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 capabilities.

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