Some believe affirmative action (positive discrimination) is required by equality; others think it is inconsistent with equality. What do you think? Affirmative action or positive discrimination has, over the last thirty years or so, become a very contentious and sensitive issue in many western countries, including the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States in particular.
In the UK, the various stratifications that exist within society on the grounds of religion, sex, sexual orientation, age and race have led to the implementation of anti-discriminatory policies led by the government and adopted or sometimes imposed through legislation on various organizations covering all aspects of society, but particularly in the fields of employment and education. These may be said to help overcome discrimination and promote egalitarianism.
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However, can positive discrimination offer a more direct route to equality or is affirmative action inconsistent with everything that equality stands for? This essay will attempt to outline why some may feel affirmative action may be essential to gain equality; discuss the merits of affirmative action; evaluate its success in increasing equality, and assess whether positive discrimination is ethical and required in delivering egalitarianism in society.
Racial and sexual discrimination is an unfortunate reality within our society. Explanation as to why this may be is far too wide and varied for this paper to look at in depth required. Yet, it may be fair to say that when one racial group or sex is in the majority of positions of power, inequality may arise perpetuated by discrimination.
Discrimination can manifest in several ways, but education and employment are arguably the main areas of contention in terms of having a direct effect on equality. This may be due to the argument that if these areas are not egalitarian, in terms of intake and chances of progression, then a society that accepts all of its population as equal cannot exist but actually increases inequality by members of certain minorities or sex not having the same life chances as others.
The effects of such discrimination can lead to, as Nagel suggests, “loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, motivation and ambition – all of which contribute to competitive success.”1 This can lead to a cycle of perpetuated underachievement by those classes discriminated against by denting ambition and failing to provide role models in highly regarded and desirable positions. Affirmative action is the practice of taking persons’ ethnicity, race or gender into consideration and preferentially hire on that basis to promote equal opportunity at the expense of others equally or more qualified for positions of employment or educational intake.
It is almost always unlawful. However, positive action is lawful and can be described as methods to counteract effects of past discrimination and redress any imbalances in the particular environment. An example of positive action in practice would be for a workplace with many ethnic minorities as employees. Still, no minority supervisors to encourage training for minority workers who seek promotion. Currently, the only positive discrimination permitted within the UK is in the Northern Ireland Police Service, where they must recruit equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants; in political shortlists, where parliamentary candidate lists are made up solely of women; and in the recruitment of disabled employees.
Current figures from the Equalities Review Interim Report2 suggest that at the current rate of progress, the United Kingdom will not: see a fully representative House of Commons until 2080; or close the gender pay-gap until 2085; or close the ethnic pay-gap until 2105 and will probably never close the disability employment gap. It is hardly surprising that affirmative action is now firmly on the political agenda once again with figures such as these. But can positive discrimination help in redressing this imbalance? In 2008, government minister Harriet Harman proposed the Equalities Bill that, if passed, would allow employers in England, Wales and Scotland to openly practice a form of affirmative action in their recruitment practice.
The bill would encourage employers to discriminate in favour of women or ethnic minority job candidates while ordering public and private organizations to disclose levels of pay to both sexes. Although many companies already monitor their employees to keep their workforce diverse, there is still unequal division in desirable positions and the workplace in general. This bill would place diversifying the workforce at the very top of these organizations’ priorities. Although these measures may seem to force employers into recruiting employees from underrepresented classes, it is argued that a diverse workforce can help the organization run more effectively3. It can also be argued that members of such underrepresented classes are less complacent in their roles.
Similar programs have been run in the past, with the police being given government targets to recruit more women and ethnic minorities with limited success. In some instances, their recruitment policies have come under attack for trying to reach these targets. In 2006 Avon and Somerset Constabulary were under investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality for rejecting 186 white applicants because its workforce was “over-represented by white men.”4 While Martin Tiplady, director of human resources at the Metropolitan Police force, last year admitted the service did not have “a hope in hell” of getting to the 25% target the government has stipulated for his force5.
Although the proposed bill would help avoid legal action against positive discrimination practices in the manner outlined above. The question remains: would women and minority groups be able to fill vacancies opened up with this legislation? This argument will be addressed later. In the United States, affirmative action has been used for over thirty years in employment and education contexts. This part of the paper will focus on the latter. The use of positive discrimination in university and college selection processes to correct perceived social injustices has been legally challenged and criticized on a regular basis.
However, attempts at challenging university selection processes under the guise of positive discrimination being unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment have failed.6 More recently, in 20037, it was held that to give under-represented minorities a preference was lawful to “increase diversity.” As Dworkin comprehensively suggests while referring to The State of the River study8, whether affirmative action does work in helping to diminish the impact of race on prospects and life chances of the classes in question can be answered in the affirmative. Indeed it has been argued that race-sensitive selection processes, specifically to highly regarded educational institutions, have helped to create positive community leaders and role models for the minority groups in question.
This, in turn can create greater aspirations for members of the said communities from these exemplars in previously inaccessible positions. However, it may be argued that affirmative action, as a way to combat the present effect of past disadvantage, does so by creating more disadvantages to other groups. Again, as stated by Dworkin, a race-sensitive selection process may not just damage the admission prospects of the majority white population but also damage the prospects of other minorities such as Asian Americans. Conversely, from a practical approach, as Nagel suggests: if there is a need for black doctors for black communities health requirements to be met, an expansion of intake to medical schools without race-sensitive considerations would lead to extra costs and a total number of doctors (black and white) that is surplus to societies requirements10.
