Affirmative Action, Part I: Overview

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One of the topics I've been teaching for the past year or so is affirmative action. I reviewed a lot more material on it during the spring semester in a short period of time than any previous time teaching it, and I've had the opportunity to teach on it this summer after having done all that. As a result, I think I've got a good presentation now of the various considerations offered for and against it, and I think I've figured out that a balanced presentation should conclude with a choice between two options. Either the arguments for affirmative action are strong enough that the negatives get outweighed, or the negatives are so serious that the reasons for affirmative action aren't good enough. It really does seem to me that those are the only two reasonable positions. Some think affirmative action is always wrong by its very nature. Others think that our history and current circumstances don't just make it a good idea but make it essential to racial justice. Those two absolute positions don't seem to me to hold water, even though at times in the past I've held both of them (not at the same time, of course).

In the case of hiring, choosing people for positions of influence, etc., I can see some forms of affirmative action as worthwhile and even sometimes necessary. This can't involve lowering standards a lot, since the people selected must be qualified, but it can involve lowering them enough to find qualified people of underrepresented races if having them there is worthwhile enough. If you see race as a qualification, this argument is easier to make, but I think that's harder to do than someone people make it sound. I also think it's easier to do than some people would like. So I'll end up taking an unusually complicated view on hiring and qualifications, which in the end will probably offend conservatives and liberals alike. When it comes to college and university admissions, however, I think the negatives are so bad that I think the Universtity of California system did the right thing to cancel race-based affirmative action in favor of income-based policies. It will take some great effort to explain why I think both these things, so you'll have to bear with me as I work through a number of different issues. In this post, I want to deal with a couple more preliminary issues and then list the arguments for and against affirmative action that I'll analyze fully in forthcoming posts.

I want to say right off the bat that affirmative action is not about minority groups in society in general. Some people mistakenly describe it as being about minorities. For one thing, white people are becoming a minority. I'm not sure if the numbers have dropped below 50% yet, but if it hasn't happened it will soon. Whites are still a plurality and will be for a while, though I expect Latinos to overtake whites during my lifetime, just as Arabs in Europe are going to overtake whites in the next century if trends continue.

Also, affirmative action policies in many workplaces favor women, who are actually a majority (at least if you count girls as women or if you don't count children, since clearly women aren't a minority of people if men, boys, and girls don't count as women). Also, Asians tend not to be included in affirmative action in some academic settings due to their being overrepresented and not underrepresented. This is true in California, especially at the higher levels, and I supects it's true at most elite schools in the northeast. Some schools have a harder time attracting Asian students and may go out of their way to take every Asian student they can, but it may or may not involve the lowering of standards. I don't want to say that there's never affirmative action in favor of Asians, but it's much less common. Therefore, I think a better term for the group that's intended to benefit from these policies is 'underrepresented'. I've already used it above, but now I've explained why.

I will focus more on the case of race for this discussion, since that's what this unit of my class focused on, but many of these arguments will be relevant to other kinds of affirmative action. Affirmative action for women in hiring involves many of the issues race in hiring will involve. There's almost never any gender/sex-based affirmative action in college admissions except in historically male institutions that are now co-ed, though I don't think very many of them still show a gender imbalance. Military academies are a notable exception. Some institutions have affirmative action on the basis of sexual orientation, which involves so many additional issues to what come up with race and lacks a number of issues relevant for race. Also, whether certain of the issues are in common or different is controversial and will depend on other matters I'd rather not deal with here. Age probably won't come up. Class will, because I happen to think class-based affirmative action could feasibly replace race-based affirmative action in admissions with just about all the good effects and few of the bad.

So enough of the preliminaries. On to the arguments. I can see six general arguments in favor of affirmative action (update: as I go, I'll link to the posts on each argument):

1. It provides a remedy to discrimination. (post #2)
2. It creates role models for underrepresented minorities. (post #3)
3. It provides compensation or reparation to underrepresented minority groups who have been harmed in the past (and perhaps still in the present) by injustices that favor the well-represented groups. (post #5)
[3a. Sidebar on reparations (post #7)]
4. It leads to more equal opportunity for the disadvantaged. (post #6)
5. It gives approval, support, etc. to those who are too often not given it. (post #9)
6. If race counts as a qualification, then affirmative action is merely treating qualifications as what they are. Not using affirmative action would then be ignoring real qualifications. (post #10)

I see six general arguments against affirmative action:

7. Affirmative action is reverse discrimination. People should earn special treatment, and affirmative action isn't earned.
8. It marks underrepresented groups as not being good enough to meet full standards and thus carries a social stigma, thus undermining argument 2.
9. It discourages the best from these underrepresented groups and thus harms rather than helps, thus undermining arguments 2, 3, and 4.
10. It demeans rather than affirms the groups it's intended to help, thus undermining argument 5.
11. The benefit of racial affirmative action tends to go to those who need it less, thus undermining argument 4.
12. Affirmative action helps the symptoms but fails to address the real problem, which would better be accomplished if affirmative action were removed. In other words, removing affirmative action results in what affirmative action is supposed to achieve.

I think some of these arguments are better than others, and some of them apply only to certain contexts. I'll take them one at a time as I progress through this series. If you're aware of any others that I didn't list here and can't be subsumed under one of these, let me know, and I'd be happy to discuss those as well.

Update: I interrupted the series in post #4 with a discussion of affirmative action in relation to racial profiling and how they may stand or fall together unless someone can come up with a good argument of separating the two. I haven't thought of one at this point. This came in between the role model argument and the reparations argument, though it thematically would have been more appropriate between the six pro arguments and the six con arguments. I wrote about it when it occurred to me, and since it didn't really fit into my structure I treated it as an interlude.

Update 2: Another detour showed up in post #8 about law schools, which looks at Rick Sander's excellent series on affirmative action in law schools at The Volokh Conspiracy.


Hey Jeremy, I am doing a formal debate in school and I wanted to ask you if you would mind if i used your information and if you could tell me any qualifications that you have. I didn't know where would be the best place to ask so i just did it here. It would be appretiated, and your qualifications, primarily school and why your interested and what you have done for Affirmative Action. Thank You

I'm working on my Ph.D. in philosophy at Syracuse University, and I've taught this subject at the college level several times. I don't mind if you use the arguments I'm discussing here. Most of the arguments are out in the literature, though I haven't always seen anyone saying exactly what I say in my evaluations.

What I've done for affirmative action? I'm not sure what you mean. I oppose affirmative action, at least in its current form, so I haven't tried to do anything for it. I don't think it's wrong in principle, but I think on balance it has more harmful than helpful effects. I haven't managed to write posts yet on the arguments against affirmative action, but I thought it should be clear in my evaluations of the arguments I've already discussed what my general attitude to the practice is and why.

I'm interested in the subject because it's an important issue that affects many people, but that interest has heightend since several people in my life have formed negative attitudes toward it after having been recipients of it.

What I've tried to contribute is a philosopher's evaluation of the arguments, because that's my strength.

Hey, Mr. Pierce,
Thanks so much for posting your credentials. I'm in the same boat Matt's in, and having your credentials posted, made things a LOT easier!

i was just wondering if i also could use a little of your information in a speech about the wrongs of affirmative action

That's fine with me. In a formal paper, it ought to be cited, but if it's for a speech in a speech class or something I'm not sure what the requirements are.

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