JLK in comments below raised the issue of Affirmative Action, which is something that I have been thinking about posting on for some time. Part of this is due to Senator Obama's call to have a dialog on race, and part of it is just plain old fairness. For a primer that isn't very long, nor very nuanced (those conservatives are wrong to oppose it) this piece is a good start.
As Lyndon Johnson once said, you don't just take the chains off a man and expect him to run the 100 yard dash and be successful do you? Affirmative Action today also relies on the notion of a stigma for having suffered from slavery and Jim Crow laws that somehow has been buried in the genes. Which makes Obama interesting, since his father did not suffer from being descended from slaves.
But the problem with Affirmative Action is the general illogic of it. In the most recent AA case to be heard by the Supreme Court, Justice O'Conner said that AA is fine for 25 more years, but after that it would become unconstitutional.
Think about that for a minute - the calendar being used to decide what is constitutional or not. How is that possible? Because the Supreme Court punted on a constitutional issue, instead of sending it back to the Congress. You got to love outcome based decisions. Think Plessy v. Ferguson as another.
The real issue for Affirmative Action is the idea that there are limited slots that are coveted for something, whether schools or jobs, and that based on historical analysis that one group has been overrepresented at the expense of another group. But the people who are competing for the slots have not necessarily benefited from that over representation and they are being made to sacrifice for that which they had no actual fault.
When competing for the scarce resource, you can divide the applicants into three groups: Those who are so exceptional they would get the slot anyway; those who are so unqualified, that should they even get the slot, they would be unable to compete and will be let go for the good of the institution, and; those in the great middle. The bubble that is being used to adjust for past sins.
So, let's run some thought experiments and see where we come out, shall we. Let's say that two people are competing to enter college, both are black and male and both have identical scores. Now, let's make one the son of a black millionaire and one the son of a sharecropper from Alabama. The preferred result should be the sharecropper son who gets the slot. Affirmative Action would work most effectively by giving the sharecropper's son the opportunity to break out of the poverty that he comes from.
Now change the sharecropper's son from black to white. The argument is that the son of a black physician should get the slot because he has not benefited from being white. Ask the son of the sharecropper how much advantage he has over the son of the physician. Change it again, and make the son of the sharecropper into the daughter of the sharecropper. Does that change who gets in?
Affirmative Action has been shown to be more palatable if it is based solely on economic class, than racial makeup. This would still have a benefit for the white sharecropper because there are more whites in poverty than blacks. But black poverty is proportionately over represented as a share of the general population, so that they would have a greater opportunity to take advantage than the poor white applicant.
Of course, this does not take into account so called "legacy" allotments. (Cue Mark T.). But to use Mark's argument against him, legacys are not necessarily successful beyond the original generation (think GWB).
We need to help people rise up from an economic disadvantage and maximize their potential. That is always going to be preferential to trying to remedy past wrongs based on the actions of others.