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Affirmative Action is Reverse Discrimination

Are affirmative action programs a source of discrimination?

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An important point made by those who criticize affirmative actions programs as unjust is that it constitutes a form of racial discrimination and, as such, is presumably unjust, immoral, and illegal on its face. Indeed, it is commonly argued that people who support affirmative action as a means of rectifying past discrimination are being inconsistent and hypocritical because they are using an evil to make up for an evil.

The label "reverse discrimination" is somewhat unfortunate because the term "discrimination" has come to carry such negative connotations that when we see it, we are prejudiced against it immediately. On the other hand, the "reverse" could imply the goal of seeking to reverse the effects of past and present discrimination. Regardless of whether it is prejudicial or appropriate, the label has become so common that it cannot be avoided.

The problem here cannot be simply the issue of discrimination because those who attack affirmative action as an example of unjust reverse discrimination do not appear to be opposed to any form of discrimination per se. Presumably, some forms of discrimination can be just and reasonable (such as discriminating against a potential firefighter because he's physically incapable of doing the job) while other forms are unjust and unreasonable (such as discriminating against a potential firefighter because he's left-handed). This forces us to ask: why is this form of discrimination rejected?

To answer that, we must look back at why the past discrimination against racial minorities was so wrong. The reasons why it was unjust and immoral are relatively straightforward: it was motivated by a contempt for the target race and a desire to withhold from members the full benefits of citizenship. It was a process of exclusion which was generally treated as desirable in and of itself rather than as a means to some other end. Finally, it had the effect of creating and maintaining social, political, and economic networks which concentrated power and authority into the hands of a few while relegating minorities to subordinate positions from which they could not escape.

It is worth noting that none of these reasons include the idea that the discrimination must be based upon the characteristic of race - the above would be wrong no matter what the justification or basis. To better understand why this is so, consider the historical example of slavery in America. Certainly it was racially based because blacks and not whites were slaves - but slavery was not wrong because of that.

At most, the racial factor emphasizes the capricious character of the institution, but ultimately slavery was wrong because of what it did to human beings generally. If some other basis had been used to differentiate slaves from non-slaves, it would still be wrong - and the same would be true of the institutionalized discrimination and segregation which dominated American society for so long.

With this, we have a better basis for evaluating whether affirmative action qualifies as "reverse discrimination." Is it motivated by a contempt for some target race? Perhaps such contempt for whites exists for some involved in affirmative action, but it really cannot be claimed as a motivation for such programs. When someone is denied a job or school admission because of affirmative action, is this exclusion seen as desirable in and of itself? No, at worst it is regarded as an unfortunate means for achieving a socially desirable end in which minorities are able to better contribute to society despite past racism and discrimination.

Finally, does affirmative action have the effect of concentrating power in the hands of a few while keeping whites in subordinate status? Certainly not - the general social and economic position of whites is in no danger from affirmative action. In the end, the reasons why the racially discriminatory policies of the past were wrong do not appear to apply to affirmative action programs today.

This is perhaps a distinction which is too subtle for some people; there seems to be an inclination among at least a few to simplify things so that important contextual differences are ignored in order to make reaching decisions easier. However, the mere fact that lines between valid and invalid forms of discrimination are difficult to draw is not a justification for refusing to try.

Because of this, there does not seem to be any reason why someone cannot condemn past discrimination and embrace affirmative action, nor does there seem to be any reason to assert affirmative action is just "reverse discrimination" and immoral or unjust on its face. This doesn't mean that affirmative action generally or that any program in particular is not immoral or unjust; rather, it simply means that the argument in question fails to provide us with a reason to think so.

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