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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Because it breaks silences

We need to remind ourselves why affirmative action is a good idea

Written by Ashwini Deshpande |
May 22, 2013 3:25:15 am

In these troubled times of heightened group divisions the world over,it is imperative to reiterate the logic and rationale of affirmative action (AA),which is not only about quotas.

The Economist recently conducted an online debate,in which I was invited to defend the motion on whether AA was a good idea. The next issue of the magazine supported the arguments of the critics with a scathing attack on AA (‘Time to scrap affirmative action’,IE,May 3).

AA is primarily a policy of de-segregating the elite to make it more representative of society as a whole. It takes different forms in different countries (race-based preferential admissions into academically selective schools in the US; quotas for formerly untouchable castes and marginalised tribes in public sector jobs,educational institutions and electoral constituencies in India). The target groups and the exact sphere of intervention vary from country to country,but the basic idea underlying AA is to provide a mechanism for including members of groups that would otherwise be under-represented,relative to their share in the population,in elite positions.

This is a good idea because those in elite positions end up being part of the decision-making apparatus,and have a strong influence on ideas and belief systems in various spheres — government,business,bureaucracy and academia. If specific groups (races,castes,ethnicities) get left out of this process,it generates serious resentment and is a recipe for social unrest and long-term disharmony. This disharmony is then not restricted to the social sphere; it can have long-term negative consequences for the economic health of nations.

The fundamental reason why governments need to act and institute some form of AA in favour of groups that are not only disadvantaged but also stigmatised and therefore discriminated against,is that in the absence of AA,members of these groups are competing in a highly unequal playing field. The decks are stacked against them as they battle stereotypical prejudices,are victims of simple and lazy generalisations (for example,“members of group X are basically indolent or inept”),and have to work doubly hard to prove they are just as good. If the market could provide an automatic correction where ability could be gauged accurately and rewarded appropriately,no AA would be needed as we would be in a pure meritocracy,with equal opportunity for all from birth.

Unfortunately,in most countries,inequality of opportunity is a fact,and these inequalities are intertwined with the underlying socio-economic hierarchies. Thus,rich and poor countries,strongly market-based economies as well as those less so,grapple with serious group disparities,in some cases with heinous and bloody consequences.

It is often argued that by equalising access in demanding positions,AA does more harm than good,as it further stigmatises the recipients (“you were not good enough and so needed AA to get in”) and creates a mismatch,as it puts AA recipients in situations where,due to the accumulated disadvantage of earlier years,they are not able to cope with the pressures of a rigorous course or a difficult job.

This argument misses two points. First,that stigma exists independently of AA. In fact,it is to counter the discrimination arising from the stigma that AA is needed. Second,the continued discussion by critics of AA on the drop-outs from the beneficiary groups has diverted attention from the large number of successes. They not only graduated,but got life-altering opportunities that put them and their families on a path of upward mobility. AA beneficiaries from formerly untouchable castes in India have documented how the silence imposed by marginality and caste prejudice,and enforced by atrocities and poverty,is broken by AA by introducing these students to another world and a different future.

Perhaps the biggest concern about AA is that it is seen as anti-merit and regressive,in that it replaces higher-ability and possibly poorer individuals from privileged groups (poor whites or upper castes) by less capable and richer individuals from disadvantaged groups. Studies show this to be more myth than reality. The average family income of displacing students is lower than that of the displaced students,and the extra benefit of new opportunities afforded due to AA is tremendous.

Is AA at the higher education level too little,too late? Should the focus not be on elementary education,safe drinking water,basic health and hygiene? But these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. The latter set of factors should be the basic right of all citizens. Are the benefits of AA worth the cost? Given that seats in higher educational institutions are limited,a large number of aspirants would be excluded even in the absence of AA. Thus,a reallocation of a small number of seats in the larger interest of making the elite world more representative is definitely worth the cost. Is AA lowering institutional standards or affecting productivity or efficiency adversely? Evidence-based research shows this to be not true. Thus,AA corrects some of the imbalances in higher education,jobs and electoral representation,and letting these imbalances persist is not a good idea at all.

AA tackles only a very small component of inequalities by making the elite,as a whole,more representative. This does not mean that all groups have to be represented in all professions in a crude,mechanical fashion. But it does mean that the middle class as a whole,which dominates decision-making in both public and private spheres,should be representative of society’s underlying social composition. Of course,this is not easy,or conflict-free. And we should monitor outcomes and continuously improve and modify AA to include in its working self-liquidating features. I hope very much that future generations see a world where AA is not needed at all. But until then,it is a good idea.

The writer is professor of economics,Delhi School of Economics

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