DUCK SOUP: Affirmative Action

Affirmative action, the idea that racial discrimination can be curbed with legal favoritism, seems to have more critics than friends these days. Many educators say that social engineering has come at the expense of quality schooling, and some non-white, non-male voices say it has hurt their communities. Those who benefit from special treatment are sometimes scorned for succeeding on their demographic status rather than ability. Others claim that it actually encourages racism by emphasizing racial and ethnic distinctions. Even supporters of affirmative action say it needs to be more fair, or less unfair. No they don't like hiring quotas, but, yes, they like set-asides. Can it be fixed?

The current debate reminds me of another political tussle three decades ago.

Equally qualified individuals were being unfairly sorted by a federal agency. Benefits seemed to go to the wealthy or well connected, and a steep price exacted from the unlucky losers.

The issue back then was Selective Service, and my peers in the high school class of '68 were keenly aware of its sting. Those of us lucky enough to get into college or with parental friends on the local draft board could avoid Vietnam. Others faced a good chance of dying. No small part of the anti-war movement was fueled by anger over the unfairness of selective service. Draft resistors burned their cards, led protests, trashed draft board offices and otherwise cried "Foul!"

Out of the heat of that national bickering came a solution. In 1969 the Nixon administration introduced an annual selective service lottery. The playing field was leveled, and men in my generation understood that very clearly.

Americans like lotteries. Whether it's a multi-million dollar state sponsored betting game, or a chance to win a coffee maker from the local PTA, most of us are happy to have a ticket. Maybe it's just human nature. We flip coins to decide who will kick-off, and spin bottles to find out who gets kissed. We finance Indian tribes and churches with bingo games. Cards are cut, straws drawn, and hands over hands climb a baseball bat. Eenie meenie miney moe. There's something so perfectly democratic about randomness. Anybody can win.

We can use random chance to satisfy both sides in the affirmative action brouhaha with a computerized lottery system. Instead of emphasizing race or gender, we can insist on fairness. No one will win or lose based on any physical attribute. Most institutions impacted by affirmative action already use computers in their screening process, so this would simply take one more step. Those without computers can use rock-paper-scissors, or dice. School assignments, college acceptance, job placement and promotion, federal contracts, even jury selection can all be handled this way. No longer will whites feel unfairly sidetracked. Never again will minorities feel the lingering stigma of special treatment. At the same time we could eliminate use of racial categories in public opinion polls -- it is, after all, inherently racist and divisive to assume that persons of different colors have differences of opinion based on their skin tone.

Computers can be color- and gender-blind and our society will move further along the road to equal protection under the law. Once we've replaced affirmative action with random chance, we can move on to campaign reform.

Wouldn't you rather see one evening of coin tossing instead of months of presidential primaries with ludicrous promises and nasty advertisements? After all, no one could say there wasn't a dimes worth of difference between the candidates if we simply flipped a quarter to pick the winner. Bill? Bob? Ralph? Ross? Call it in the air.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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