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April 30, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Atonement or Overcompensation?

Figuring out affirmative action.

In the US, renowned actor Morgan Freeman wants to do away with Black History Month. There is no White History Month, he claims, because white history is seen as ‘everybody’s history’. The only way to get rid of racism, says Freeman, is to stop talking about it. But there are those who disagree. In countries whose honour has been stained with racism, affirmative action is pushed as the best step forward. Salient takes a look at what both sides had to say:

The case for:

Racism is an asshole. A giant, ugly, systemically ruthless asshole that causes unfathomable suffering and inexcusable injustice. This we know. What we’re less clear on is how to deal with the after- effects of generations of inequality. Of which there are many, by the way. Poverty, criminality, low rates of education, precarious job prospects, lifetimes of stigma—these are what the descendants of injustice have to look forward to, even today.

On that basis, affirmative action was instated. Affirmative action is the implementation of policy to rectify past discriminatory actions that prohibited ethnic minorities from equal access. So let’s be realistic. Ethnic minorities are as capable and intelligent as anyone else. Yet, they’re continually underrepresented in positions of power, are most often found in the lowest-skilled jobs and are predominantly relegated to the lower classes. Why? Because centuries of mistreatment can’t be erased in a couple of decades. Even the policies’ most ardent critics can’t deny that racism’s effects have created institutional imbalances that leave many of the abused’s descendants at a disadvantage. Many deserving, hardworking people are born into situations of scarcity because of racism’s impact and aren’t even afforded the same opportunities as their non-minority counterparts. Affirmative action is about evening the playing field and compensating those who lacked the opportunities that everyone else had due to their ethnic background. It’s predicated on the notion that all ought be born with an equal chance at life.

But what does affirmative action have to offer those who don’t directly benefit from its policies? Apparently plenty. A major study by the University of Michigan has shown that interactions with minorities are beneficial for the social and personal growth of non-minorities. Over 9000 students across 200 American universities were studied for four years, and the results were unanimously positive. The white students with the most multicultural interaction were shown to have better thinking processes and were more adept at applying their intellectual and academic skills in jobs and their personal lives.

They also showed higher confidence in themselves and their abilities, while demonstrating superior academic skills and stronger drives to succeed than their non-mingling white counterparts. Additionally, they were shown to be more tolerant and more willing to participate in community, volunteer and charity work. The psychologist in charge of the study, Dr. Patricia Gurin, pointed out that these students were better able to understand multiple perspectives and the complex conflicts they sometimes create. Not only were the students more committed to achieving the common good, but they were essentially better able to participate in modern society because of their exposure to minority groups—exposure which was partly due to the effects of affirmative action and its educational policies.

The case against:

One of the strongest arguments against affirmative action is that it in fact promotes the very thing it was created to abolish: preferential treatment because of the colour of one’s skin. Ignoring the truth that many non-minorities live below the poverty line, it technically allows for policies that would favour a rich Latino person over a poor Caucasian one. In effect, it can, and does, prioritise ethnicity over factors like merit and hard work.

It also sets the bar a little lower. Things like universities are hard to get in to for a reason; they can be competitive and places in programs like law and medicine are limited. Why should a minority student be allowed in with a B+ average when the entry-level grade is an A? It can not only perpetuate the stereotype that minorities are inherently less able, but takes away an incentive for trying their best, while again giving them an edge for nothing more than where their grandparents were born.

For the minority students who do make it in to cut-throat programs, keeping their heads above water can be a challenge. If the admission of a minority student depends on affirmative action-related standards (meaning that in other circumstances, they wouldn’t be there) their abilities might just

not be up to scratch. Is it fair to try to push students into roles that they’re unequipped to handle for the sake of ethnic balance? This is the question that the US Supreme Court will be asking themselves when they reconsider Texas University’s affirmative action case, in which it’s been accused of excluding higher-achieving White students to accommodate lower-achieving Black ones.

This brings us to the opinions of minority groups themselves. We have to wonder if it’s fair for governments to assume that modern-day minorities are victims by association. Some would argue that affirmative action is a polite way of saying that minorities have been so badly ruined, they need preferential treatment. But countless members of minority groups don’t want special attention. They champion perseverance and dedication, and are offended at the thought that their hard-won achievements are the result of government handouts. Affirmative action might have become an ironically condescending (even insulting) way of reminding society about the importance of race—and its potential for abuse.

One of the loudest voices on this point comes from Thomas Sowell, a leading economist and social theorist who (full disclosure) happens to be African American. He argues that affirmative action comes down to facts and pragmatism, not the ideals of justice and fairness that claim to support it. A longstanding naysayer, he denounces the perceived benefits of AA, claiming that it  gives credit for the hard work of the Black community to Liberal politicians and civil rights leaders. Additionally, he notes that in each country where AA exists, the results are normally the same. The poorer members of the target group are rarely in positions to apply for university scholarships and quota-filling jobs, leaving the wealthier members to take advantage of the system.

What about Aotearoa?

NZ’s main provisions for AA come under section 19 of our NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990, entitled ‘freedom from discrimination’. It gives assistance to those who have experienced unlawful discrimination because of their gender, race, colour, religious or ethical beliefs (set out in section 21 of the Act) but raises points about what ‘discrimination’ actually constitutes. A clause in section 181 of the Education Act 1989 has significance for VUW because it allows for our University Council to undertake affirmative action policies that are specific to our context, while also taking into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. As to the opinions of Maori, like Sowell, Victoria University law professor Mamari Stephens urged caution, saying that “many Maori reject affirmative action rhetoric in favour of developments based on notions of rangatiratanga instead”. She cited the examples of the Whānau Ora programme, and other influential health initiatives like the establishment of Maori PHOs, which are based on the Maori Health Strategy that incorporates rangatiratanga as a driving value.

Most of the arguments against affirmative action seem to err on the side of practicalities, seemingly unable to find moral fault with the idea that injustice should be atoned for. Affirmative action is by no means perfect and leaves perhaps too much room for manipulation. Yet, like other welfare policies, the answer isn’t to scrap it completely. To really address social injustice, the state needs to be open to the input of minorities themselves, while also making sure that ever-present injustices (like poverty) don’t claim a new generation of victims.

The author would like to thank Mamari Stephens for her legal input. 

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