The Promise of Diversity
A response to "The
Future of Affirmative Action" by Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier.
Mary C. Waters and Carolyn Boyes-Watson
Sturm and Guinier argue that affirmative action merely
nibbles at the margins of inherently unfair structures of opportunity
because the primary methods for assessing applicants for admission to
higher education, entry-level jobs, and promotion are neither functional
nor fair. As prediction mechanisms, standardized tests are pretty ineffective
in reading the future performance of prospective students or employees.
And, of course, they tell us nothing about drive, motivation, or the
values an individual brings to her career and future contribution to
society. As methods for ensuring fairness, standardized tests behave
even worse: test scores are highly correlated with socioeconomic status
and reflect the cumulative advantages of class rather than the inherent
abilities of the candidate. As an alternative to testing, Sturm and
Guinier propose a daring shift in our approach to selection: right now
we are busy trying to assess the talents of an individual before
they begin school or begin a job. But what if we were to simply reverse
the order? Suppose we distribute the opportunity to perform through
more direct and fair methods and determine merit of the candidate
based on the quality of their actual performance in school or on the
We think this is a novel and potentially exciting way
to widen the structure of opportunity. And for the most part, we agree
with the authors critique of standardized testing. But does the
robust critique of standardized testing offered by Sturm and Guinier
also spell doom for the policy of affirmative action? Are these two
issues necessarily joined at the hip? Or is it possible to decouple
the issuesto reject standardized testing while recognizing the
need for affirmative action policies?
We think it is wise to separate these two issues from
one another. We doubt that the alternative vision proposed by the authors
would, on its own, produce fair outcomes and create diversity in schools
and workplaces. On the contrary, we believe that, in the absence of
the legal framework of affirmative action, the Sturm and Guinier approach
to selection would have a regressive impact on the very goals they aspire
The argument that
much standardized testing is of questionable value in predicting future
success, and largely reflects the past cultural and economic advantages
of the test-taker, is hardly new. But given the testing mania currently
sweeping the nation, it is certainly worthy of broad dissemination.
Focusing on the inherent flaws of standardized testing to assess the
value of affirmative action is, however, a grave mistake. We agree with
the premise that our society falls far short of a true meritocracy,
but find it hard to agree with the premise that our society functions
as a true testocracy either. How many jobs really use standardized paper-and-pencil
tests as the key method for hiring? A recent study of a nationally selective
sample of US firms found that only about 10 percent required an intelligence
test to screen applicants for employment.1
Probably the most common employment test is the simple typing test,
one form of testing that is, arguably, both functional and fair. But
even this form of assessment is never used alone, and is typically paired
with educational credentials (evidence of past performance) and a face-to-face
interview to assess appearance, demeanor, attitude, and so forth.
In educational admissions standardized testing clearly
plays a greater role. But even in undergraduate, law, and medical school
admissions, tests are only one of a number of factors taken into account.
The authors own example of University of Pennsylvania Law School
admissions shows that only half of the law school class was chosen automatically
based on LSAT and college grades. If tests really determined admission,
we could fire all of our admissions committees tomorrow and have computers
select incoming classes.
We think it is important
to remember that standardized tests were instituted to increase fairness
and open opportunities in the face of selection processes that operated
via subjective assessments and closed networks bound by class, race,
ethnicity, and gender. While tests are not perfectly fair, Sturm and
Guinier vastly oversimplify their effects. Tests are a double-edged
sword. The use of SATs made it possible for Jews educated in public
schools to compete with moneyed applicants from prep schools for entry
into elite universities.2
Standardized tests enable women police officers to legally challenge
the decisions of their superiors when they repeatedly pass over the
higher scoring females to promote male candidates.3
A survey of private firms in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston
in the late 1980s and early 1990s shows that when tests were used as
important screening devices in hiring decisions, African American employment
rates were higher than when interviews were used.4
Sturm and Guinier are correct to point out that test scores
today more often legitimate existing class and race inequality, and
that small and essentially meaningless differences in test scores are
used to differentiate among candidates who are functionally identical
in skill, talent, and ability. The authors propose to replace these
flawed tests with different strategies for leveling the playing field.
Take, for instance, the idea that we determine admission to our best
colleges by taking the top 1 percent of graduates from every high school
in the country and then doing a weighted lottery. The lottery would
be weighted to ensure representation from major racial and ethnic groups
and to ensure equal numbers of men and women.
What would be the result? Many youngsters from poor schools
with weaker educational backgrounds would win admission to our top colleges,
and perhaps some would not succeed. But such a group would most definitely
include individuals from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds
who have demonstrated the drive, determination, and ambition to succeed.
