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Affirmative action defense

An Ethical and Practical Defense of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been the subject of increasing debate and tension in American society.

However, the debate over affirmative action has become ensnared in rhetoric that pits equality of

opportunity against the equality of results. The debate has been more emotional than intellectual, and

has generated more tension than shed light on the issue. Participants in the debate have over

examined the ethical and moral issues that affirmative action raises while forgetting to scrutinize the

system that has created the need for them. Too often, affirmative action is looked upon as the

panacea for a nation once ill with, but now cured of, the virulent disease of racial discrimination.

Affirmative action is, and should be seen as, a temporary, partial, and perhaps even flawed remedy

for past and continuing discrimination against historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups in

American society. Working as it should, it affords groups greater equality of opportunity in a social

context marked by substantial inequalities and structural forces that impede a fair assessment of their


In this essay I will expose what I see as the shortcomings of the current ethical attacks on affirmative

action (1), the main one being, that these attacks are devoid of proper historical context and

shrouded in white male hegemony and privilege. Then, I will discuss the moral and ethical issues

raised by continuing to function within a system that systematically disadvantages historically

marginalized groups. With that as a backdrop, I will make a positive case for continuing affirmative

action programs and discuss the practical concerns that continuing such programs may raise.

Perhaps the biggest complaint that one hears about affirmative action policies aimed at helping Black

Americans is that they violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and the Civil Rights laws. The

claim is that these programs distort what is now a level playing field and bestow preferential

treatment on undeserving minorities because of the color of their skin. While this view seems very

logical on the surface, I contend that it lacks any historical support and is aimed more at preserving

existing white (2) privilege than establishing equality of opportunity for all. Any cursory look at the

history of this country should provide a serious critique to the idea of a level playing field. Since the

birth of this nation, Blacks have been an enslaved, oppressed, and exploited people. Until 1954,

when the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board, Blacks were legally pushed to the margin

of society where many were left to dwell in poverty and powerlessness. The Brown decision

removed the legal impediments that had so long kept Blacks in the impoverished peripheral. Despite

this long awaited victory for Black Americans, the historic decision failed to provide adequate means

for the deconstruction of white dominance and privilege. It merely allowed Blacks to enter the arena

of competition. This recognized and established the status quo (white wealth and Black indigence,

white employment and Black unemployment, white opportunity and Black disenfranchisement) as an

acceptable and neutral baseline. Without the deconstruction of white power and privilege how can

we legitimately claim that the playing field is level? Does it not seem more logical, and indeed fairer

and more just, to actively deconstruct white privilege, rather than let it exist through hegemony?

Another critique of affirmative action policies is that they stigmatize and call into question the

credentials of the qualified minorities. And furthermore, that this doubt undermines their

effectiveness. This has always been the most puzzling critique of affirmative action in my mind. The

credentials, qualifications, character, and even the culture of minorities have always been in question

and stigmatized in this country. When racial categories were created, simply being labeled a minority

carried with it quite a slanderous stigma. Even to this day Black Americans combat lingering racism

and stereotypes about their intelligence, tendency toward violence, sexual prowess, etc.... The idea

that affirmative action policies introduce stigmas that did not already exist into the life of minorities

seems nonsensical. To those who claim that this stigma undermines the effectiveness of Blacks

because their coworkers will not be cooperative, or because the minority will always doubt that he

or she deserves to be there, I propose that affirmative action gives minorities the opportunities to

defy the pernicious stereotypes and stigmas cast upon them by others. In fact, I claim that not using

affirmative action will only accomplish the continued exclusion of Black Americans from participation

within American society and thus further ingrain stereotypes and stigmas. Another reason that the

stigma critique of affirmative action confuses me, is because the discussion is always limited to race

and gender based affirmative action policies. Where is the discussion about athletes and legacy

students who are accorded preferential treatment in university admission decisions on a yearly basis?

Did anyone raise stigma issues when Henry Ford II, was appointed CEO of Ford Motor Co.? This

focus on gender and race based policies only reinforces my point that the stigma minorities face has

much more to do with persistent racism than the deleterious effects of affirmative action.

