Jim de Bree | Affirmative Action: A Better Option?

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

One of the most interesting aspects of the election was Proposition 16, which would have reinstated affirmative action in California. It was soundly defeated. 

Affirmative action is a politically charged issue that is not going away anytime soon. Technology is amplifying this issue. We need to devise a better solution if we want to put it behind us.

After the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s, I was asked by a partner in a prominent law firm if I wanted to sit on the board of a new non-profit organization that would incubate charitable endeavors in the inner city. The issue at the time was that many inner-city community endeavors did not have the resources to be successfully managed.

My involvement really expanded my horizons because I saw a part of the world to which I was never previously exposed. 

Eventually, we helped several hundred projects. Many were successful and became independent organizations, while others failed. Many of the failures were learning experiences for leaders who went on to be successful in other endeavors.

Eventually, the organization imposed term limits on board members, so in 2015, I stepped down from the board. I still continue to be involved with the organization in a limited capacity. Last year, the organization asked me if I would consider returning to its board starting in 2021. 

As part of that endeavor, I met with a number of community organizers. I noticed a significant change in attitude. 

Previously, the underserved communities were satisfied with incremental progress toward a long-term goal. Currently, those communities have lost their patience and marginal progress is no longer acceptable. 

Society has changed and one of the major reasons for accelerated change is the advent of social media. (Social media’s impact will be the subject of a future column.) 

To make their point, disadvantaged communities frequently cite a sandlot baseball metaphor: There are two children who want to watch the baseball game, but are unable to do so because a fence obstructs their view. One child is tall enough to look over the fence and tell the shorter child how exciting the game is to watch. If the smaller child was only provided with a stool, he could see the game for himself.

I was met with scorn when I noted that stools don’t just appear out of thin air and asked, “Who is going to pay for the stool?”

Those in disadvantaged communities see affirmative action as their stool. Their schools and communities are disadvantaged, so they need a stool to be able to fairly compete with others from more advantaged communities. 

After reflecting further on the problem, I realized that the stool analogy does not adequately address the issue because, in that metaphor, providing a stool increased the number of people who could watch the game. In reality, leveling the playing field, in and of itself, fails to expand the number of players. 

A zero sum environment is like playing a game of musical chairs where a fixed number of players will remain standing. 

We can change the composition of those who are standing, but we still have the same number of people who don’t have a chair when the music stops. There will be winners and losers.

The problem with affirmative action, at least in the short run, is that for every person who gains a position, another person is displaced. Those who are displaced become bitter and feel disenfranchised.

If there are a hundred job applicants for 80 jobs, 20 will not get a job. That was the allure behind repealing affirmative action — insuring that the most qualified get the positions because that will result in the highest productivity levels. 

Theoretically, higher productivity will eventually result in greater opportunity for all, and the disadvantaged will ultimately benefit from new opportunities resulting from enhanced economic output. 

However, as we move increasingly toward meritocracy, instead of creating greater opportunity for everyone, the benefits of increased productivity have predominantly gone to the most productive. The resulting wealth concentration has exacerbated the problem.

We live in a world where technology is rapidly replacing human labor, placing even greater pressure on the number of available opportunities. 

In a musical chairs context, the chairs are being removed at a faster pace.

Consequently, in order to overcome the inequities that affirmative action seeks to eliminate, we have to create more opportunities for all. That means we must invest in the intellectual capital of disadvantaged communities. Doing so will be expensive and implementing such investment is likely to be controversial. 

But until we do, we are unlikely to achieve the goals of affirmative action. 

We cannot merely argue over how to divide the pie. Instead, we must focus on how to bake a larger pie that can be equitably shared. There will undoubtedly be considerable pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to address this issue.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

Related To This Story

Latest NEWS