Affirmative action is any policy directed at compensating someone in return for discrimination that person suffered. It is applied at the group level, and most often in this country, to the variable of race. Elizabeth Anderson defines affirmative action in her book The Imperative of Integration in saying, By affirmative action,’ I refer to any policy that aims to increase the participation of a disadvantaged social group in mainstream institutions, either through outreach’ (targeting the group for publicity and invitations to participate) or preference’ (using group membership as criteria for selecting participants) (Anderson 135). This definition encapsulates the policy well. This policy has been a topic of contentious debate before and since its adoption. Critics argue that racial preferential treatment is a racist and therefore the policy is morally hypocritical and invalid. In this essay I will outline a possible argument between an advocate of affirmative action and someone who opposes the policy. I will start with multiple arguments from the opposition then follow them with rebuttals from the supporting side. I will conclude siding with the policy of affirmative action. Affirmative action is a morally permissible policy based on the following argument: racial segregation inherently causes, and is the main cause, for racial stigmatization and bias. Racial stigmatization and bias lead to disadvantages based in race, which is unjust and unequal. Society’s job is to strive for justice and equality (at least of opportunity), therefore we morally can implement a policy that reduces racial segregation in attempt to have a more just and equal society.
Someone in opposition of affirmative action may make an argument against the policy on the grounds that they should not be held accountable for the crimes of their ancestors. The argument may unfold like this; a member of the privileged group could suffer from the policy without participating in any act of discrimination, this person could be morally pure and still be negatively affected due to something his or her ancestors may have participated in or not. The punishment of an individual for a crime that he or she did not commit is morally wrong; therefore, affirmative action is a morally wrong policy. This argument is valid; if the premises are accepted, the conclusion follows. Why should someone pay for fallout of the sins their ancestors committed over a century ago? Also, the policy may not solve problems proportionate to the discrimination endured. A descendant of members of the privileged race who never participated in racial discrimination may be negatively affected and the ancestors never contributed to the problem. Conversely, a member of the discriminated race who has directly contributed to negative racial interactions may benefit from the policy. Continuing with the thread of proportionality, should members of the discriminated race who suffered more discrimination receive more compensation? Blacks hailing from the south proportionately suffered more than blacks in the north due to policies of segregation, like Jim Crow laws, and widespread racist sentiment. If the basis for affirmative action is compensation, then how can we correctly assess the distribution of compensation if it should be done proportionally to suffering by discrimination? Offering compensation by the sole factor of race does not seem to solve the problem. These questions become murkier and murkier and the apparent impossibility of correctly distributing compensation turns people away from affirmative action.
An advocate of affirmative action would respond to this attack on the policy by rejecting the model of discrimination which the opposition uses in their argument. The argument against affirmative action above is based in the compensatory model of discrimination. This model states that the privileged group has wronged the discriminated race and must therefore repay the discriminated group back for the group-perpetrated wrongdoings. I would with the opposition and say that this model is insufficient for the morally permissible implementation of affirmative action policies. We have to reevaluate how we think about integration and use a different model to explain its purpose. There are several models to explain the need for the policy. The first distinction that needs to be made from the compensatory model criticized above is that this model aims to solve past injustices. Any model which seeks to justify affirmative action based on righting past wrong will be insufficient. The wrong suffered by blacks due to discrimination are incalculable and the fair proportions of compensation to be paid to those decimated against is unattainable. Best case scenario in a compensatory model, we should be either be paying all members of a discriminated group equally or guessing on how to proportionally distribute reparations. For this and other reasons a compensatory model is unsatisfactory and we must investigate models which seek to justify affirmative action based on bettering the present and future.
