Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Affirmative Action:
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 scholarships.

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 morally justified?

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 them.

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, and incompetence.

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 benefits.

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 and power.

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 of compensation.

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