Therefore, this can be a strong argument favouring positive discrimination redressing any societal imbalances such as these. Some of the criticisms that can be said of affirmative action include the arguments that the recipients of the benefits of this policy may feel patronized, inferior and insulted, that they have not got there on their own merits. Indeed, others may suggest that the reason positive discrimination is implemented is that the recipients are of an inferior standard to other applicants. However, It can be argued that in order for the doors to be opened, so that in order for race-sensitive selection processes to become defunct, some may have to face these criticisms to remove the barriers.
Many of the people who will suffer the disadvantage that positive discrimination creates will resent the beneficiaries of such policies and this resentment can then be used to push for a right-wing agenda, which in turn can create more racial and sexual discrimination in the long term. As spoken of earlier, in some cases many positions that have been opened up for women or minority applications may prove to be at a skill level that is inappropriate for the applicant. This in turn could result in inefficient appointments to roles, just to fulfil the requirement or quota.
This could then cause economic consequences through inefficiency in the general economy and vast numbers of skilled, but unemployed people. This argument can be attributed to the poor training or education that many of these classes have received. Of course, this may not be as true for positions of higher standing that attract a higher standard of the applicant, but this can nevertheless illustrate the other factors that contribute to policies such as affirmative action having to be implemented: that of lack of support, training and education readily available for minority groups and disadvantaged members of the population.
In conclusion, it may be argued that the real barrier to ethnic minorities joining the ranks of the police, other public sector fields and the highly thought of professions of employment are a lack of education and poverty. Poverty tends to breed anger, while a lack of education breeds resentment. Affirmative action, by its very nature, offers only a short-term fix to a long-term problem that needs to be addressed by society. Educational needs are not always being met to the same standard in communities where some of the beneficiaries of affirmative action are based. Not to mention the white majority “underclass” population that affirmative action can actually impede, in regards to finding employment and educational or training opportunities.
These are also the people that will feel the most resentment towards such policies as positive discrimination, which will cause further stratification in the communities of the society in question. A better course of action, perhaps best suited to educational intake to top institutions, would be for an economic diversity program that gave preference to the financially disadvantaged. However, this may still result in minority disparity to the majority underprivileged. In order for a society to call itself a meritocracy, people must be given an equal opportunity to achieve on their own merits and affirmative action can only prove a short-term solution that is in essence, inconsistent with equality.
- BIX, B. 2003. Jurisprudence: Theory and Context. London: Sweet and Maxwell
- DWORKIN, R. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
- EZORSKY, G. 1996. Racism & Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action. New York: Cornell University Press
- JAIN, H. C. SLOANE, P. J. and HORWITZ, F. M. 2003. Employment Equity and Affirmative Action. New York: M. E. Sharpe Inc
- KHALFANI, A. K. 2006. The Hidden Debate: The Truth Revealed about the Battle over Affirmative Action in South Africa and the United States. New York: Routledge
- Gratz v. Bollinger (June 23, 2003)
- Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978)
- SOLOMON, C. M. 1995. Affirmative Action: What you need to know. Personnel Journal. August 1995
Journal Articles (electronic)
- DWORKIN, R. 1970. Taking Rights Seriously. A Special Supplement [online] 15, 11 [Accessed 9th March 2009] Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.warwick.ac.uk>
- NAGEL, T. 1973. Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination. Philosophy & Public Affairs [online]. 2. [Accessed 9th March 2009] pp. 348-363. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.jstor.org>
- THOMPSON, J. J. 1973. Preferential Hiring. Philosophy & Public Affairs [online]. 2. [Accessed 9th March 2009] pp. 364-384. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.jstor.org>
- BOOTH, J. 2008. The government says firms should favour women and minorities. The Times [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article4217376.ece>
- IRVINE, C. 2008. Trevor Phillips calls for positive discrimination to help young whites. The Telegraph [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3270989/Trevor-Phillips-calls-for-positive-discrimination-to-help-young-whites.html
- JONES, A. 2008. Harman defends positive discrimination plans. The Independent [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/harman-defends-positive-discrimination-plans-854475.html
- UNKNOWN. 2008. Harman pushes a discrimination plan. BBC News [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7474801.stm>
- MILLAR, M. 2006. Is there a case for positive discrimination? Personnel Today [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2006/01/17/33430/is-there-a-case-for-positive-discrimination.html
- MOON, G. 2008? Positive Discrimination: Positively Right or Positively Mistaken? [online]. [Accessed 12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.edf.org.uk/news/Gay%20Moon.Positive%20Discrimination.ppt>
- NAGEL, T. 1973. Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination. Philosophy & Public Affairs [online]. 2. [Accessed 9th March 2009] pp. 348-363. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.jstor.org> at 350.
- As quoted by: MOON, G. 2008? Positive Discrimination: Positively Right or Positively Mistaken? [online]. [12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.edf.org.uk/news/Gay%20Moon.Positive%20Discrimination.ppt>
- Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute. As quoted by: BOOTH, J. 2008. The government says firms should favour women and minorities. The Times [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article4217376.ece>
- MILLAR, M. 2006. Is there a case for positive discrimination? Personnel Today [online] [Accessed12th April 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2006/01/17/33430/is-there-a-case-for-positive-discrimination.html.
- Above n 4.
- Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978)
- Gratz v. Bollinger (June 23, 2003)
- DWORKIN, R. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, chapter 11, in general.
- DWORKIN, R. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. At 389.
- NAGEL, T. 1973. Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination. Philosophy & Public Affairs [online]. 2. [Accessed 9th March 2009] pp. 348-363. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.jstor.org> At 361.