Twenty-five Years of Controversy
By Claire Andre, Manuel Velasquez, and Tim Mazur
White House Counsel C. Borden Gray created a furor last November
when, on the eve of the President's signing a major civil rights
bill designed to "fight the evils of discrimination," he circulated
a directive to end the use of racial preferences and quotas
in federal government hiring. The following month Education
Secretary Lamar Alexander drew heavy criticism from civil rights
advocates when he proposed regulations to limit the use of race-based
Time has not quelled controversy over policies of preferential
treatment. First instituted in the 1960s and 1970s by employers
and educational institutions in response to pressures from civil
rights groups, federal legislation, and court rulings, preferential
treatment programs seek to rectify the effects of past and ongoing
discrimination against women and racial minorities. These programs
are designed as temporary measures to increase the employment
and educational opportunities available to qualified women and
minorities by giving them preference in hiring, promotion, and
admission. Toward this goal, some firms and institutions aggressively
recruit minorities and women, others set numerical targets and
timetables to raise the level of minority and female representation,
and still others establish quotas to hire or admit a specified
number of minority and female candidates.
These programs have brought or accompanied significant gains
for women and minorities. In the past 25 years, black participation
in the work force has increased 50 percent and the percentage
of blacks holding managerial positions has jumped fivefold.
In 1970, women comprised only 5 percent of lawyers compared
to 20 percent today. Twenty-five years ago, the student population
at University of California, Berkeley, was 80 percent white
compared to 45 percent today.
Despite these strides, severe inequities remain. Nearly 97
percent of corporate senior executives in the United States
are white. Only 5 percent of all professionals are black though
blacks comprise 12.7 percent of the work force. Hispanics hold
only 4 percent of white-collar jobs but make up 7.5 percent
of the work force.
As civil rights groups press for more aggressive and comprehensive
preferential treatment programs to eliminate such inequities,
opposition to these programs mounts. According to one poll,
a majority of whites and one-third of blacks oppose preferential
treatment for minorities. Opponents have long charged that the
programs discriminate against white males. Recent critics, including
several noted black scholars, argue that preferential treatment
programs victimize and stigmatize minorities, increasing friction
among groups. But defenders of the programs hail them as the
most expedient and fairest way to overcome racial and sexist
barriers in our society. Are preferential treatment programs
Arguments Against Preferential Treatment
Opponents of preferential treatment programs argue that when
distributing social benefits such as jobs or educational opportunities,
recipients should be treated as equals unless there are morally
relevant reasons for treating them different. In deciding who
should be hired for a job or admitted to a college or university,
the relevant criteria are an individual's qualifications and
skills, not race or sex. To award or deny benefits on the basis
of race or sex is as unjust as traditional discriminatory practices.
Moreover, preferential treatment programs unjustly ignore the
claim of need, denying benefits to disadvantaged white males
while lavishing benefits on minorities who aren't in need of
Those who oppose preferential treatment programs also claim
that if the purpose of the programs is to compensate for past
discrimination or present disadvantages, then only persons who
have been discriminated against should be given preference.
Current preferential treatment programs, however, favor members
of selected groups regardless of whether an individual member
has ever suffered discrimination. In fact, most of the victims
of past discrimination are no longer living, so the issue of
just compensation is moot.
Critics of preferential policies further argue that society's
burdens ought to be distributed fairly among its members. Preferential
treatment programs are unfair because they impose the burden
of compensation on white males who seek jobs or higher education.
These individuals are no more responsible for past injustices
or for rectifying present inequalities than any other individuals.
It is unfair that they should bear the full burden of compensation.
Programs awarding preference according to race or sex are
also opposed on the grounds that they cause much more harm than
good. First, with these programs in force, those who may be
more qualified are overlooked while others only minimally qualified
are chosen. The inevitable result is reduced productivity and
efficiency in the work place and the lowering of academic standards
in colleges and universities.
Second, preferential treatment programs harm minorities and
women by stigmatizing them and devaluing their achievements.
They encourage the belief that all minorities and women gain
entry to jobs or universities primarily because they are members
of under represented groups and not because they are qualified.
Minority individuals may question whether the rules were bent
in their case, leading to feelings of inferiority, self-doubt,
Third, preferential treatment programs encourage dependency
and reward people for identifying themselves as victims providing
them no incentives to become self-reliant or to develop the
skills necessary to succeed in the work place or classroom.
Fourth, as white males are denied positions going to less-qualified
minorities and women, they will become increasingly resentful,
heightening animosity and tension among groups. Finally, preferential
treatment will spur claims from all groups who feel they have
been victims of injustice. And members of groups excluded by
preferential treatment programs today will demand tomorrow to
be compensated for opportunities denied them. Already the nation
is witnessing a barrage of allegations and lawsuits filed by
non-minorities charging employers and universities with reverse
discrimination due to quotas and other formulas used for hiring,
promotion, and admission.
