Myth: Affirmative Action is reverse discrimination.
Fact: Affirmative Action is compensatory justice.
Affirmative Action is not meant to help blacks because of the color of their
skin, but because they deserve compensation for past and continuing injustices.
Opponents may criticize the wisdom of how this compensation is meted out, but they
cannot question the principle of compensatory damages, which enjoys a long tradition
in our society.
To many opponents of affirmative action, a color-blind society
should not discriminate at hiring time on the basis of color, sex, etc.
This would make the preferential hiring of blacks just as wrong as preferential
hiring of whites.
Furthermore, opponents claim, the introduction of past injustices does
not change this logic. If blacks were mistreated in the past for a morally
irrelevant characteristic (being black), then to give them preferential
treatment for the same morally irrelevant characteristic is equally indefensible.
There is an error of logic here: the premise is faulty. Preferential
treatment is not being given to blacks because they are black. They are
being given preferential treatment because they have been mistreated. And
society has a long and approved tradition of awarding compensatory damages to victims
To put it another way, blacks came by their current disadvantage for
1. Whites decided that a morally irrelevant feature (having black skin)
was in fact a morally relevant feature.
2. Whites mistreated blacks on that basis.
Affirmative action does not justify preferential treatment based on
the first point; it justifies it on the second. That is, supporters do
not believe that being black is a morally relevant feature which deserves
discriminatory behavior; but they do believe that injustices based on that
mistake should be compensated. Being black is only morally relevant in
that it was used to justify the original sin.
The situation is akin to the Jews who survived the Holocaust. Germany
paid a large sum in compensatory damages to the state of Israel after World
War II, and no one decried this as reverse racial discrimination.
Now, opponents of affirmative action may question whether affirmative action is the
right way to go about correcting past and present injustice.
For example, can we compensate the living for sins committed against their
ancestors? Is it right to compensate groups instead of specifically harmed
individuals? But these are separate issues, ones that should be addressed
elsewhere. (The reader may find them in the
next essay.) The point here is that affirmative action is intended not as
reverse discrimination, but as compensatory damages for injustice.
Those who use the term "reverse descrimination" are actually engaging in
moral absolutism, a completely unworkable concept that has never
been practiced by any society in history. An example may best highlight its
difficulties. Suppose our society passed a law that says,
"No one shall forcefully take a television set from the possession of another."
But the next day your neighbor comes
over to your house with a gun and forcefully takes your television set from you.
Having identified your neighbor, you call the police. The police show up at
his door and demand that he surrender the television; he refuses, whereupon they
pull out their guns and forcefully take it from him.
Now, it would be illogical for your neighbor to claim that the police were immoral
and broke the law, since they forcefully took a television set from his
possession. This is a completely invalid argument, because correcting
injustice is neither immoral nor against the law. Only in a world of moral
absolutism would an act be condemned in and of itself, without considering
its context or its justness. And at any rate, falling back on a defense of moral absolutism
is disingenuous. Your neighbor, having acquired the TV set immorally, would now
evoke moral absolutism to avoid giving it up -- and act morally outraged in
the process. This is nothing more than a weaselly attempt to protect his
self-interest through slippery rhetoric. It is certainly not a morally consistent
Legitimate examples of "reverse discrimination"
The U.S. has often passed laws that "discriminate" purely on the basis of race or
gender, laws which enjoy virtually universal support and approval today. The 13th
Amendment abolished slavery, and the 15th and 19th Amendments gave blacks and women
the right to vote. Do these laws compare to affirmative action? Opponents may
think not, but they actually do, for the following reasons.
When the U.S. was first founded, white males commanded 100 percent of the vote.
And this translated directly into economic advantages for white men, in a number
of ways. First, they could devise laws that gave them economic privilege, like
slavery, or banning women from the workforce. Second, they could vote to spend
100 percent of public funds on themselves. Thus, giving blacks and women the
right to vote meant giving them a much larger slice of the economic pie. Abolishing slavery
had the same effect. The gains to women and blacks were at the proportional
expense of white males.
Now, what is interesting about this surrender of undue privilege is that it
happened on a group basis, not an individual one. Even white men who never
owned slaves or discriminated against women were effected by their loss of
political and economic privilege. Even free blacks and women who had never
suffered discrimination benefited from their increase in political and
economic power. The following example is just one of thousands in this much
In 1993, Congress responded to growing female political pressure by passing
a budget for women’s health research that was twice the size of its 1992
budget. (1) Since neither the economy nor the federal budget doubled that year
(in constant dollars, it takes at least two decades to do this), that
meant that women gained at the expense of some other special interest
group. (It might have been some other women’s group, but the general
trend has been for the share of women’s funding to grow.) And this means that male
interest groups seeking public funding or contracting are being turned
away -- the "victims," if you will, of a policy that bans voting
discrimination against women.
And all this, based on blanket laws of race and gender.
These examples do much to put everything in their proper light. White males
did not lose rights; women and minorities gained them. What white males
actually lost was unfairly gained money, power and privilege.
How does this compare to affirmative action? White males do not lose the
right to be hired for high-paying jobs; qualified women and minorities gain
that right. True, awarding these rights will deprive some white males of
their unfair chance to gain a high-paying job. But they should have never
had such undue privilege in the first place, and taking it from them is
not a violation of their rights. If critics of affirmative action can
point to tangible "victims" who were shut out by the end of job discrimination,
then we can also point to tangible "victims" who are shut out of public
contracting and funding by the end of voting discrimination. If critics
of affirmative action can point to "discrimination" in favor of minorities at
hiring time, we can point to "discrimination" in favor of minorities in
legislation and public funding. And penalizing someone who discriminates
(in the legitimate sense of the word) against minorities by denying them jobs
is no different from penalizing someone who discriminates against
minorities by denying them the vote. The loss of
undue privilege is not the same thing as the loss of rights. Unfortunately,
many critics of affirmative action attempt to frame the debate
Return to Overview
1. Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire, (New York: Ballantine Books,
1993, 1994), p. 26.