Friday, April 21, 2023



fairness — NOUN — impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination: 

Oxford Dictionary

Recently the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, that it is unconstitutional for colleges to use race as a factor in admissions. Many worry that this will reduce the number of Black students and harm efforts to promote diversity via affirmative action. But other people are concerned about who, in consequence of this purportedly positive discrimination, is being ignored and even discriminated against .

Affirmative action is intended to foster diversity and improve opportunities for select minority groups and women. And assisting African-Americans is a primary intent because that community's disadvantages originated in the highly methodical evils of slavery and Jim Crow. Social injustices such as predatory lending, red-lining, pay discrimination and segregated schools are deeply rooted in this history and have done a great deal of damage

The intent of affirmative action is greater fairness. But life is unfair to many others whose identity is not revealed by skin color. Lots of people, not descended from slavery, a member of a selected minority, nor female, end up on the dirty end of life's stick. For them, affirmative action offers no remedy whatsoever. Indeed, in the zero sum game of life, the opportunities of those deemed unqualified for affirmative action are instead given to those who do qualify — superficially. In the real world, so many Americans are afflicted with such a wide variety of undeserved impediments that it is impossible to even identify them, much less redress their disadvantages. This is the fundamental flaw in affirmative action.

Affirmative action programs treat this vast population of unrecognized disadvantaged as if they don't exist. It rules them out at a stroke by mistakenly treating victimization as if it is a matter of a single criteria. For example, it presently doesn't matter if your loving Dad is a successful stockbroker and your caring mother a skilled heart surgeon. If you are African-American, a member of some other selected minority or female, you still qualify for affirmative action. But if you are white and your dad is a matter of conjecture and your mother a neglectful crack addict, you get no consideration whatsoever. That doesn't make sense. Inequality should not be dealt with in this single criteria selection way. To even approximate fairness, affirmative action must be awarded proportionate to the actual disadvantages suffered by each individual. And since this presents insurmountable difficulties, the very possibility of  fair affirmative action goes out the window.

Slavery and Jim Crow? 

A counter argument is that some handicaps are so damaging they demand special redress for the group involved. And many think the damages inflicted by America's slavery and Jim Crow racism, for instance, fit that description. We should never minimize the negative impact of literally having ancestors who were owned by another. Nor should we pooh pooh the systematic exploitation that followed. Still, it's been 6 generations since slavery and nearly 3 since Jim Crow was flushed down the toilet of history. Plus, and this is vitally important, many non African-Americans who came here seeking a better life endured slave-like situations when they got here. What's being done for their descendants?

"Slave-like situations?" Yes, slave-like situations. Let's look at a couple of examples. During 19th and at least half of the 20th Century, most coal miners were in slave-like situations. They performed the absolutely vital task of fueling the nation. But they endured truly awful, sometimes deadly, working and living conditions. They typically worked 10 hour days, six days a week in foul air under feeble light, hundreds of feet below ground. 

Many were badly injured, crushed to death, or incinerated by gas explosions. Moreover, all of them breathed clouds of coal dust that slowly clogged their lungs and left many of them fighting for breath. Indeed, "black lung" suffocated thousands. Many began working in this hellish environment as young as 9 or 10. (See photo below.) This is when slave children were also put to work. Plus they had to buy at inflated prices in the company store, and also rent their shabby homes from the company. Typically, at the end of the main street, there was a huge smoldering pile of mine waste, its sulfurous smoke fouling the air and turning all the structures in town a ghastly shade of yellow. If dad was killed in the mine, the company evicted his wife and kids. And, around 1900, coal miners endured all of this for what today amounts to about $4.50 an hour. 

if this unrelenting exploitation drove some miner to try to unionize and demand to be treated like a human being, the company fired him and evicted his family. If the collective had the courage to actually organize and go on strike, they were beaten, even shot down, courtesy of the state police, national guard, or even federal troops. What did the law do about coal company killings? Nothing. The law belonged to the coal kings and their allies, the steel and railroad barons. They "owned" coal country local and state governments as well as a host of judges. (For an epoch example of this check out The Battle of Blair Mountain.) No, these coal miners weren't slaves. But they lived and died in similar misery. In fact some slaves lived better if they enjoyed relatively privileged positions.

 I know people who grew up in these coal towns. In fact my next door neighbor did. And as she grew up she watched black lung smother her father. Her life was forever altered by her coal town experiences; and it wasn't for the better. Yet she is entitled to no affirmative action whatsoever. Be assured she would be if policy makers were even mildly interested in fairness.

