Lesson 10: Is Affirmative Action Fair?
(Sandel, Chapter 7)

Racial CollaborationRawls acknowledges after we establish a fair situation, it immediately is lost as factors such as birth, education, talent, skill, and situation come into play. The question becomes whether we simply accept this or seek some compensation for the weak. For example, are affirmative action programs a form of justice? Is promoting equality by giving preferential treatment to the disadvantaged fair?

The problem is evident when we describe these as reverse discrimination. Can discrimination ever be fair? Opponents obviously do not think so. In fact, they believe such programs simply make matters worse by perpetuating more inequality. They treat some people as means to society’s ends.

They also deny that people who did not commit a crime should have to pay for it. It is not fair for people living now to pay for what Colonist did to Native Americans or for what slave owners did to African Americans. The best we can do is change attitudes and provide opportunities by teaching proper values.

Proponents believe there is more corporate responsibility involved. Members of a society have a right to expect fair treatment, and a society is liable when it does not meet these legitimate expectations. Affirmative action programs might not be perfect, but they do try to correct injustices. Some advocates, however, acknowledge the temporary nature of these programs, as situations and values constantly change. Victims change, sometimes becoming oppressors. For instance, in the past some colleges used quotas, a form of affirmative action, to keep Jewish applicants out.

Sandel claims it boils down to our definition of the good society. These programs are valiant historical attempts to advance diversity, an aim our society deems worthy. They try to make sure no one suffers from prejudice or contempt.

Some opponents of affirmation action are accused of fearing it will end their way of life, their concept of the common good. They seem to think others “want to take away my stuff?” Advocates need to address this worry by coming up with appropriate criteria for deciding whom should be included. How do we decide who to help? Should we include ethnic groups, women, the handicapped, gays and lesbians? How about bisexuals and transgendered? How about economic classes? It gets harder to want fairness for those further away from you. Although we all practice some form of affirmative action in our families as we give special attention to our weakest children, we have trouble extending this to groups for which we feel no affection.

I believe the bottom line in justice is always an attempt to control power. The radical separation of rich and poor in American society is a symptom of injustice that needs to be corrected. However, I am not sure what kind of affirmative action might help. Do you have any suggestions?

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6 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    You can look at Affirmative Action in a theoretical way. Does it comport with our idea of a just society?

    You can also look at it in an emprical way. What have been the results of this policy? I believe it is easier to discriminate against people who belong to an abstract group rather than people you know on a day to day basis. After more homosexauls “came out of the closet”, people will highly negative attitudes toward homsexuality had to deal with fact that X and Y are homosexuals who they in fact like very much. Similarly after Blacks were pulled into new places in the work force through Affirmative Action, racist Whites had to deal with the fact that they liked their fellow workers who were Black.

    Younger people evidence much less discriminatory attitudes towards Blacks than older Americans. Affirmative Action surely played a role in this change.

    I think Affirmative Action has had positive effects in American Society. Are such effects worth the price, as some say, of violating basic principles of fairness? Was there another, less disruptive way, to obtain these same results? At what point do you say “enough”; Affirmative Action has served a good purpose but we don’t want it as a permanent feature of our social landscape?

    The basic principles of a society always are implemented in a political context that is not theoretically pure. Is a little deviation from this purity ever acceptable or must be always be on guard to to adhere 100% to these principles in all that we do?

  2. Rita Yeasted says:

    Perhaps because I’m a woman, affirmative action means more to me than it might to some males. For a long time, certain positions were simply not thought of for women–and still aren’t. Think of the Supreme Court (or my Church!). I think it struck me as important because I am teaching my spring class on African American literature and music. On Monday we talked about the era of civil rights, and I showed a few YouTube clips of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine. Watching what those young black students went through to go to Little Rock High School in 1957 brought back memories for me–but was lost on my freshmen. This is such ancient and unknown history to them that I always teach it with videos because I want them to SEE it and not just hear or read about it. It was our lifetime–but not theirs.

    History has stratified society for centuries, maybe forever, and it’s hard not to think that somehow the glass or whatever ceilings need to be cracked–but when that is done, the man, the white person, or whoever was in line for the “place” will feel “Why me? It isn’t MY fault that women or minorities did not have the same opportunities that I did.” But that’s not completely true, is it?

    In a perfect world, we would all be “equal” in rights and in fact–but who of us would choose to be born a person of color or disabled in this society? While it’s true that there are currently more women than men in colleges and even graduate school, can we now (as some writers insist) see white males as the “un-privileged” or the new discriminated class? Those cases are now on court dockets.

    I remember when I took a position right out of business school at Alcoa Research as a clerk/typist. It did not occur to me that they didn’t historically hire Catholics, but I learned shortly after being hired that I was one of very few at the lab who was Roman Catholic–and some were proud of the fact that they had broken the Protestant monopoly on jobs there. That was one of my first understandings of what it was to be different. (Unless you count seeing how boys were more valued than girls when my brother was born after three daughters–and my father was thrilled that now his name could be carried on….)