Anderson outlines the three most popular models of affirmative action which explain the policy by means of the present and future. They are as follows: the diversity model, the discrimination-blocking model, and the integration model. The diversity model justifies affirmative action in arguing that the institution or company selecting a member of a disadvantaged group over a member of the privileged group does so in order to obtain diversity of thought that comes from having members of different races interact (Anderson 141). I do not accept this model because it assumes that culture and diversity of thought is necessarily connected to race. A white person may have much more diversity of thought that the black person who is accepted over him or her at a given position or university. The model seems somewhat inadvertently racist itself in its racial assumptions. Another model Anderson outlines is the discrimination-blocking model. This model states that the implementation of affirmative action should be done in a way that blocks the admissions office or hiring process from accessing any information about race and attempting to offer the same opportunities for applicants of all groups (Anderson 144). This is an insufficient model because it does not explain how the policy will actually do something to stop segregation and its consequences. It is like bailing a ship with a hole in it. The goal will never be completed until the source problem is addressed. This is where Anderson introduces the best model, the integration model. This model states that we should adopt the policy of affirmative action on the grounds that integration would reduce racial discrimination and stigmatization and therefore reduce the ongoing racial advantages and disadvantages (Anderson 148). Implicit racism is responsible for much of the opportunity hording and other problems which lead to disadvantages based in race. If institutions implement a policy which resulted in members of different races interacting when they otherwise would not, these biases and stigmas will break down; and, as more people loose these ill-founded biases and stigmatizations, the process will continue. Where segregation leads to a vicious circle of more race based disadvantages, integration leads to a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect resulting in a continuous decrease in the disparity of opportunity between racial groups.
If the integration model is adopted, then the original criticism to affirmative action can be dispelled by stating that viewing affirmative action as punishing one race to the benefit of another is not how the policy should be observed. The policy does not correct the sins of the past; they are long beyond correction. Instead, affirmative action aims to improve society’s future, striving for a nation in which racial disparity becomes less of a factor in someone’s ability to succeed. As for the why should I be held accountable for the sins of my ancestors argument, I would respond stating: why should someone be disadvantaged due to the discrimination his or her ancestors suffered? Both the innocent black and white did not contribute to the situation they find themselves in today, but one enjoys privileges the other cannot. Also, this argument can be completely avoided with the integration model. The members of the privileged race are not answering for crimes of the past, they are solving the problems of the present.
The anti-affirmative action advocate may respond to this justification to affirmative action with an argument akin to the following. When a group benefits at the expense of another group due to a factor out of either group’s control, the losing party will likely develop animosity towards the benefiting party grounded in the factor out of each groups control. For example, if a professor picked out all the red haired students in a class and said, all ginger students will receive a five-point addition to their final grade. This would likely aggravate students of other hair colors and give rise to some kind of ginger bitterness. In affirmative action, this factor is not hair color, but race. This means the animosity or bitterness would be grounded in race which would lead to increased racial tension and conflict which would render affirmative action counter-productive in the pursuit of amicable race relations and reducing the racial opportunity gap. Other policy options should be explored to solve the problem of race-based disadvantages. Also, the integration model assumes that segregation is the main cause of racial disadvantages, but there could still be sources of disadvantages stemming from other causes.
To respond to this criticism a proponent of affirmative action may use the argument of benefit at another’s expense against the anti-affirmative action position. The roles of losing and gaining parties can be reversed to account for the racial inequality of opportunity observable presently. Just as white people would be the losing party in an affirmative action scenario, the underprivileged races are already in the losing scenario, so the policy should be implemented for the same reason the original argument was made. As for the point that integration may not solve the problems that the integration model assumes it would solve, action is better than inaction. Integration may not solve the unfair racial situation we have in America, this skeptical point could be conceded by the pro-affirmative action side, but there still has to be some action implemented in the battle for racial equality of opportunity. Attempting to integrate businesses and universities may not solve all the racial problem America experiences, but it has to be a start, and the studies concerning integrated businesses and universities suggest that integration will be the most significant step we can take, so why not take it? Integration may not solve all the problems it alleges it can, but it has to be a step in the right direction.
There are good arguments against the policy of affirmative action. It appears it is a form of reverse discrimination, but upon further consideration and adoption of the integrative model, it seems hard to say that the implementation of the policy would result in increased disparity of opportunity due to race. An integrated society is inherently a more equal one. The goal of a democratic society is to have all groups opinions proportionally heard and this is not possible if institutions are segregated, either explicitly or implicitly. Affirmative action will reduce the unspoken racial biases and stigmatizations and will therefore lead to a society with less race based discrimination. Perhaps the strongest argument against affirmative action is that it assumes the general populous will agree with the given model of approach (the integration model) and that segregation is the leading cause of race-based disadvantages. These points are could be conceded, but even if they were it should not weaken the argument for affirmative action. Change in the system cannot occur from inaction and skeptical arguments cannot be justification for inaction when all evidence suggests otherwise. Affirmative action should be implemented because as citizens of a democratic state, we should strive for justice and equality and this is not possible while segregation exists.
Anderson E (2013) The Imperative of Integration. Princeton University Press, Princeton
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