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...
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