justice, minority rights, politics, racism, religion, sexism

Affirmative Action… time to move to the next stage?

I realise I could be opening a casn of worms here, and laying myself open to a certain amount of cyber-abuse, but so be it. This article by Neil MacDonald has brought to mind a discussion I had not too long ago  with Kevin, the progenitor of this blog. 

The following quote:  ‘More than 30 years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote a line that became the battle standard for affirmative action. “In order to treat some persons equally,” he said, “we must treat them differently.”It was an elegant, even poetic way of expressing an uncomfortable truth: that, sooner or later, promoting or admitting someone on the basis of race is going to involve shoving aside or passing over someone else for the same reason.’ describes what, I think, is the  endpoint to Affirmative Action if you blindly follow it to it’s logical conclusion.

Before I go too much further, I want to emphasize that I do NOT have a problem with equal rights for everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or any other quality used as a basis of bias by some parts of society.  The movement(s) that brought about Affirmative Action were necessary, and have done society-at-large a great good; by starting to erase boundaries that were neither justified, nor conducive to good and civilized society.

Two things bother me most about Affirmative action:  The first is that it seems to come down to filling a quota. While it increases the numbers of minority of people in the workforce, and therefore exposure to equally qualified individuals of all races and creeds…  It really stops short of actually changing the attitudes that made Affirmative Action necessary in the first place. Those who were likely to dismiss qualified individuals from positions on the basis of irrelevent racial or gender-based criteria, now simply have changed their tune to “You’re just here to fill a quota.”  The second is that ultimately, some people are being hired/ promoted over equally qualified people based on race, gender or creed, the very thing that Affirmative Action is supposed to combat. This seems to me to be somewhat oxymoronic, circular and self-replicating. It can never be a permanent solution – because it’s implementation ultimately produces new categories of under-represented and discriminated against people.

During the converstaion with Kevin, he argued, quite eloquently, that the current legislation(s) surrounding affirmative action does more than enough to provide avenues for individuals to compete on merit, and not on the basis of any other criteria. But does it really? If one person can be moved ahead by ticking the visible minority box, how  is that equal? Is opting? demanding? to be treated specially, and/or given special consideration not voluntary segregation (albeit priviledged segregation)?

 The example Kevin used was the hiring practices and workplace policies of the federal government of Canada. I couldn’t argue against that case, effectively, because they do sound reasonable, and it appears, ostensibly as if anyone can challenge them if they feel they’ve been dealt unfairly. Ok, perhaps he’s right in that specific case. Given ponderous governmental bureaucracy, I’m really not sure how effectively the issue is managed one way or the other. But, how about the private sector? Charges of discrimination are infinitely more difficult to prove there, as any number of trumped up deficiencies may be invented to cover why some was discriminated against, passed over for promotion, or unfairly dismissed.

I have to admit, that when pressed, I could come up with no better a solution than MORE legislation. I suggested legal culpability be spread from the organization to the offending individual personally, and also to the person responsible for supervising that individual personally, and so on up the ‘chain of command’. And I DO mean personally culpable, not professionally; as in the individuals themselves can be charged directly, as well as the organization as a whole. I’m not sure this would work either, as it punishes the problem of personal bias, but doesn’t do anything to alter it.

Bigots top my list of people who should be given a swift boot to the head, just to see if anything rattles around inside. Ideally, I’d like to see hiring procedures that are absolutely anonymous, and discrimination go by the wayside. Individual merit should not include/ or exclude anyone on the basis of gender, race or creed.

However, humans, by nature, seem to be overly ‘clanny’. Almost xenophobic in their attitudes towards those outside ‘the group’, those that are different.  Will there ever be a time when we don’t look at those we deem to be ‘others’ differently? When ones qualifications, social skill and work ethics are the only criteria for hiring/ promotion? I’ve heard it suggested many times that it is largely a generational thing, that once the bigotted dinosaurs have died out and/ or retired from positions of authority, things will be better. Then we will be able to relegate Affirmative Action to the legislative backroom, no longer needed. But I worry that this will never be the case, as intolerance can be taught as easily as tolerance, perhaps even easier.

So what do we do to completely erase bigotry?  I confess I really don’t know.



7 thoughts on “Affirmative Action… time to move to the next stage?

  1. Nice, “fuzzy” post there, Graven – could it be you are finally getting the hang of really deep thought?:)

    I agree with you – the problem is not to find individuals who are qualified, the problem is to cultivate the ethos of cultural and corporate benefit that comes from a diverse workforce. Similar to Kev’s very apt example, the Provincial Government prides itself on moving toward an employee population that closely mirrors the makeup of the people it serves. Something about the ‘service’ part of the Civil and Public Service makes many of us more open to diversity. It pains me that people I admire for their intelligence, experience and skill are accused of so much incompetence by a bitter public.


  2. Without sharing in it, I understand your difficulty with affirmative action, however I can’t envision a better system. Yes, affirmative action is arguable a temporary measure, but I don’t think it’s unnecessary yet and I don’t have any idea what would replace it.

