Colorblindness in practice: the politics of California affirmative action


Since a 1996 referendum, Prop 209, California public universities have been forbidden from using affirmative action in admissions. Since then, those schools have seen their black and hispanic populations shrink (in some cases almost to nothing), and their Asian-American populations balloon.

Recently, a multi-ethnic liberal coalition has been promoting a new referendum to bring back affirmative action. But Asian-american activists rebelled, and the bill has been dealt a serious setback. Much more detail; thanks Matt for the story.

Prop 209 was opposed by Asian as well as black and hispanic groups in 1996, but clearly the landscape has shifted. Why can’t everyone agree on a deal where affirmative action comes back, but only white people lose spots?

I suppose university administrators can’t be trusted to implement such a deal — that seems to be the lesson of history.

Here, perhaps, the rhetoric of racial colorblindness has some real application — the only way to make administrators fair (to Asians) is to forbid them from seeing race. Even if they are nominally implementing affirmative action, as long as they are allowed to see race they will actually favor whites over Asians. (Things don’t seem to run this way for black and hispanic applicants; hence the fault lines in the coalition.)

Colorblindness has fallen out of favor lately. E.g., it’s one of Stephen Colbert’s running jokes, considered so ridiculous in concept that just proposing it is funny. It’s fallen off the sophistication treadmill. But perhaps it should still be seen as a potentially useful tool in the rhetorical and policy toolkit. We shouldn’t pretend that we can’t see race, because that seems to be a fig-leaf for denying racial disparities. But sometimes biases are hard enough to eradicate that it is better to route around them. In 1997, researchers studying orchestra auditions found that female performers were evaluated much more highly in blind auditions. Merely knowing a performer was a man drastically increased evaluations. This is a striking demonstration of implicit bias — and a powerful argument for blind auditions. By extension, it argues that forbidding the consideration of factors like race, gender, etc., can be useful in some cases.

When should colorblind-like policies be considered? They are potentially applicable when there is a necessary element of judgment involved, because judgment provides a way for implicit bias to express itself. If hard standards can be set by policy, then this is less of a problem. For example, if college admissions are done mechanically by-the-numbers, racial numbers can easily be added. (And in principle this form of colorblindness is not incompatible with affirmative action. For example, an orchestra could use blind auditions and add ten points to the scores of female applicants.)

I assume something has been written about this in the voluminous psych / econ literature on biases, anyone know anything?

(This is of course a superficial analysis of the California schools. The real overall story depends on hidden facts about the applicant population. It may even be that the white students admitted to the good schools have been so thinned out by competition, that there aren’t enough merely-marginal white applicants who could be rejected to make room for blacks and hispanics.)

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