Monday, May 12, 2014

Sterling and affirmative action

James Causey writes that Donald Sterling's comments "prove" the need for affirmative action. In fact, if the Sterling episode proves anything about affirmative action, it is precisely the opposite.

One rationale for affirmative action is that it is supposed to compensate for difficult to detect discrimination. The idea is that racial discrimination is so pervasive yet so subtle that one needs not only to ban it legally, but engage in compensatory "counter-balancing discrimination.

Let's put aside the tension between simultaneously believing that something is so reviled as to have become hidden away so completely that it rarely be directly observed, yet so widespread and pervasive that we can safely assume it is always at work

Let's forget, for a moment, the old adage that two wrongs do not make a right. Let's put aside the possibility that excusing "benign" discrimination invariably leads to resentment and, in fact, encourages "hostile" discrimination by leveling the moral high ground that was once held by proponents of civil rights.

Let's ignore the increasingly persuasive evidence that affirmative action does not help its beneficiaries.

Let's just focus on what the Sterling story tells us. Sterling appears to be a straight-up racist. How did he run the Clippers?

Here's how. He hires black players. He hired a black general manager. He employs a black coach.

Does this mean he's not really racist? Not at all. It does mean he's a capitalist. Let me explain.

At the beginning of this month, Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago, died. One of Becker's great accomplishments was to demonstrate how competitive markets may be the most effective anti-discrimination tool available. If participants in the market - say a basketball team - indulge a taste for discrimination and refuse to hire the most talented employees or to sell to willing customers on the basis of race, the market will make them pay. That is because there will be someone - think Branch Rickey - who does not share their bias (or chooses not to indulge it) and will be able to hire better talent and tap into profitable markets that the racist firm will abjure. Ultimately, racist firms must choose between their taste for prejudice and survival.

So Sterling came to understand that, if he wanted to win, he needed African American players. He needed the best coach he could get, so he hired former Marquette great Doc Rivers. He didn't have to become a better person to understand that he could not indulge his prejudices. He only needed to value his survival.

Now, of course, this won't always work. One can imagine circumstances in which the absence of prejudice will carry its own cost. For example, when racial hostility really is pervasive (think of Alabama in 1960), then hiring the best, say, plumbers won't help when a large of customers don't want African Americans in their homes. But the irony is that, in such situations, anti-discrimination laws (much less affirmative action) are unlikely to be passed or enforced.

The other argument for affirmative action is that it promotes understanding. Maybe if Donald Sterling had to go to school with African Americans, he wouldn't feel this way today. Perhaps.

But Sterling's problem is not that he has not been exposed to African Americans. He's owned an NBA team for over 30 years. He had a black mistress. He just seems to be inextricably bound to his own attitudes.

In any event, if the increasingly strong evidence for "mismatch" effects of affirmative action is correct, then it is just as likely that affirmative action will reinforce stereotypes. It is tempting to think that a committee of elites can fine tune the world. It is almost always wrong.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

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