    It’s a similar argument to Ayn Rand’s – affirmative action changes the way “the game” is played and we shouldn’t tip the playing field; everyone gets what they deserve and earn. However, like Rand’s argument, it assumes that everyone is born with equal resources, which is patently not the case. If and when it becomes true, have at ‘er and get rid of affirmative action. Until then, I think it’s necessary.

    Course you already know how I feel about it. 🙂

    Here’s something I found the other day and it obliquely identifies the need for regulation such as affirmative action:


  3. Kev,

    I don’t think Affirmative Action is quite unnecessary quite yet. It was very necessary in the past and probably still is, to some extent. I just think that given the ponderously slow rate at which societal mindsets, and so governmental legislators, act; its time to start thinking of the next step. Just sitting on the status quo, or status quota (as it were), is dangerously complacent, and will eventually just create another disadvantaged group – namely the formerly advantaged group, that will need to be compensated for under representation. And the wheel goes round and round….

    I have no idea where you are getting the Ayn Rand reference from. Never read any of her stuff, don’t plan to. You’re arguing a different argument.

    However, Affirmative action most definitely changes the way the ‘game’ is played. That’s the point of it. I’ve never argued here, or in our previous conversation, that everyone gets as they deserve, or have earned, and we shouldn’t ‘meddle’ with the ‘game’. I’d already conceded the point that meddling was/ is required, and so I don’t think I am assuming anything about equal start points. By the time you get to the point of ‘equally qualified’ the unequal start point sort of becomes a separate issue. Once two people are equally qualified, the length and difficulty of the path to get there seems moot.

    And… I also admitted I have no idea how to replace it….


  4. As a corrolary: I certainly would not replace affirmative action until we have something better to put in its place. But, we need to start thinking of what that next thing may be. As I alluded to in the initial post, I am not sure how far education inititiatives will get us, given that intolerance seems to be easier for humans, and is also taught, nearly as consistently as tolerance is. Maybe its just a matter of keeping at it until it finallly sinks in.


  5. Good video, but I don’t think it argues against me. For the following reason: I think we need to erase the preference based on visible differences (egg color in the video) and I don’t think Affirmative Action can take us there, because it is based on choices made according to visible differences. Hence the need to take it further.

    I don’t think I’ve made it clear that I’m arguing for an assault on the underlying biases that make Affirmative Action necessary, not so much on Affirmative Action itself. No, I don’t know how tho get there… I’m not a socialogist, psychologist, anthropologist or any sort of bastardization of the three.

    Maybe I’m dreaming in techicolor, and the human animal is inherently biased towards what they see as ‘different’ in some way. I’m just not satisfied with a system of quotas.


  6. “I’m not a socialogist, psychologist, anthropologist or any sort of bastardization of the three.”
    Yes, but we like you just the same, my boy.

    My understanding of affirmative action in a social context is that it exists partially to provide advantages to particular groups that have been traditionally disadvantaged due to any number of factors: economic, educational, physical disability or gender-based, etc. (which are all related to a greater or lesser degree to traditional fears, prejudices and bigoted attitudes). The other part, more implicit perhaps, but in my opinion reflective of the climate under which it was introduced, is a type of symbolic redress for past injustice. Over time, I would assert that the secondary, implicit function has been left behind for the most part.

    As long as the attitudes that lead to a systemic expression of injustice prevail, generally in the form of subtle institutionalized racism or sexism, the concept of affirmative action will be a necessary corollary to the society’s perception of itself as equitable. Once we have successfully weeded out the origins and reinforcements of institutionalized racism and sexism, and made any possible hiring decision an equal and rational one not based on artificial social constructs, then the practice of affirmative action may begin to fade due to lack of utility.

    People create and perpetuate their own culture, rather than it being imposed on them as was previously the belief. Once the culture of work in general and of human resources in particular becomes a level playing field, through the development of norms which make the expression of negative stereotypes and artificial distinctions based on external characteristics unacceptable, then the theoretical end point of affirmative action will have been achieved. It may be that the differential development of particular attitudes makes such an event more likely in some cultures than in others, but I’m not putting money on anyone in particular.


  7. I’m admittedly less familiar with the historic transfer of wealth here in Canada than in the states, but I think many of the same issues apply, and especially so with regard to gender.

    Something on the order (no one actually knows, exactly) of half the wealth in the US is inherited, transfered from one generation to the next. When you consider that the vast majority of that wealth was built on systems of inequity— slavery, Jim Crow, etc.—and that access to capital is still the best indicator to future earnings and wealth, you’ve got to concede that the distribution of wealth and income is still primarily reflective of discrimination.

    There can be a number of ways to address these inequities: reparations (I think it can be done, in something like a fair way, as there are still millions of living blacks who lived through Jim Crow), affirmative action, making education universal and free, providing low or no interest loans for business start-ups, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s