On October 23, President Rose emailed a “Racial Justice Update” to the community, expanding on his September 2 email in which he described the two pillars of the College’s work toward racial justice. I am grateful for these emails, and for the College’s commitment: we need to address systemic prejudice in the United States and the continued pain and suffering it causes.
Unfortunately for this important goal, it appears to me the College now supports the policy of prescribed equality of outcome, as evidenced by a significant change in language between the September email and the October email. Prescribed equality of outcome, in my opinion, poses dangerous risks. Equality of outcome that comes about naturally is not only fine, but desirable. Risks only manifest when governing bodies seek to regulate or prescribe certain outcomes. These risks are likely to halt long-term progress toward racial justice.
We can avoid these risks and achieve equality of outcome naturally, at least along racial lines, by striving for equality of opportunity as articulated in the September email from President Rose. Though perhaps never perfectly achieved, equality of opportunity has at least three benefits: it is practical as policy, culturally palatable and compatible with democracy. It is also likely easier to implement than prescribed equality of outcome. Since so many in the United States lack access to opportunity, an efficient, safe path toward racial justice would begin with expanding and equalizing access to opportunity.
The significant change between the October and September emails primarily regards how the second pillar of work is presented. The September pillar had no broad, explicit goal, though it did have a focus on inequality: “the College… [is] identifying the structures, behaviors, and practices that create the persistent [race-based] inequalities of opportunity, outcome and experience.” The October pillar differs significantly, though subtly, as it now advances a goal of “equity of opportunity, outcome, and experience.” I ask that President Rose and those crafting the College’s positions please clearly define what “changes to structures, behaviors and practices” the College intends to endorse “that will lead to equity of opportunity, outcome, and experience.” If by “equity of outcome” the College intends to prescribe equal or equitable outcomes the process is problematic if it is achieved on means other than equality of opportunity. An institution that prescribes outcomes is antithetical to the concept of opportunity, as opportunity implies freedom and a range of possible, uncertain outcomes.
Prescribing outcomes poses risks. One such risk arises when outcomes are prescribed on the basis of oppression of identity groups. Oppression is ill-defined in that it is difficult to quantify, being ubiquitous and taking many different forms. Moreover, all the identity groups and institutions for which outcomes can be prescribed and branches of those institutions are boundless in number. Given the increasing recognition of the importance of reckoning with oppression and identity, contemporary institutions prescribing outcomes based on oppression of identity groups would tend toward managing the countless historical permutations of oppression and identity. The bloated bureaucracy necessary to manage those permutations, especially when applied to many institutions, would quickly grow to consume vast societal resources. Authoritarians can more easily claim power in bloated bureaucracies on the basis that it would be easier for them alone to make management decisions. Eventual tyranny is unacceptable.
Prescribing outcomes in proportion to identity maintains divisiveness, as it highlights identity differences. In fact, any policy regarding identity will create divisiveness. The benefits of many of these policies, though, outweigh the divisiveness they create. Prescribing outcomes, however, creates too much divisiveness, especially when outcomes are prescribed in proportion to historical oppression of identity. While some enlightened college students may feel comfortable with prescribing outcomes in the name of racial justice, the fraction of the population which supports racist policies will not support prescribing outcomes in proportion to historical oppression of identity.
Were the College or other institutions to prescribe outcomes, this would ultimately risk undermining any hierarchies of competence, which would lower societal productivity. The true hierarchy of competence rewards people only in proportion to their skills, ensuring people’s talents are best used. For example, those most skilled at a job are the ones hired. When hiring outcomes are prescribed, however, and based not only on unbiased assessment competence, fewer talented people are hired. Less likely to be rewarded, the talented—young, old, majority and minority—develop their talents less. Some may say the oppression of minority groups and the resulting lack of developed talent has existed so long it warrants prioritization of those oppressed. I fully agree that oppression exists and must be fixed. In my estimation, however, a lack of equality of opportunity is a major factor behind oppression and lack of developed talent. Equality of opportunity, as mentioned above, has benefits and would also naturally lead to equality of outcome. This natural equality of outcome would help reduce systemic prejudice.
Am I reading too much into the College’s October goal of action leading to “equity of opportunity, outcome, and experience”? I do not believe so. There is a clear difference between the September and October emails. Additionally, the September email states the College will work towards “the opportunity for an equal experience” at Bowdoin, a sentiment far closer to “equality of opportunity” than an actionable goal of “equity of…outcome.”
Am I assuming the College is looking to implement an ominous system of prescribed equality of outcome? No. However, the College’s new goal of prescribing “equity of…outcome” does bring new risks worthy of consideration. I also estimate that passionate College students may tend the College toward these risks. Moreover, many corporations and politicians across the globe already attempt to prescribe outcomes. In wake of our recent racial justice crisis, many rightly committing to change may commit to prescribing outcomes. Furthermore, and the reason for which I estimate the College has moved to support it, the prescription of outcome appeals to people’s compassion, deceiving decent people who may not examine precisely what it implies.
To the College’s credit, they are “establish[ing] measures for success…[and making] goals and metrics…transparent.” These “measures” are due soon, and I look forward to their publication. Meanwhile, I ask readers to realize the risks associated with prescribed equality of outcome and ask the College to do the same.
Lorenzo Hess is a member of the Class of 2023.