How about the Irish immigrants who did the dangerous, underpaid, back-breaking work of building America's railroads, canals and tunnels — largely by hand? America's transportation infrastructure was chiefly built by their back-breaking labor. And they typically lived in wretched temporary work camps, labored 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, died by the dozens from work-place accidents and contagious diseases; and were paid next to nothing for their trouble. Should they die of infectious diseases or be killed on the job, they were often buried in unmarked mass graves that are still being discovered to this day. 

To top it off, they and their families endured vicious attacks for being both Irish and Roman Catholic. The Thomas Nast cartoon, below, captures some of that nastiness.

Like the miners, these immigrant laborers were no one's property. But in terms of disrespect, exploitation and wretched living conditions, they might as well have been. Why, then, is there no discussion of affirmative action for their progeny? Does their ancestor's suffering, which often rubbed off on subsequent generations, merit no consideration whatsoever? No it doesn't.

Other groups suffered, some continue to suffer, similarly appalling mistreatment. Jews, for instance. They came here to escape merciless persecution and outright murder in Czarist Russia. But when they got to this promised land they encountered still more persecution. Anti-semitism haunted them. Until the 1960's, for instance, there were signs in some luxury Palm Beach Hotels that read, "NO JEWS, NO DOGS,"  And Jews ranked with Blacks as key targets of the KKK. Jews are not included in affirmative action. How come? 

Then there are Asian-Americans. Throughout American history people from Asia have been excluded, discriminated against, endured violence and were even prevented from becoming American citizens. Laws were also passed to keep them from voting or owning land. Now, instead of receiving favor under affirmative action, they're often discriminated against in college admissions because they would be disproportionately successful if they wreceived equal treatment. Should we call this "disaffirmative action?" 

The list of America's blameless victims is long. The eligible for affirmative action list is much, much shorter. That's patently unfair.

Other, Less Obvious Victims

Many other Americans also have gotten (Some continue to get.) the dirty end of life's stick through no fault of their own, But they escape nearly everyone's attention. Here are a few examples of a long, long list of folks afflicted by unmerited handicaps that are utterly ignored when it comes to affirmative action:  


Aristotle observed, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." Research proves him right. For instance, in a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association documented a phenomenon they referred to as the "physical-attractiveness stereotype." Investigators showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures. 

Compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students consistently rated them as confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972). And the physical-attractiveness stereotype is robust. Research has repeatedly proven its existence in different experimental settings. (Feingold 1992). 

Should we have affirmative action programs for the unattractive? After all, they may well suffer more unfair treatment than, say, a physically attractive African-American. 


Overweight is a characteristic that attracts discrimination and unfair treatment. Research shows overweight people are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive (Grover, Keel, and Mitchell 2003). Several studies demonstrate that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight (Roe and Eickwort 1976); are less likely to be promoted (Larkin and Pines 1979); and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers (Rothblum, Brand, Miller, and Oetjen 1990). 

Should we have affirmative action programs for the obese? Wait, you say, a person is fat because they eat too much. Unlike skin color, it's something they can and should control. But is it? Not for everybody. Research demonstrates there is a genetic component in many cases of obesity. Nevertheless they are discriminated against on the basis of this often acquired, rather than achieved, characteristic. Obesity and Genetics, Office of Public Health Genomics, CDC  Now, ask yourself, just how is being born with a propensity for obesity different from being born African-American? 

    Short Stature 

Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men (Jackson and Ervin 1992). Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants (Bonuso 1983); short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees (Loh 1993); and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates (Gillis 1982). 

How about affirmative action programs for shorties? Ridiculous, you say? Maybe not. Might a 5'4" white male actually be more disadvantaged than a 6'4" black male, all other things being equal? And it's even more likely that a short, unattractive, obese white male might well be considerably more disadvantaged than a tall, handsome, slim, black man. How should affirmative action handle that?

