting here, thinking, rederiving all of our conclusions continually. We must stereotype; our brains are designed to do little else.
The danger in stereotyping is in coming to believe incorrect, irrational stereotypes, or applying rational ones inappropriately. This is a danger because stereotypes tend to be self-reinforcing. So it is important to be open-minded, and to challenge your own premises from time to time.
That said, let's consider the case against affirmative action that Balko alludes to. The charge is that affirmative action leads people to believe that all of its potential beneficiaries are incompetent. As Balko puts it:
The real damage policies like Raines' do goes beyond arguments for viewpoint diversity, meritocracy, or the rights of any theoretical white reporter who was passed over for promotion in favor of Jayson Blair. The real damage comes from the stigmatization stories like Blair's impose on qualified, talented black professionals who forever fight the perception that every black professional's success comes not from merit, but from the charity of benevolent white managers like Howell Raines.Let's call this aspect of affirmative action the "perceived incompetence" problem, or PIP. First off, is PIP real? Certainly - it exists in, at minimum, both Balko and me. Why? Because, in at least a modest form, PIP is a logical consequence of affirmative action.
Every young black reporter with a string of professional success must now burden himself with the Jayson Blair albatross.
The whole point of affirmative action is to allocate jobs in a way they would not otherwise be allocated. This must promote the beneficiary "over his head", unless his promotion would otherwise have been rejected for incorrect, prejudiced reasons. In a society where there is widespread, incorrect prejudice, affirmative action may be helpful, promoting people into positions they are suited for. But in any situation where there is no irrational prejudice amongst the job-allocators, any promotion for reasons not of merit will have the tendancy to promote people beyond their competence. This has nothing to do with the details of the system; it is a logical consequence of what the system is supposed to do.
So we have one very bad aspect of an ongoing campaign of affirmative action: to the extent that irrational prejudice declines in society, affirmative action causes increasingly justified PIP.
There are reasons to be for and against affirmative action outside of PIP. Balko mentions some above: viewpoint diversity, meritocracy, the rights of people not benefited by AA. So whether or not AA is a good idea is not decided by PIP. Nonetheless, the world as I perceive it is not a hotbed of irrational prejudice. (There's another stereotype for you - surely there must be employers that are, still, irrationally prejudiced.) In this world, AA cannot help but cause PIP amongst logical thinkers.
Balko notes the taboo on voicing PIP, and generally I think that is a good thing. You cannot easily come to know, for any specific (potential) beneficiary of AA, whether or not she merits her position. (Indeed, you can't know that for anyone regardless of AA; the market is hardly perfect.) Only by very detailed knowledge of a person's work history can you possibly know if she is competent at her job. It is fairest to give each individual the benefit of the doubt. But that does not mean you need to give everyone collectively the benefit of the doubt. Making this distinction is a fundamental means to distinguish between rational stereotypes and irrational prejudice.
In any case, I don't regard PIP as the right reason to oppose public affirmative action. The correct reason is that people have a right to equal treatment under the law, regardless of race. That's fundamental. It's also enshrined in the Constitution.
Private discrimination is our right, but it's not a good idea, generally. In some cases, for example private affirmative action, it may be justified. But PIP will always bedevil the results of AA programs.
As Balko notes, the truly sad thing about the Blair affair is that PIP is provably true.
in this case, those inclinations were right. And that's what's most unfortunate (and typical) about the Jayson Blair case: It's another example of an altruistic effort to offset white misperceptions about black professionals that, in the end, only reinforces them.With a sufficient paper trail, it becomes acceptable to talk about PIP. In this case, it can and will be talked about, and it will sustain our stereotypes. That's a shame.