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 of mistreatment.

To put it another way, blacks came by their current disadvantage for two reasons:

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.

Moral absolutism

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 argument.

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 larger trend:

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 that way.

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1. Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, 1994), p. 26.