Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Consider the goals and instrumental reasoning used by white and black citizens on matters related to affirmative action.
  • Examine survey data of white and black respondents’ views of affirmative action in hiring and promotion practices.
  • Consider how various affirmative action programs, including incentive programs and quotas, might be viewed as “rules” and “procedures” that influence the outcomes of political and economic struggles.

Attitudes toward Affirmative Action: Goals and Purposes

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior is purposive.

Presumably, hiring decisions, admissions to institutions of higher education, and the awarding of government contracts reflect the goals of getting the most qualified person, admitting the best student body, and contracting out government services to the best public-sector actors.

Still, some opponents of affirmative action believe that it represents “reverse discrimination” that violates the societal goal of having decisions made based on merit and “color blindness.”

Anti–Affirmative Action Attitudes

  • Decisions should be “color-blind” and race should be neither a help nor a hindrance to an individual.
  • Affirmative action gives an “unfair” advantage to African Americans.

Pro–Affirmative Action Attitudes

  • America’s history with race relations means that decisions can never be “color-blind” and that affirmative action helps to redress racism already present.
  • The absence of affirmative action gives a default advantage to white applicants.

Public Opinion Data on Affirmative Action

The following figure presents public opinion data on affirmative action in hiring and promotions. Examine the figure with the following questions in mind:

  • Are there differences in black and white support for affirmative action?
  • Are those differences what you would expect?

White and Black Respondents Support for Racial Preferences in Hiring and Promotion

Do the Data Confirm or Disconfirm Our Expectations?

1. How do white respondents and African American respondents differ on affirmative action as it relates to hiring and promotion?
2. How does this data support and/or disconfirm our expectations of the goal orientation of whites and African Americans on the question of affirmative action?
3. Despite the fact that African Americans support affirmative action more than white respondents, a relatively large percentage of African Americans oppose affirmative action in hiring and promotion. What factors might explain this?

Examining the Institution Principle

The Institution Principle: institutions routinely solve collective-action problems.

In some ways, we can consider affirmative action programs as institutional rules designed to discourage racism in hiring and to encourage the active consideration of African American applicants for hiring, education admissions, government contracts, and so on.

Indeed, what is society to do with the goals of political actors (those who hire, admissions officers, and those who award government contracts) that represent lingering racial prejudice?

One way to overcome negative “goals” such as racial prejudice is to impose rules that disincentivize the implementation of racism in hiring, educational admissions, and government contracts.

Answer the following questions:

4. How might affirmative action be considered a “rule” that shapes individual actors’ behavior in order to overcome racism?
5. Is there a difference between (1) quotas that require employers and admissions officers to hire or admit a certain number of any racial or ethnic group and (2) affirmative action systems (like the University of Michigan admissions program’s “points” system) that treat race not as the sole factor, but instead as one among a number of factors that influence the admissions or hiring decision? Why or why not?


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