Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Ethics of Affirmative Action

The Center for Applied Ethics cosponsored a symposium entitled "The Ethics of Affirmative Action" on April 21, 1992, featuring Richard Wasserstrom, Ph.D., and Shelby Steele, Ph.D. Steele, a scholar known nationally for his articulate opposition to affirmative action, argued against the legitimacy of preferential treatment programs. Wasserstrom has earned a national reputation as an ethicist in suppport of preferential treatment programs. The event was funded by a Santa Clara University Irvine Foundation Grant. Excerpts from the presentation are printed below.

"If one asks what was distinctively unjust about the system of social segregation that was animated by the doctrine of seperate but equal. . .the answer is. . .that this system's ideology of black inferiority. . .was and is incompatible with the rightful claims of all persons. . .to fundamentally equal membership and standing within the society of which they were and are a part.

". . .It's misleading and inaccurate to claim. . .that [preferential treatment programs] care only or exclusively about race or that they embrace quotas which either license or require the selection of persons who are unqualified. They do none of this and they never have. Rather, race is instead simply one of the things that they do care about.
". . .These programs justifiably do care about the race of applicants because such programs can and do play a constructive role in helping to dismantle the stubbornly entrenched system of unjust, black, racial disadvantage that is all too shamefully still operative in the United States today."
--Richard Wasserstrom

". . .'So now when we [whites] come to the top where the real power is decided, we can't play the affirmative action game any more. We need people who can do the job now! And you, you got here on affirmative action!'. . .Well, blacks are very reasonable when they say, 'What's the difference between that and racism?'
". . .[Affirmative action] is cheap. It's inexpensive. Just play with the numbers a little bit. [But] to make good school systems in the inner city costs money! . . .So we have a system perfectly designed to keep the people who were always oppressed still oppressed, still backwards. After 25 years of affirmative action, black Americans have declined on almost every socioeconomic measure. What we need is development! But no, you wait until we're 18 years old, badly educated, and then throw preference at us so we can go to college for about six months before we drop out. . .and think you've. . .done something. Where were you in kindergarten? In pre-school? Affirmative action is a fraud."
--Shelby Steele

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