North Coast Journal


Affirmative action - a time for change?

by Caleb Rosado

THE DEBATE OVER affirmative action, like all hotly contested issues such as muliticulturalism, bilingual education and immigration, often ends up disseminating more heat than light. This is largely due to the polar perspectives people tend to take in a desire to undermine the other personÕs position.

The result is often a failure to see that the truth may lie somewhere in between. There is thus need for illumination on the subject for an understanding beneficial to both sides.

Affirmative action emerged in the 1960s as a result of efforts by the civil rights movement to get America to honor its original contract, that "all [people] are created equal." In addition the pledge of allegiance promises "liberty and justice for all."

This idealism is a promise of equal opportunity for all, regardless of color, national origin, race, religion and sex, which up to this point in history had not been honored for people of color. While first addressed to the needs of African Americans, later the needs of American Indians, Asians and Latinos were added. For this and other "unalienable rights," the members of the civil rights movement marched and died, and finally obtained the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

However, such action by itself, prohibiting discrimination did not necessarily make up for past inequities. So what if people now had equal access, the advantage would still go to those who had benefited longest and most from past discrimination. I may have equal access to get in the same boxing ring with Mike Tyson, but that's no guarantee of an equal opportunity of winning. The odds are stacked in favor of failure.

Therefore, in order to correct for such inequities, especially in housing, education and employment, steps were taken to ensure that those groups that historically had been excluded or given limited access to societal rewards were now given an opportunity to catch up. Thus, affirmative action refers to social policies encouraging favorable treatment of socially disadvantaged groups, especially in employment, education and housing, without regard to race, color, religion, sex or national origin, in order to reverse historical trends of discrimination and to create equality of opportunity.

Keep in mind that affirmative action is essentially a "race/gender solution" to a "race/gender problem," with white women as the greatest beneficiaries. But there is no such thing, since the solution to a "race problem" is not more "race" but a restructuring of society. This is because genuine justice is not based on fairness!

In fact, a preoccupation with justice as fairness lies at the root of most problems in our society and in the world today, whether between individuals, groups or nations. At the heart of "justice as fairness" lies equal treatment, which wrongly assumes everyone is the same.

But socio-historical circumstances preclude equality. This is why in some track and field events the starting blocks are staggered, so that everyone will have an equal opportunity. Affirmative action, then, is simply measures Ñ short of restructuring society Ñ which seek to make for a level playing field. Why? Because as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals."

There are many people in America today who, because of socio-historical conditions or merely accidents of birth, find themselves on the "inside track" and donÕt always realize that circumstances are stacked in their favor. They think they are playing on a level field. When they see the starting blocks being staggered to give those on the "outside track" an equal chance, they cry out, "unfair," "reverse discrimination," "preferential treatment," not realizing that the playing field of American society is stratified.

Short of totally redesigning the playing field of socioeconomic, political structures, affirmative action becomes essential in righting societal inequities. It is based on the "principle of redress" that undeserved inequalities call for rectification (John Rawls, "A Theory of Justice").

Since inequalities of birth are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. Thus, in order to treat all persons equally and provide genuine equality of opportunity, society most give more attention to those born into or placed in less favorable social positions. This is a particularistic and not a universal action, since it is an attempt to place particular groups in the position that they would have held had there been no barriers in their paths to success (Charles V. Willie).

However, going this route places affirmative action in a catch-22 situation. Created on the idealism that the rights of individuals should be respected without regard to color, national origin, race, religion or sex, it ends up in the dilemma of contradicting this very premise by giving a perceived "advantage" to under-represented groups.

(Keep in mind that since the playing field of American society is not even, what affirmative action is doing is not really an "advantage" but an effort to make for a more equitable field.) How then does one solve this supposed "dilemma" at the heart of the current debate? The solution is found in the essence of justice. Genuine justice is based on need, not fairness. And since peopleÕs needs differ due to differing socio-historical circumstances, true justice does not spring from what people deserve, but from what they need. It is not fair play but fair share.

The solution to the affirmative action debate or debacle is to base the program, not on group conditions, but on individual need. Just because one is black, female or of Mexican heritage does not automatically mean that one is at a disadvantage. Many an African American person or Asian or Latino is doing quite well in this country, and should not be judged as disadvantaged and automatically deserving of affirmative action programs, simply because of color, race, national origin or gender.

There are many whites in this country who are worse off than most. But just because they are white are they to be deemed unworthy or undeserving of special treatment? If the measure for equity is need rather than race or gender, the apparent problem is resolved.

Affirmative action then becomes a program to help the socially disadvantaged Ñ of any hue Ñ based on individual need and not on arbitrary group factors of race, national origin or sex. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, when "he spoke out sharply for all the poor in all their hues, for he knew if color made them different, misery and oppression made them the same." (Martin Luther King, Jr., "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?)

Affirmative action, or more correctly "compensatory action," will then come in line with the idealism of our Constitution, benefiting individuals and not merely groups.

Obviously those who have been most socially disadvantaged because of their race, ethnicity or gender, will also be the individuals with the greatest need. In situations where there is a need for greater color and gender balance due to the dominance of one group, color and gender may continue to be factors in correcting for such inequities.

Such a plan can be easily implemented by using as a measure the vast social science data already available that show peopleÕs socioeconomic status in society: income, occupation, schooling opportunity, quality of life and influences in the neighborhood, equality of education received per student expenditures, and family life, whether from a single-parent or a dual-parent home. All these factors are good indicators of socioeconomic need.

Yes, the time has come to change affirmative action. Not get rid of it, however, but to strip it of all political barnacles weighing it down, and streamline it back to its original purpose Ñ to safeguard an equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of socio-historical, biological or cultural circumstances, whether accidental or deliberate. Affirmative action then will be seen as an "on-ramp" program to bring people up to social speed, so that they not get run over in the socioeconomic, political highway of life, but may enter it safely in their societal journey.

Caleb Rosado is professor of sociology at Humboldt State University.