While the harms resulting from preferential treatment are
considerable, critics charge, the benefits are questionable.
Giving preference to women and minorities fails to benefit the
individuals within these groups who are most likely to have
suffered the effects of discrimination and thus most deserving
of compensation; the most disadvantaged individuals often lack,
the qualifications and skills even to be considered for employment
positions or college placement. This is borne out in reports
that cite a growing gap between poor blacks with little education
and job skills and affluent blacks able to take advantage of
a wide variety of employment and educational opportunities.
Nor is it clear that even those minorities and women qualifying
for preferential treatment benefit from such special consideration.
Recent studies reveal a high dropout rate among minority college
students admitted under affirmative action programs. At U. C.
Berkeley, for example, only 45 percent of black students admitted
in 1984 had graduated by 1989 compared to 73 percent of Anglos.
The high rate of failure that follows the award of employment
and educational opportunities to minority individuals unprepared
to meet the challenges of higher education reinforces feelings
of inferiority among members of these groups.
In Defense of Preferential Treatment
Preferential treatment programs are often defended on the grounds
of distributive justice, which requires that society's benefits
and burdens be distributed equitably among its members. As a
result of past discrimination, women and minorities have been
denied their fair share of opportunities. Entrenched and subtle
discriminatory policies and practices continue to permeate businesses
and educational institutions, ranging from prejudice in job
classification and minority systems to biases in college entrance
exams. A recent study of 94 Fortune 1000 companies revealed
that only 2.6 percent of the surveyed firms' executives were
minorities and only 6.6 percent were women. In 1988, the wages
of women working in full-time jobs were 72 percent those of
men. That same year the unemployment rate for blacks was 11.7
percent compared to 4.7 percent for whites. Preferential treatment
programs seek to reduce these disparities as justice requires.
Those who support preferential policies also appeal to the
principle of compensatory justice, which states that people
who have been treated unjustly ought to be compensated. Throughout
history, race and sex have been used to deny individuals equal
treatment in employment and education. And while many of today's
minorities and women may not have been themselves the victims
of discrimination, they have been victimized by its effects.
As descendants of those who were denied jobs or relegated to
low-paying positions, they have grown up deprived of the resources,
opportunities, and education necessary to develop the skills
and confidence needed to compete on equal terms with white males.
Preferential treatment programs compensate for past harms and
present disadvantages by giving qualified members of these groups
preference in hiring or college admissions.
Supporters of preferential treatment policies counter the
charge that preferential treatment is as unjust as past discrimination.
Past practices, fueled by ignorance, contempt, and hatred, systematically
relegated minorities and women to inferior positions in society,
while concentrating power and wealth in the hands of white males.
Preferential treatment programs, in contrast, are not motivated
by contempt for non-minorities and aim to achieve equal opportunity
and provide a more equitable distribution of social and economic
In response to the objection that preferential policies impose
unfair burdens on today's white males, who are not responsible
for injustices committed in the past, supporters of preferential
treatment programs argue that while today's white males may
not themselves have been perpetrators of discrimination, they
have benefitted most from its effects. Racial and sexist policies
have given white males an unfair advantage in competing for
jobs and college slots. Preferential treatment programs help
neutralize this unfair advantage.
Finally, advocates believe that the benefits of preferential
treatment programs far outweigh their costs. First, preferential
policies redirect jobs and educational opportunities to those
who are most in need of them, leading to a reduction in poverty
and its associated social costs. Second, increasing the number
of women and minorities in the professions and in institutions
of higher education dispels the stereotypes that they are incompetent
or lack potential - stereotypes that perpetuate sexism and racism.
Third, the presence of women and Minorities in previously inaccessible
positions provides mentors and role models for members of these
groups. Fourth, preferential treatment is likely to produce
a greater supply of professionals more responsive to the needs
of minorities and women. And fifth, society benefits from the
diverse perspectives and experiences that minorities and women
bring to the work place and to colleges and universities.
In comparison to the benefits, the programs' costs are minimal.
Contrary to critics' claims, society is unlikely to suffer a
loss of productivity or efficiency as a result of giving qualified
minorities and women preference over qualified non-minorities.
In cases in which candidates are equally qualified, productivity
will not be affected and in cases in which qualifications do
differ, the differences are unlikely to be significant enough
to affect productivity. A further charge that preferential programs
"stigmatize" minorities is hardly an argument against their
use; any stigmatizing that might concur is no worse than that
resulting from the absence of minorities in positions of influence
Few people question the need to eliminate racial and sexist
barriers that exclude minorities' and women from full participation
in society. Preferential treatment programs may be one means
toward this goal. But these programs also raise ethical issues
that direct us to consider their potential benefits and harms,
the justice of compensating groups for past harms and present
disadvantages, and the fairest way to distribute the burdens