In a landmark decision on June 29th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions violate the Civil Rights Act. This means that universities like Harvard cannot discriminate against white and Asian applicants in favour of black and Hispanic applicants.
Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision, legal scholar Ilya Somin wrote an article for Reason titled ‘What it Will Take to Make Government Colour-Blind?’. He argues that “if we truly want a colour-blind government, we will have to go well beyond banning affirmative action in universities”.
“The discriminatory government policy that affects the most Americans is probably not affirmative action,” Somin notes, “but racial profiling by law enforcement.” In his view, anyone who wants a “colour-blind government” ought to oppose both affirmative action and racial profiling.
Defenders of racial profiling claim it’s justified “because membership in a racial or ethnic group may correlate with criminality”. But for Somin, “this kind of use of race-as-proxy is similar to affirmative action, whose defenders have long argued that being black or Hispanic correlates with being a victim of discrimination or a contributor to ‘diversity’”.
I don’t think Somin’s analogy works. Affirmative action and racial profiling are not “similar” in the way he suggests.
The purpose of a university is to advance knowledge through teaching and research. To fulfil this purpose, it must admit the students who can benefit most from the teaching it offers. The fairest and most objective way to identify these students is by looking at grades and test scores. Students with the best grades and test scores should be admitted first, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
A university that decides to admit students who have been “victims of discrimination” or who “contribute to diversity” is not fulfilling its purpose. (It is fulfilling some other purpose, like social engineering.) If such a university receives taxpayer funds, as almost all universities do, it is not providing value for money.
By way of analogy, if government-funded hospitals hired heart surgeons because they were “victims of discrimination” or because they “contributed to diversity”, rather than because they were good at heart surgery, there would be justified outrage. People expect the taxes they pay for the health sector to go towards maximising people’s health, not towards social engineering.
And it’s just the same with education. People expect their taxes to go toward maximising the advancement of knowledge, not towards social engineering.
What about racial profiling? Rather than being analogous to affirmative action, as Somin contends, it’s actually analogous to the opposite – i.e., selecting students on merit. A colour-blind government therefore should racially profile.
Just as the purpose of a university is to advance knowledge, the purpose of the police is to prevent crime. And for whatever reason, some groups commit more crime than others. So if the police want to fulfil their purpose of preventing crime, they should profile some groups more than others.
Everyone accepts this when it comes to age and gender. No one would seriously claim the police should profile elderly women just as often as young men. The reason is that elderly women commit very little crime, whereas young men commit a lot of crime. And it’s no different with race or ethnicity.
If the police ignored race or ethnicity when deciding whom to profile, they would not be maximising public safety and would not be giving taxpayers value for money.
Note that criminals are a minority in every racial group and most crime is intra-racial, so by failing to racially profile, the police would be failing to protect the law-abiding majority in groups with above-average crime rates. (For example, by failing to racially profile black men, the police would be failing to protect their victims – who are disproportionately black.)
In summary, Somin is wrong to claim that opponents of affirmative action should oppose racial profiling. Instead, they should support racial profiling. When groups commit crime at different rates, racial profiling is what’s required by a colour-blind government.