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Essay/Term paper: An ethical and practical defense of affirmative action

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History Essays

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An Ethical and Practical Defense of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been the subject of increasing debate and tension in
American society. However, the debate over affirmative action has become
ensnared in rhetoric that pits equality of opportunity against the equality of
results. The debate has been more emotional than intellectual, and has generated
more tension than shed light on the issue. Participants in the debate have over
examined the ethical and moral issues that affirmative action raises while
forgetting to scrutinize the system that has created the need for them. Too
often, affirmative action is looked upon as the panacea for a nation once ill
with, but now cured of, the virulent disease of racial discrimination.
Affirmative action is, and should be seen as, a temporary, partial, and perhaps
even flawed remedy for past and continuing discrimination against historically
marginalized and disenfranchised groups in American society. Working as it
should, it affords groups greater equality of opportunity in a social context
marked by substantial inequalities and structural forces that impede a fair
assessment of their capabilities.

In this essay I will expose what I see as the shortcomings of the current
ethical attacks on affirmative action (1), the main one being, that these
attacks are devoid of proper historical context and shrouded in white male
hegemony and privilege. Then, I will discuss the moral and ethical issues raised
by continuing to function within a system that systematically disadvantages
historically marginalized groups. With that as a backdrop, I will make a
positive case for continuing affirmative action programs and discuss the
practical concerns that continuing such programs may raise. Perhaps the biggest
complaint that one hears about affirmative action policies aimed at helping
Black Americans is that they violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and
the Civil Rights laws. The claim is that these programs distort what is now a
level playing field and bestow preferential treatment on undeserving minorities
because of the color of their skin. While this view seems very logical on the
surface, I contend that it lacks any historical support and is aimed more at
preserving existing white (2) privilege than establishing equality of
opportunity for all. Any cursory look at the history of this country should
provide a serious critique to the idea of a level playing field. Since the birth
of this nation, Blacks have been an enslaved, oppressed, and exploited people.
Until 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board, Blacks were
legally pushed to the margin of society where many were left to dwell in poverty
and powerlessness. The Brown decision removed the legal impediments that had so
long kept Blacks in the impoverished peripheral. Despite this long awaited
victory for Black Americans, the historic decision failed to provide adequate
means for the deconstruction of white dominance and privilege. It merely allowed
Blacks to enter the arena of competition. This recognized and established the
status quo (white wealth and Black indigence, white employment and Black
unemployment, white opportunity and Black disenfranchisement) as an acceptable
and neutral baseline. Without the deconstruction of white power and privilege
how can we legitimately claim that the playing field is level? Does it not seem
more logical, and indeed fairer and more just, to actively deconstruct white
privilege, rather than let it exist through hegemony? Another critique of
affirmative action policies is that they stigmatize and call into question the
credentials of the qualified minorities. And furthermore, that this doubt
undermines their effectiveness. This has always been the most puzzling critique
of affirmative action in my mind. The credentials, qualifications, character,
and even the culture of minorities have always been in question and stigmatized
in this country. When racial categories were created, simply being labeled a
minority carried with it quite a slanderous stigma. Even to this day Black
Americans combat lingering racism and stereotypes about their intelligence,
tendency toward violence, sexual prowess, etc.... The idea that affirmative
action policies introduce stigmas that did not already exist into the life of
minorities seems nonsensical. To those who claim that this stigma undermines the
effectiveness of Blacks because their coworkers will not be cooperative, or
because the minority will always doubt that he or she deserves to be there, I
propose that affirmative action gives minorities the opportunities to defy the
pernicious stereotypes and stigmas cast upon them by others. In fact, I claim
that not using affirmative action will only accomplish the continued exclusion
of Black Americans from participation within American society and thus further
ingrain stereotypes and stigmas. Another reason that the stigma critique of
affirmative action confuses me, is because the discussion is always limited to
race and gender based affirmative action policies. Where is the discussion about
athletes and legacy students who are accorded preferential treatment in
university admission decisions on a yearly basis? Did anyone raise stigma issues
when Henry Ford II, was appointed CEO of Ford Motor Co.? This focus on gender
and race based policies only reinforces my point that the stigma minorities face
has much more to do with persistent racism than the deleterious effects of
affirmative action. Now I will make what some may consider to be my boldest
claim. I believe that continuing with a system of neutral principles in a
society already slanted significantly toward whites is, itself, unethical and
immoral. Let me begin with an anecdotal example similar to the one used by
Lyndon B. Johnson to justify affirmative action programs. Suppose that is a
track officials judging two athletes running a hundred yard dash. Before the
official shoots off the starting pistol, one runner kicks the other in the shin,
stomps on his toes, and then runs ahead fifty yards. Now because our official is
observant, he sees this dirty play and immediately halts the race. So, he walks
over to the runner, who is fifty yards ahead and tells him that what he did was
unfair and wrong and he is forbidden from doing it again. Then he goes back to
check on the runner at the starting line. The runner is a little bruised up. The
official tells him "Don't worry I saw everything that happened. I told the other
runner that what he did was wrong and that he shouldn't have done it. As I speak
the rules are being changed to outlaw such actions from ever happening again."
Then the official strolls back to his position and fires the starting pistol to
begin the race, where the runners left off.

