This is the 9th part of an ongoing series that I've been letting lie dormant for a few months. The series starts here. The links to all the other parts are in the inaugural post. I've been working through the arguments in favor of affirmative action before turning to the arguments against such policies. In this post, I'm considering the argument that gave the name 'affirmative action' to the policy. According to this argument, affirmative action gives approval, support, etc. to those who are too often not given it, and that provides a moral justification for affirmative action.
In favor of this argument, it does seem to be a legitimate moral motivation. If an action can encourage or show support to people who don't get as much support and encouragement as others might get, then we do have a moral reason to give that affirmation. Helping people out in little ways like this, especially in important spheres of life such as college or hiring, can be very good. This isn't an argument for a moral obligation to use affirmative action, in either hiring or admissions. It is an argument that it's a good thing to do.
If affirmative action does show such approval to the people it's intended to help, then we do have a prima facie motivation for affirmative action. Other things being equal, it's good to show support to people who don't otherwise get that kind of support. The very nature of a prima facie motivation, however, is that other factors might outweigh it or cancel it. Still, if those other factors don't turn out to be strong enough, then this reason will contribute some support to affirmative action policies, which is all the overall argument for affirmative action needs if the cumulative case for affirmative action is stronger than the considerations against it.
The argument relies on the claim that people receiving affirmative action benefits do not get the same kind of support in other ways. The premise of the argument is that it's good to show affirmation to those who don't otherwise get it in that way. What kind of affirmation does affirmative action give, and is that the sort of thing that affirmative action beneficiaries wouldn't get otherwise? The intended effect is that those who have a harder time (for whatever reason) getting into better colleges will be affirmed in their desire to go to a good school and get into somewhere their scores and grades wouldn't allow. In the job situation, someone who wouldn't otherwise get the job does get it. In both cases, the premise does match up to the result in that someone receives a benefit that wouldn't have been given to them otherwise. If that weren't the case, then it wouldn't be called race preferences (or whatever other thing it might be if it's not race). The preference is for someone whose desirability rating gets increased so they will be hired or accepted. This seems to be so almost by definition.
On the other hand, one might argue that those receiving affirmative action might be able to achieve that effect on their own if they didn't have affirmative action lowering standards, thus allowing them not to have to do as well to get into better schools or to get hired. As I've said in a couple of the earlier posts in the series, particularly in the law school study I highlighted here, the numbers do bear this out a little. I'll say more about this in the arguments against affirmative action, but this at least lessens the effect of the argument a little, since it's less clear that many of the people who are benefiting from affirmative action really get a benefit from it that they wouldn't otherwise get.
Does affirmative action show such approval and encouragement? I would say yes and no. There is one sort of approval and encouragement that it brings. Someone might simply feel good about getting into a better school than might otherwise have happened. Someone might enjoy being hired for a good job. Someone might feel wanted if people are going out of their way to get them into their program. After all, isn't this why every black student admitted into the first Berkeley class after affirmative action was removed decided to boycott the place? They didn't feel welcomed there because no one was going out of their way to lower standards for them.
But upon examination, is this a reasonable attitude to take? After all, isn't it more of an achievement to get in on your own merits? Isn't it more affirming to know that you did well and succeeded for that reason? Isn't it even condescending for people to assume you can't do as well as other people and thus need lowered standards to get in? Isn't it insulting to be told that you are there only because people want your race to boost their minority numbers rather than being appreciated for who you are? Many black people I've talked to say exactly this. A black professor I know says he's insulted that he's frequently asked onto committees, because he knows they just want their token black and aren't interested in him for his achievements. How is that affirming?
That's why it's not really that clear at all that this argument counts as a consideration in favor or affirmative action rather than a motivation against it. I'm not sure this argument is really that strong a reason for race preferences, particularly for those that lower standards as much as most schools do. Giving a little boost to someone wouldn't have as much of the negatives as this argument does, so it's much more of a motivation to do it, but the way the policies are right now, I just can't see how accepting a C student when your cutoff is normally B, with SATs at 900 when the normal cutoff is 1000, can really count as genuinely affirming and encouraging. Some students may feel supported by this, and many certainly have at least acted as if they're discouraged by those who won't use race preferences, but the question is whether they should. If something is objectively insulting, should we do it anyway just because the person who has been objectively insulted finds it subjectively encouraging?
Then, of course, there are the other factors. I haven't looked at all the specific negatives yet, but one thing that I've been saying all along is that any positives in affirmative action are just that. Even if what I'm saying here is minimized as much as possible, and if the positives are maximized, this is just a positive effect, which can always be outweighed by negative considerations. I keep saying that because in the end whether these arguments succeed depends entirely on whether the positives outweigh the negatives. That question will continue to haunt us as we continue through the arguments. For now, I don't think this reason contributes even much at all, if it doesn't detract from the overall argument.
Update: Please bear in mind that this post focuses on a very small issue, arguing against a certain argument for affirmative action. This is not an open thread to spout off about your particular beefs with affirmative action. This post is part of a long-term project, as I indicated at the very beginning. If you don't read the whole series before responding and then proceed to deal with larger issues well beyond the scope of this post, you may discover that you've insulted me greatly by saying something I've already given an argument against in another post in the series. Please read what I've said in the other posts first instead of risking saying something here that I've already given a reason why you can't say. If you would like respond to any of my other arguments, please do so in the comments of the relevant post. If you have specific comments on the content of this post, leave your comment here.