Becker writes (my emphasis):
Posner, in his comment, writes:
It is obvious why affirmative action may hurt members of the majority group who are denied promotions or admission to various colleges, even though their records are better than many minorities accepted. But why is it bad for a country like the United States to do this, and often also for the minority groups gaining these privileges? My belief is that affirmative action is bad for any country that aspires to be a meritocracy, as the United States does, despite past slavery and discrimination that are terrible violations of this aspiration. The case for a meritocracy is that achievements based on merit produces the most dynamic, innovative, and flexible economy and social structure. Encouraging promotion or admission of less qualified applicants because of their race, gender, or other characteristics, clearly violates this principle, and produces a less progressive economy, and a distorted social structure.
The appeal of a meritocracy explains why one can, as I do, strongly oppose both affirmative action, and discrimination against African Americans, women, and various other groups that have suffered discrimination in employment and in admissions to schools and colleges. While affirmative action programs give advantages to various minorities that are not justified by qualifications, discrimination does the opposite, and gives advantages to the majority that exceed their skills and qualifications.
. . .
When discrimination dominated affirmative action, an African American or female medical doctor would be better than average since they had to overcome artificial hurdles to get where they were. That was not a desirable situation because discrimination made it harder for these groups to get ahead, so fewer of them than was warranted by their abilities and skills managed to make it to medical school. However, now, minority doctors and other professionals are greeted suspiciously by many patients and customers who fear they got where they are only because they were subject to lower standards. That can hardly make someone feel good, and helps explain some of the segregation and defensiveness of minorities receiving affirmative action help at schools or on jobs.
While opposing affirmative action, I do not advocate just letting the status quo operate without attempting to help groups that have suffered greatly in the past from discrimination. Employers, universities, and other organizations should make special efforts to find qualified members of minority groups, persons who might have been overlooked because of their poor family backgrounds or the bad schools they attended. . . .
Another attractive policy is to help disadvantaged children at early ages rather than using affirmative action when they apply for jobs or colleges. There is still controversy over how much and how durable is the gain from head start programs, although I believe that extra effort spent on these children at very young ages tends to yield a decent return in terms of later achievements. But it has been conclusively shown that efforts to educate and help in other ways when children are in their teens generally fail since by that time the children have fallen too far behind others of their age to be able to catch up. Put more technically, current human capital investments builds on past investments, so if past investments are inadequate, the current investments have low returns.
A situation in which 12 percent of the population is lagging badly behind the rest of the population is not healthy. I don't think affirmative action for blacks does much to promote their integration and sense of belonging in this society, but it probably does a little (notwithstanding Becker's correct point about the negative effect of affirmative action on self-esteem). Without affirmative action, elite educational institutions and other elite institutions (probably including the officer corps of the military) would have virtually no blacks, and this would underscore the gulf in achievement in a dramatic way that would be potentially harmful to social peace.