    Personal Life Situations

Whom do you think is more disadvantaged, an African-American raised by loving parents in an intact family or a European-American with an absent father, a drug addicted mother and little love for the child? How about a female "person of color" who lives in a Palm Springs mansion, whose caring dad is a bank president, and whose loving mother owns her own accounting firm vs. a male white kid in Nowhere, West Virginia whose invalided coal miner dad is slowly being suffocated by black lung and whose mother is profoundly depressed? ,

The point here is that there is a lot more to one's life situation than skin color. And these factors can be absolutely crucial for determining who is disadvantaged and should get a compensatory break. Clearly we should have affirmative action for people who have had damaging life experiences growing up, such as having an abusive parents. Why? Because it surely makes them unequal. But how can the obviously severe handicap of a dysfunctional family be accurately measured? This sort of thing is often hidden deep among all the other family secrets. Affirmative action completely ignores such often devastating handicaps. And to the extent that it does so it is profoundly unfair.

    Other Factors Plus Reverse Discrimination

How about being poor. Isn't that an unfair disadvantage?  Whether you are white, brown or black, the color that matters most in America is green. The "long green." Consider the issue of obtaining equal justice under the law? In court we get the justice we can afford. Rely on a court appointed attorney and you are far more likely to serve time even if you didn't do the crime. Contrariwise, if you did the crime but can pay for a dream team of clever barristers, there's a good chance you will get off. (Remember the O.J. Simpson trial?) But does affirmative action right all the wrongs spawned by poverty? It doesn't even try; and that too is profoundly unfair.

There also are other less dramatic factors to consider. Research indicates, for example, that people with red hair, especially men, are stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" (Heckert and Best 1997). Negative stereotyping that is based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, etc.) also is a common occurrence (Anisfield 1972). Even children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers," compared to children whose parents can't afford name brands (Elliot and Leonard 2004). 

Advocates of affirmative action have an ethical obligation to also apply compensatory measures to any persons who are handicapped by things they didn't cause and can't control. Yet only a very small proportion of life's victims presently qualify for fair share treatment. Why? Largely because the neglected disadvantaged lack the political muscle to successfully file a claim. They're too disadvantaged to even be considered for special treatment.

Worse still, the victims of reverse discrimination typically pay the most immediate costs of providing others with special benefits. Then, to make matters worse, many of these victims also must endure workplace "sermons" on hidden bias by pious affirmative action "evangelists" who are well paid to chide them, like errant children, for their prejudices. Their resultant anger and resentment set them up for exploitation by glib, grifting demagogues like Donald Trump. 

Remember, benefits usually are limited in number. So when you give someone a special advantage, you place others at a special disadvantage. In the U.K., affirmative action is tellingly called "positive discrimination." That helps clarify the fact that if you positively discriminate in favor of persons A, you must negatively discriminate against persons B and C if the contested resource is finite. How does that serve fairness?


Stigmatization is another negative outgrowth of affirmative action. The experience of present-day Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is illlustrative. PBS's "Frontline" reports that Thomas owes his rise from Pin Point, Georgia to the Supreme Court to affirmative action. It got him into Yale Law School. But because of affirmative action, his presence there was questioned by fellow students. Many thought he was incapable of achieving entry on his own. They perceived him as a token presence who had not fairly won the right to attend. Years later that memory still gnaws at Thomas.

When Thomas graduated from Yale Law he failed to receive the accustomed job offers from prestigious law firms, PBS reports that he also regards this as a consequence of affirmative action. He thinks  it caused prospective employers to shy away from hiring him and discount his considerable capabilities and accomplishments. (One imagines that's a key reason why he expresses opposition to affirmative action in his court decisions.)

So far as affirmative action is concerned, stigmatization goes with the territory .


 Affirmative action also subtly undermines any sense of personal agency. With the eager help of politically correct professors, some minority college students, have mastered all of the grievance rhetoric. They can rattle off the current palaver about "the tyranny of "white cisgendered males," for instance. With others to blame for everything they may fail to read their assignments, or even learn how to paragraph. They don't see themselves as responsible in any degree for their own life situation. They see no connection between lack of effort and failure. It's all the fault of "the system." So their job is to sit around griping and bellyaching until "the system" is fixed. Good luck with that!

The Importance Principle

One last, but very important, thing. The more important something seems to be, the less appealing affirmative action is. We shy away from applying affirmative action to anything that really matters to us. 

Professional sports provide a trivial, but telling, example. Just 25% of NFL players are European-American, 58% are African-American. The NBA's situation is even more dramatic. Here a remarkable 73.2% of the players are African-American.  Yet Blacks make up just 12% of the U.S. population. These imbalances seem to demand affirmative action. But there is no discussion of applying it. Why not? Because adopting  affirmative action requires selecting players who are less talented. And that's where we call a halt. Racial equity be damned. We want our team to win; and actuating  affirmative action virtually insures that they won't.