Surely there is something wrong with this scenario. Is it enough to simply chide
the offending runner, change the rule book, and then begin the race with one
runner halfway to the finish line? By advancing one runner ahead, would we be
corrupting the idea of the100 yard dash? These questions yield one answer. No.
The race has already been tainted. It is our duty to somehow reconstruct the
situation so that fairness can again pervade the event. At the very least we
must allow the injured runner time to heal and then advance him fifty yards to
be even with his competition. We must actively deconstruct the advantages. If we
do not, we violate our own rules of fairness, preserving the advantages of one
runner over the other.

Now that we have established sufficient justification for affirmative action, we
must begin healthy dialogue about the best way to implement the policies. Some
argue that affirmative action programs incite racial tension. I must assume that
this tension is created by the bitterness or scorn of whites who feel that the
affirmative action recipients don't deserve to be where they are. It doesn't
appear plausible to me that the minority recipient of affirmative action would
be looking to incite or create racial tension. These people have jobs to do.
This racial tension argument is very similar to the stigma argument against
affirmative action and can be dismissed along the same lines. Racial tension
existed long before affirmative action, and to believe that these programs cause
them lacks any sense of history. In fact, affirmative action may very well
reduce racial tension, forcing people to interact together and work as a unit in
a professional and intellectual level across racial lines. And even if I were to
accept the idea that affirmative action arouses spite and scorn from whites,
then their "right not to be made angry" (if it is a right at all) is easily
trumped by Blacks' right of equal opportunity. Should affirmative action be
classed based? I say no. The wrongs that affirmative action programs seek to
address are of a racial nature and must be addressed accordingly. While a class
based program would certainly benefit Blacks (and other minorities because they
are disproportionately represented in the lower class), it would not adequately
deconstruct white racial privilege. Affirmative action policies based on race
actively deconstruct the white stranglehold on power, by actively placing
minorities in positions that have historically been only white. Should
affirmative action programs only focus on the young? Again, I answer no. Why
should we give children's right to equal opportunity precedence over their
parents? The adults have lived longer without the chance at equal opportunity
and I believe that their restitution would take precedence if we had to choose.
Affirmative action policies should encompass the eldest and youngest of our

Should affirmative action programs force people to hire unqualified minorities?
No. But affirmative action programs should cause us as a society to re-evaluate
how we assess qualifications and how we measure merit. Let us become tenured
Harvard Law School professors for just a moment. Suppose we have two applicants
for an open associate professor position. The first candidate is white, a
Harvard Law School graduate, has impressive board scores, served as editor of
the Law Review, etc.... , but has never practiced law before. The other
candidate is Black, a Howard Law School graduate, average board scores, has
excellent person skills, and practiced law as the county defendant in an inner-
city neighborhood. Under the traditional system of merit the white Harvard
graduate gets the appointment hands down. But under affirmative action policies
the Black Howard graduate receives the job. Why is this the optimal situation?
The Black lawyer brings non-traditional, but certainly valid, qualifications to
the table that are not recognized under our current system of merit.


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