The importance of understanding causal pathways: the case of affirmative action.

Let us put aside the question of whether affirmative action is a desirable goal. Instead I wish to ponder how to implement affirmative action, given that it will be implemented in some form regardless.

The logic of most affirmative action programs is that X vulnerable community’s outcomes (Y) are significantly below the average. For the sake of example let us say that X is Cherokees and Y is the number of professional baseball players from that ethno-racial group.

Y = f(X) 

A public policy analyst who simply noted the under representation of Cherokees in the MLB, without digging deeper into the causal pathway, may propose that quotas be implemented requiring teams to have a certain share of Cherokee players. Such a proposal would be a bad one. It would be bad because it could lead to privileged Cherokees gaining spots in the MLB at the expense of less privileged individuals from other ethno-racial groups.

A better public policy analysis would note that Cherokees are less likely to enter professional baseball because they are malnourished (Z). This analyst, recognizing the causal pathway, may instead propose a program be implemented to deal with malnourished individuals regardless of their ethno-racial identity.

Y = f(X); X = f(Z) 

Most affirmative action programs that I have come across are of the former type. They recognize that X ethno-racial group is performing poorly in Y outcome, and propose action without acknowledging Z. We need more programs that are designed with Z in mind.

I do not say any of this because I am an upper class white male who resents others receiving affirmative action. To the contrary. I have benefited from this type of affirmative action several times in my life. On paper I am a gold mine for a human resources worker looking to fulfill diversity quotas: I am a undocumented Hispanic of Black-Jewish descent who was raised in a low income household. I am not however vulnerable. I come from a low income household, but my Z is not low. Not really.

Despite my demographic group, I am not malnourished. I could stand to lose weight, but I am not unhealthy. I attended a state university, but my undergraduate education is comparable to that of someone who attended a public ivy. My intelligence is on the right side of the bell curve. Absent affirmative action I am confident I would achieve entry into the middle class.

Nor am I a rarity among beneficiaries. My observation is that many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs are not low on Z and left alone would achieve success on their own. Affirmative action programs are often constructed in such a way that someone low on Z could not navigate their application process. It may seem egalitarian to require applicants to submit course transcripts, to write essays, or present letters of recommendations. However these seemingly simple tasks require a level of Z that the truly under privileged do not have.

Good public policy analysis requires us to understand causal pathway of why X groups do not achieve success at similar rates as other groups. We must design programs that target undernourishment instead of simply targeting Cherokees. If we fail to do so we may have more Cherokees playing for the Dodgers, but will have failed to solve the deeper program.

Note that I say vulnerable as opposed to ‘minority’ in the above passage. This is to acknowledge that many so-called minority groups are nothing of the sort. Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians form majorities in various parts of southwest, south, and the pacific (e.g. Hawaii). Women likewise are not a minority, but are often covered by affirmative action programs. Jews are in many instances minorities, but in contemporary life are far from under represented in society’s top professions. This distinction may seem too obvious to be worth making, but it is not. Both sides of the political spectrum forget that the ultimate goal of affirmative action is to aid vulnerable individuals.  Double emphasize on individuals.


2 thoughts on “The importance of understanding causal pathways: the case of affirmative action.

  1. In what sense was your undergraduate education like a public Ivy? I ask because I’m also at a state university.

    • My undergrad uni (Cal State Northridge) was right next to UCLA. We shared the same adjunct/lecture pool that they did. UCLA kids got a fancier diploma, but got the same material as we did imo.

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