The importance principle applies to other jobs as well. Jobs where results are at a premium. Suppose, for instance, you're an airline passenger flying through heavy turbulence when your pilot announces: "This is your Captain speaking. I want to give a big shout out to Eagle Airlines affirmative action program for getting me in this pilot's seat." Would you be glad to hear that? Similarly, shall we select our heart surgeons via affirmative action? How about structural engineers who design the structures we depend on? I don't think so!

But affirmative action is readily applied when selecting folks for less 'important' jobs. Jobs  like teaching, for instance. Here, competence should trump everything else just as it does in the NFL or NBA. But it doesn't.


Affirmative action is both unfair and unwise. Unfair because it awards favor illogically and incompletely. Unwise because it undermines personal agency and promotes stigmatization. But once you start affirmative action, it's awfully hard to call it off  — even when you should.

What, then, is to be done? End affirmative action and boldly embrace the prescription that Martin Luther King, Jr. presented on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Focus exclusively on the content of individual character and the achievements that are manifestations of that character. Nothing more, nothing less. Some claim that advocating a racially blind prescription is, in itself, racist. That's a doublethink distortion if there ever was one.


Tuesday, April 11, 2023

A SCHOOL REFORM PARABLE: Horace and the Kingdom of the Frogs

By Gary K. Clabaugh, Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

Rewritten 4/11/23

In olden times, when hope still mattered, a frog named Horace treasured tadpols. When they thrived, Horace was very, very happy. If they failed to thrive, Horace was very, very sad

Horace lived in the Kingdom of the Frogs where Bullfrogs reigned supreme. These puffed up monsters were few in numbers, but took up the best end of the pond. There they ate a great deal more than they needed, wasted almost everything, croaked so loudly no one else could be heard, and secretly conducted their most important business hidden deep in bottom muck.

To thrive, tadpoles need special nurturing. Ordinary tadpoles had to be sent to community nurturaries for that purpose. Ordinary frogs also had to pay taxes to the Bullfrogs for nurturary upkeep. The Bullfrogs, for their part, cared little about community nurturaries. (Although they did impose a host of standardized tests and measurements on them that then were published in The Pond Bulletin.) They placed their own tadpoles in expensive, private nurturaries. Here they received special care and were exempted from every test and measurement imposed on the ordinary tadpoles. (There were no scores to publish for them.)

Community nurturaries had always been neglected in the Kingdom. But one day, for some unknown reason, the King of the Bullfrogs began harrumphing loudly that community nurturaries were doing an awful job. He then appointed a Blue Ribbon Bullfrog panel to study the "problem." (Of course, ordinary frogs had no voice on the panel.) 

After much harrumphing and croaking the Blue Ribbon Bull Frog panel proclaimed, "If another kingdom were responsible for the awful performance of our community nurturaries it would be a cause for war." (Bullfrogs frequently found causes for wars — though they never fought in them.) 

The panel ignored the fact that it was the Bullfrogs that ultimately determined the condition of community nurturaries. They regularly underfunded them and sub-adequate budgets created sub-adequate conditions. Moreover, community nurturary conditions simply reflected ordinary frog living conditions in the ever-growing stagnant end of the pond. (And since the Bullfrogs controlled the fresh water flow, they also determined how much of the pond was stagnant.)

Anyway, as Horace came of age he thought, and thought (In the way that only frogs can think.) about what to do with his life. "I know!" he finally exclaimed, "I'll nurture tadpoles."
Certification was necessary to become a tadpole nurturer. But that process was very undemanding because of the ongoing need for inexpensive, compliant nurturers. Moreover, at Amphibian University, which had a Bullfrog board of trustees, the weak-kneed tadpole-nurturing program was viewed as little more than a source of university income.

When it turned out that the undemanding certification standards still were too demanding for the casually committed, Bullfrogs also set up an alternative route to certification. "Nurture for the Kingdom," it was called. When this Bullfrog supported endeavor was created, a Bullfrog official solemnly croaked, "Alternative certification opens tadpole nurturing to bright young frogs who have no time for falderal." Horace wondered, as best a frog can wonder, "Since tadpoles are so very important for our frog future, why do the Bullfrogs make it easier and easier to become a nurturer?" 

