Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Affirmative Action

J. Bradford DeLong



In an
Affirmative Milieu the preferred group will by definiiton underperform the
group(s) that is being discriminated against.

My Comment:

I don't think so.

I think back to my days working for the Clinton Administration. High up in the economic policy team were three women whom I got to know well--Laura Tyson, Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers; Alice Rivlin, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and my immediate boss Alicia Munnell, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy. All three were affirmative action appointments: the thumb had been added to their weight in the hiring scales as the Clinton Administration tried to make sure that it "looked like America."

Yet all three seemed to me to, on the job, to at least equal the performance their male peers.

Why? A woman who was 50 in 1992 was 20 back in 1962--when there was a lot of cultural pressure on them not to try to do a lot of things. That these three got far--Berkeley Business School Professor, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow in Economics, Research Director of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank--as of 1992 was a sign that they were truly extraordinary and driven people, even if a reading of the "qualifications" off of their c.v.'s would suggest that they were not (in some sens), as "qualified" for the jobs.

If you think that America's formal institutions became color- and gender-blind around 1975, then anyone today over 40 spent at least their first 15 years under a lot of cultural pressure not to achieve in certain directions. Perhaps in a generation "the preferred group will be definition underperform" but 1975 was not that long ago, and it seems to me at least a generation too early to make such a pronouncement.

And perhaps it is much more than one generation too early.

African-Americans still score substantially lower than white Americans on standardized tests: they seem to be about where whites scored 40 years ago, a gap equal to that Thomas Sowell found existed around World War I between Jewish-Americans or Italian-Americans and Anglo-Saxon-Americans. That suggests that there are still very substantial environmental disabilities and cultural pressures against certain modes of achievement. And it suggests that African-Americans who score relatively well are likely to have skills, talents, and abilities in untested areas that are close to being off the chart.

Back in the Clinton Administration I got to know only one of the senior African-Americans at all well: the late Ron Brown. He was an extremely impressive man. You may weep (I do weep) that there is a place in American politics for someone with his talents--his business, after all, was that of exchanging access to decision makers for campaign contributions in a way that isn't quite illegal (but in my view shouldn't be).

Republican political leaders hated Ron Brown, in large part I believe because they had always expected to have a money edge of at least two to one and thought of Brown as poaching on their franchise. But they did not hate him because he "underperformed." Oh no no no...


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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