Now I will make what some may consider to be my boldest claim. I believe that continuing with a

system of neutral principles in a society already slanted significantly toward whites is, itself, unethical

and immoral. Let me begin with an anecdotal example similar to the one used by Lyndon B. Johnson

to justify affirmative action programs. Suppose that is a track officials judging two athletes running a

hundred yard dash. Before the official shoots off the starting pistol, one runner kicks the other in the

shin, stomps on his toes, and then runs ahead fifty yards. Now because our official is observant, he

sees this dirty play and immediately halts the race. So, he walks over to the runner, who is fifty yards

ahead and tells him that what he did was unfair and wrong and he is forbidden from doing it again.

Then he goes back to check on the runner at the starting line. The runner is a little bruised up. The

official tells him "Don't worry I saw everything that happened. I told the other runner that what he

did was wrong and that he shouldn't have done it. As I speak the rules are being changed to outlaw

such actions from ever happening again." Then the official strolls back to his position and fires the

starting pistol to begin the race, where the runners left off.

Surely there is something wrong with this scenario. Is it enough to simply chide the offending runner,

change the rule book, and then begin the race with one runner halfway to the finish line? By

advancing one runner ahead, would we be corrupting the idea of the100 yard dash? These questions

yield one answer. No. The race has already been tainted. It is our duty to somehow reconstruct the

situation so that fairness can again pervade the event. At the very least we must allow the injured

runner time to heal and then advance him fifty yards to be even with his competition. We must

actively deconstruct the advantages. If we do not, we violate our own rules of fairness, preserving

the advantages of one runner over the other.

Now that we have established sufficient justification for affirmative action, we must begin healthy

dialogue about the best way to implement the policies. Some argue that affirmative action programs

incite racial tension. I must assume that this tension is created by the bitterness or scorn of whites

who feel that the affirmative action recipients don't deserve to be where they are. It doesn't appear

plausible to me that the minority recipient of affirmative action would be looking to incite or create

racial tension. These people have jobs to do. This racial tension argument is very similar to the

stigma argument against affirmative action and can be dismissed along the same lines. Racial tension

existed long before affirmative action, and to believe that these programs cause them lacks any sense

of history. In fact, affirmative action may very well reduce racial tension, forcing people to interact

together and work as a unit in a professional and intellectual level across racial lines. And even if I

were to accept the idea that affirmative action arouses spite and scorn from whites, then their "right

not to be made angry" (if it is a right at all) is easily trumped by Blacks' right of equal opportunity.

Should affirmative action be classed based? I say no. The wrongs that affirmative action programs

seek to address are of a racial nature and must be addressed accordingly. While a class based

program would certainly benefit Blacks (and other minorities because they are disproportionately

represented in the lower class), it would not adequately deconstruct white racial privilege.

Affirmative action policies based on race actively deconstruct the white stranglehold on power, by

actively placing minorities in positions that have historically been only white.

Should affirmative action programs only focus on the young? Again, I answer no. Why should we

give children's right to equal opportunity precedence over their parents? The adults have lived longer

without the chance at equal opportunity and I believe that their restitution would take precedence if

we had to choose. Affirmative action policies should encompass the eldest and youngest of our


Should affirmative action programs force people to hire unqualified minorities? No. But affirmative

action programs should cause us as a society to re-evaluate how we assess qualifications and how

we measure merit. Let us become tenured Harvard Law School professors for just a moment.

Suppose we have two applicants for an open associate professor position. The first candidate is

white, a Harvard Law School graduate, has impressive board scores, served as editor of the Law

Review, etc.... , but has never practiced law before. The other candidate is Black, a Howard Law

School graduate, average board scores, has excellent person skills, and practiced law as the county

defendant in an inner-city neighborhood. Under the traditional system of merit the white Harvard

graduate gets the appointment hands down. But under affirmative action policies the Black Howard

graduate receives the job. Why is this the optimal situation? The Black lawyer brings non-traditional,

but certainly valid, qualifications to the table that are not recognized under our current system of

merit. In f

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