    Maybe it takes trauma sometimes to change social norms. What is a “given” can often be open or hidden discrimination. We do not always treat students or even family members “equally,” do we? My mother, God bless her, always wanted to spend exactly the same amount on every grandchild–and Christmas shopping for her was a nightmare. But the grandkids came to expect that gifts would be “equal”–even if some of the young people were in far more need of a more expensive gift. Was that “fair”? Yes. The most equitable policy? Probably not.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      You could do with the Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered community what Rita and Bob did with Civil Rights. It is not hard to see why those under 30 are so overwhelmingly for same sex marriage when you realize where they fit into the outline of that community’s story Alana Yu-Lan Price reported in “The Transformative Promise of Queer Politics”, in Tikkum, a liberal Jewish magazine.
      1.”Give us a hearing” (1950s-1960s) when GLBTs began to confront their fear and society’s oppressive laws culminating in the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
      2. “Here we are” (1970s through late 1980s) where their community organized and developed programs emphasizing “coming out of the closet”.
      3. “Aids activism” (1980s to early 1990) developed as in outrage and frustration at how society understood the crisis and began confrontation.
      4. “Let us in” (starting in 1990s) where they began to appeal for inclusion into mainstream society now in family, school, work, military, and marriage.
      5. In 2010 Alana suggested the present period might be categorized as “We want this now”. But she also observed the GLBT community has begun ask how their story relates to that of other marginalized groups and suggests the question has become “What makes up a just world?”

  3. Anne Crawford says:

    It seems to me that the problem with any program that attempts to even things out or adjust the balance to achieve ‘equality’ in whatever area (jobs, salary, education, etc.) is that those on the ‘favored’ side (prior to the attempted adjustment) tend to see the action as taking something away from them (that they are accustomed to/consider their ‘right’). We are all for being ‘fair’ as long as being ‘fair’ doesn’t involve us having to give up or sacrifice anything. Or, at it’s best, at least not sacrificing any more or less than anyone else. Jesus really WAS radical with his message of servanthood and sacrifice – and he wants us to do that not so that we can boast that we feel good about it, but because we want to please God. I fall so short when I measure myself by that criteria.

  4. Myron Hoffmann says:

    Affirmative action has been an effort to address social and economic inequality by mandating certain advantages for minorities who are judged to have been denied equal opportunities or otherwise treated unfairly. This effort would certainly seem to be consistent with Christian values and ethics. But, this action inevitably creates a sense of injustice among the rest of the population. In Texas, a white girl sued a school district because she was denied admission to a university even though she had a better GPA than some black students who were admitted. Her argument was that she was denied what was rightfully hers because of affirmative action,

    Recipients of the apparent benefits of affirmative action are not all equally enthusiastic. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was enrolled in Yale law school through an affirmative action program. He argues that he was thereby labeled as less qualified than others, and that he could have gained admission in any case without the gratuitous help of the program.

    Inequality is increasing almost everywhere in the postindustrial capitalist world, and the United States is no exception. Inequality appears to be an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity seems to increase it, because some individuals and communities are better able to exploit the opportunities that capitalism provides. Recognizing that inequality and insecurity are inevitable by-products of the market, our country needs to find ways to shield citizens from their most dire consequences. Affirmative action is a legitimate part of that effort.

    A host of variables affect success in society and the economy, such as an emotionally and culturally nurturing family, family income, books in the household, ethnic background, and hereditary endowments such as differences in innate intellectual ability. In order to maintain a just society, programs that help diminish insecurity and help maintain equality need to be maintained and revitalized. There will always be justification for affirmative action among these “safety net” programs, but it needs to be managed diligently and adjusted to circumstances, recognizing as well that it must ever evolve and that there is no end in sight.

  5. Lupe Andrade says:

    I asked Lupe’s permission to post the excerpt from her granddaughter’s essay, because I found it an important different perspectve. Fritz

    As for racism, I think you might enjoy this excerpt from my 19-year-old granddaughter’s essay for a class at Colby (in Maine). Kassie is one quarter German (she holds a German passport), one quarter Croat, one quarter Spanish (recent, not Colonial), one eighth French and a sprinkling of other roots including Aymara. This is the first time she had to think about herself in terms of race. Love, Lupe

    The first time I had to think about my race I ended up completely puzzled and confused. Before I came to college, I never had to think about my race. I always considered myself Bolivian, but apparently that is not a race. I almost do not have Bolivian blood, I am from South America yet not Latina, and I have Hispanic blood but not enough to be Hispanic; my family has roots in four different countries in Europe but I am not European because I was born in Bolivia. People talk about race all the time and they do not realize that by asking people to make race part of their identity and classifying them racially, they are being racist.

    Today, people make tremendous efforts to eliminate racism because we are all equal. At the same time, however, people are categorized into races and are asked to identify themselves with a race. Filling forms such as school or job applications, or passport or government applications is a way of classifying people into racial categories. One of the first things that are asked in forms, right after name, sex, and birth date, is race. The problem with race though, is that there is no clear definition of it, nobody really knows what race entails. Some say that race has to do with the color of your skin, other say it has to do with heritage, country of origin or even culture. Race is socially constructed and it is reinforced as children grow up. In other words, children learn to identify themselves with a race, and they learn to make distinctions. It is clear that there has to be more to race than just skin color, but unfortunately the definition of race is vague and can be interpreted in many different ways. As a result, this confusion or lack-of-agreement on what race entails makes the fight against racism much harder.

    A great example of how ambiguous race is and how people are classified into races can be seen in the form Ethnicity and Race Identification from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Guide to Personnel Data Standards. In this form people have to answer two questions. The first one says: Are You Hispanic or Latino? (A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race) (Ethnicity and Race Identification). The second question asks people to select a racial category or categories that people identify with. The racial categories are: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. When I look at a form like this two questions come to my mind: why are Hispanic and Latino not in the racial categories and placed as a separate question? And why is race identification so important?

    Kassandra Biggemann Krsul

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