The Questionable Utility of Affirmative Action


Paul F. de Lespinasse

Ever since the Nixon administration, Americans have debated affirmative action.

I once asked two students if they were in favor of it. One said she did, the other said she didn’t. But after I asked them “clarifying questions”, it turned out that they actually agreed with each other.

The affirmative action student thought it meant what it originally meant: a call for affirmative action to employ people without discrimination for or against anyone because of their race.

Affirmative action in its original sense urged employers to publicize their openness to hiring people of all races and to encourage members of minorities to apply. Affirmative action meant recruiting a more diverse group of applicants and giving them all a fair chance at employment. This did not mean that employers should discriminate in favor of hiring minority people,

Paul de Lespinasse

This policy encouraged members of minorities to knock on doors that had not previously opened when they knocked. This was in the context of a new federal law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which its proponents said prohibited racial discrimination in one way or another.

The 1964 law would make little difference if minorities were unaware of specific opportunities or, based on previous unfortunate experiences, were reluctant to apply.

The other student, who opposed affirmative action, thought it was “reverse discrimination”, which has more recently become his official interpretation despite valiant official denials. But she was strongly in favor of affirmative action in its primary sense.

The students therefore both opposed affirmative action in its later sense and supported it in its earlier sense.

As this case illustrates, the words used to talk about social policy can mean different things to different people. This is why we need to ask “probing questions” when discussing social issues. This will not always show that we agree. But it avoids quarrels when we disagree and helps us understand what our differences really are, if any.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, urges lawmakers to approve a measure to bring a proposed constitutional amendment to the November ballot to reverse the ban on state affirmative action programs, in Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. By a vote of 30 to 10, the Senate approved the measure allowing voters to decide whether or not to repeal the ban on affirmative action policies within the government and public colleges and universities.  (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Of course, it’s hard to make everyone happy. My friend Judy Ringle once warned me, “You have to learn not to write with such clarity. It annoys people.”

Affirmative action in the ordinary sense—reverse discrimination—produces both good and bad consequences, and it is difficult to know how to weigh them.

Perhaps the strongest argument against affirmative action is that it devalues ​​the successes of minorities. When affirmative action is official policy, a successful minority person may find that the success is dismissed by people who assume it was not based on merit.

If they encounter initial academic or professional difficulties – as many people of all races do – they themselves may wonder if they really belong.

This was less of a problem before the arrival of positive discrimination. About 50 years ago, I worked for several years with Raleigh Morgan Jr., a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan who chaired the Michigan Council For The Humanities and invited me to become a member.

Morgan, an African American, had reached his positions before affirmative action existed – a big plus! No one – including Professor Morgan himself – could have believed that he had failed on his actual merits.

An argument for affirmative action is that reverse discrimination helps people from minorities to enter the informal social networks that benefit so many careers. And this creates situations in which people of different races come into contact with each other at all levels of organizations. Hopefully dealing with peers of different races will help everyone stop stereotyping people based on race.

The extent to which affirmative action actually produces these beneficial outcomes is subject to study and evaluation. Personal contact between people of different races can be helpful, but thanks to “confirmation bias” it might just reinforce stereotypes.

Any social policy involves compromises between contradictory considerations. There remains considerable scope for legitimate disagreement about whether, on the whole, affirmative action is a good idea.

— Paul F. deLespinasse is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He can be reached at [email protected]


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