Meanwhile, the Bullfrogs continued to stoke dissatisfaction with community nurturaries. They croaked that these nurturaries would be much better if Bullfrog controlled firms were to take over their management at public expense. (Bullfrogs are very enthusiastic about profit making — especially when it’s at public expense. )

Meanwhile, Horace too easily achieved certification at Amphibian U. and signed up for a job as a community nurturer. This nurturary was in the most stagnant part of the pond. Horace was delighted to nurture young tadpoles. But he soon discovered that while he and his fellow nurturers were held accountable, they had no say about how the nurturary was run, or what nurturing materials were available. Worse still, nourishment and oxygen were in scant supply at that end of the pond. And those scarcities made the tadpoles much harder to nurture. Sometimes the half-suffocated tadpoles even turned on one another, or on a frog nurturer.

Some blamed Bullfrog rules and inadequate funding for this. Others blamed the ordinary rfog administrator who had sold out in order to feel more like a Bullfrog. Still others thought community nurturary board member’s lack of knowledge was at fault. (Board members weren’t required to know anything about tadpoles or teaching.) In fact ignorance of tadpoles and teaching was common at all levels of community tadpole nurturary management. 

Even the Bullfrog who was Secretary of Tadpole Nurturance possessed no knowledge of this whatsoever. But he was well connected in the pond and very skilled at croaky solemnity. Ignoring the many environmental factors limiting tadpole growth, for instance, he pompously advised tadpole nurturers that if they just had "higher expectations" their tadpoles would thrive.

About this time the Frog King reemerged from the muck on the bottom of the pond, swam to the surface, stuck his thick Bullfrog head out of the water, and croaked out a royal decree. "Henceforth," he thrummed, "every tadpole succeeds!" And with that, the King dove back down into the muck. (Little, if any, additional money for tadpole nurturance accompanied the King’s declaration)

The King also decreed that all community tadpole nurturaries must regularly measure and report tadpole growth. The results were to be proclaimed throughout the kingdom and community tadpole nurturaries were held publicly accountable." (There was not even a mention of measuring tadpole growth in the private nurturaries that served the Bullfrog's offspring.)

The Bullfrogs assured ordinary frogs with tadpoles that they had the right to transfer them to another charter nurturary if theirs got low scores. But pond geography made such transfers nearly impossible. Of course that didn’t stop the Bullfrogs from boasting about the policy.

Horace and his fellow nurturers wondered how they could be held responsible for low test scores if the tadpoles were under their care only six and a half hours a day, five days a week, 180 days of the year. The rest of the time (and that was a great deal of time indeed), tadpoles were "cared for" at home by their frog mothers and fathers — and it was often hard to even find the fathers. 

Frog families weren't in very good shape to begin with. In fact, by the time frog parents brought their tadpoles to the nurturary, their all-important early growth was already over and the damage inflicted at home was more or less permanent. That is why Horace often got tadpoles with needs that were well beyond his simple skills. He struggled bravely (or at least as bravely as a frog can struggle), But try as he might Horace could not get the environmentally stunted tadpoles to meet the Bullfrog's puffed up standards. He even tried expecting more, as the Bullfrogs advised, but that just made things worse. “I guess I’m not very good at expecting,” Horace said to himself. 

About this time a Bullfrog-owned and operated charter corporation took over the community nurturary where Horace worked. The bottom line was no longer tadpole nurturing, but profit making. Cosmetic changes were introduced, but tadpole growth did not improve. In fact, fewer tadpoles did well than before. But the Bullfrogs were more content.

With the coming of summer there was a sad new weariness in Horace's bulgy eyes. He still loved tadpoles. Only now he kept dwelling on their frequent failure to thrive. He spent most of the summer thinking about his future. Should he keep nurturing? 

In the end his love of tadpoles won out. Hoping things would improve, Horace returned to his job in the nurturary. But things there were actually worse. Thanks to Bullfrog for-profit management, love of tadpoles was almost entirely absent. Profit was what mattered.

Because the Bullfrog-set pond standards were impossibly difficult for damaged tadpoles, some of Horace's fellow frog nurturers started cheating on the Bull Frog imposed tests. Horace would have none of that. He played by the rules and continued to do his best. "Worthwhile things are seldom easy," he would say to himself. But reality slowly smothered what was left of Horace's hope. Finally, after a particularly discouraging day (and frogs aren’t easily discouraged), Horace just hopped sadly away, never to be seen again.

Some say he hopped to another pond where there were no Bullfrogs. Others say Bullfrogs dominate every pond in the world and that Horace died of a broken heart. In any case, he is gone — forever.