To be the valedictorian of the high school in Wellesley or Weston takes
a great deal of effort and intelligence, but to be the valedictorian
in Chelsea or East Boston takes all of that, plus an enormous determination
to overcome considerable obstacles. Who will do better after four years
in one of our best universities? The student who did what his parents,
teachers, and neighbors supported and expected of him, or the student
who succeeded despite overcrowded classrooms, indifferent adults, violent
communities, chaotic learning environments, and the added pressure of
after-school jobs or family responsibilities? As a selection method,
this approach seems a superior way to tap into the drive, talent, and
ambition of all our young citizens rather than those from already privileged
Another problem is that gross categories like race and
gender have a considerable heterogeneity within them. A great deal of
evidence suggests that under current affirmative action programs recent
immigrants and the children of immigrants are fulfilling many targets
for racial diversity, leaving behind African Americans and Puerto Ricans.
Affirmative action has also noticeably failed in taking into account
class origins. Both working-class African Americans and working-class
whites are woefully under-represented in our elite schools and workplaces.
Devising alternate methods for giving members of these
disadvantaged groups the opportunity to acquire and demonstrate skills
would begin to broaden the reach of affirmative action into these difficult-to-reach
segments of society. In addition to changing requirements for college
admissions, Sturm and Guinier suggest an alternate selection strategy
for employment decisions. They propose that above a certain floor of
minimum qualifications for a job there should be a weighted lottery
that assigns applicants to existing openings. These new hires would
then have a probationary period in which they would be able to grow
into the job, learn new skills, and demonstrate the aptitudes and abilities
to meet the demands of the position. Sturm and Guinier argue that this
new method would open positions to individuals who would previously
not make the cut based on standardized testing.
But it is foolish to ignore the historical reason so many
groups fought to implement standardized testing in the first place.
When managers, college admissions officers, and bosses assess and evaluate
the skills, talents, and abilities of individuals, there is a powerful
opening for the operation of conscious or unconscious biases rooted
in the racial, ethnic, class, and gender identities of both parties.
The plain fact is that there is no silver bullet that removes socially
embedded preferences from the decisions of human beings. The Sturm-Guinier
proposal moves the crucial hiring decision to a post-hire evaluation
based on job performance during the period of probation. But what is
to keep a male manager from deciding that a female trainee did not grow
into the job as effectively as the male trainee who, in his view, seems
more suited to the job? Sturm and Guinier imply that somehow work evaluation
is inherently more objective than decisions based on interviews. Although
they acknowledge that who does the evaluation matters, and state that
it is important to have diversity in those doing the evaluations, they
do not explain how, absent affirmative action, this diversity will be
achieved. If the premise of the new model is that these probationary
hires will be evaluated by diverse teams of managers, it is hard to
see how this would be ensured, if not through current legal and cultural
values of affirmative action.
The promise of the
authors approach comes if it is seen not as a replacement for,
but as an addition to, current affirmative action programs. Their proposal
needs affirmative action in order to work because at its heart their
proposal necessitates subjective assessments of work and education quality.
Without diversity among managers, administrators, and teachers, the
situation for women and minorities could actually be worse under the
Sturm and Guinier proposal than it is now. Combining their proposal
with the existing legal framework of affirmative action, however, might
actually be better able to deliver on the original promise of affirmative
action programsincreasing both opportunities for individuals and
true diversity in organizations.
Mary C. Waters
is professor of sociology at Harvard University and the author of Black
Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities.
is associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Restorative
Justice at Suffolk University.
New Democracy Forum: Click here
to read other responses to "The Future of Affirmative Action," by Susan
Sturm and Lani Guinier.
1 Peter V. Marsden, "Selection Methods in US Establishments,"
Acta Sociologica 37 (1994): 287-301.
2 David Karen, "Achievement and Ascription in Admission
to an Elite College: A Political-Organizational Analysis," Sociological
Forum 6 (1991): 349-380.
3 Kevin Cullen, "Breaking the Thin Blue Line of Bias:
Policewoman is Likely Next Chief in Springfield," Boston Globe,
16 January, 1996, Metro/Region p. 15.
4 Philip Moss and Chris Tilly, "Soft Skills and Race,"
Work and Occupations 23 (1996): 252-276. See also Kathryn Neckerman
and Joleen Kirshcenman, "Hiring Strategies, Racial Bias, and Inner-City
Workers: An Investigation of Employers Hiring Decisions," Social
Problems 38 (1991): 433-447.