Affirmative action is increasingly used but remains a controversial way to tackle inequality. We discuss the pros and cons of positive/reverse discrimination
What is affirmative action?
Affirmative action refers to the policies and laws that attempt to redress a situation of discrimination and promote equal opportunity. Affirmative action is also associated to positive discrimination, which entails means to compensate or counter the effects of prejudices in terms of race, gender and / or disabilities. The nature of policy and terminology used vary from country to country. For instance, some countries have adopted quotas for women, people with disabilities or from different ethnic backgrounds. These quotas are a way to ensure that people from certain socio-demographic groups, which have traditionally suffered discrimination, have access to schools, jobs, and / or participate in political life.
The concept of "affirmative action" was coined in the United States by J.F. Kennedy when he wrote the Executive Order 10925 in which he included a provision according to which public contractors should "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin". Ever since many countries such as Brazil, Canada, India, Malay, and South Africa, have adopted policies against discrimination in employment or to facilitate access to certain education institutions. Usually these policies apply a preferential treatment to some minority groups or nationalities which had previously been discriminated or were under-represented.
Affirmative action has many success stories. For instance, Eva Paterson, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, was a beneficiary of affirmative action, and is today one of the main supports of equal educational opportunities.
Affirmative action pros and cons
Affirmative action policies have proven a good way to balance structuctural disparieties in many societies. Some of the most important pros:
- Affirmative action ensures representation of minorities and disadvantaged groups in positions of authority. These representatives can function as inspiring role models, which in the long term can help fight prejudices and stereotypes.
- Affirmative action contributes to diversity in schools, universities, companies and public administrations.
- These policies are a fair compensation for centuries of racial or gender discrimination.
- Affirmative action policies help disabled people enter the labor market and thus contribute to the economy of their countries. They also allow them earn a living and relieve the government from having to sustain them.
- People who start from a disadvantaged position deserve extra support to develop their full potential. Without affirmative action many would not even consider some jobs or areas of study.
However, affirmative action policies have also many detractors. In the US, by the late 1970s, reverse discrimination became an issue. The famous Bakke case in 1978 showed the limitations of this approach to fighting inequality. Allan Bakke, a white male, was rejected two years in a row by a medical school that had accepted less qualified minority applicants. The Supreme Court outlawed the inflexible quota system which had unfairly discriminated against him. Let's summarize some of the main cons of affirmative action:
- Affirmative action can be discriminatory against those who are not part of the minorities or groups protected. Sometimes people that fulfill the basic criteria for a job or a vacancy in a university may not be accepted (as in the aforementioned Bakke case).
- These policies may increase racial or ethnic tensions. The members of a group may develop a negative attitude towards a minority if they perceive that due to positive discrimination they are being excluded or see their chances of getting some jobs or positions limited.
- Positive discrimination can be very difficult to apply in societies where ethnic divides are not very clear and people often have mixed backgrounds.
- Sometimes it is argued that these policies or laws serve to reinforce the separation and division among different groups. In some countries it is even illegal to classify people according to their race or ethnic background for this same reason.
- The basic criteria to define the groups reached by these policies and the quotas allocated or type of preferential treatment are often questionable.
What do you think? Is affirmative action overall positive or does it create a sort of reverse discrimination? Can it contribute to more cohesive and inclusive societies? What are the main challenges in the implementation of these policies and laws? In your experience, do they work? Are they fair?
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Is affirmative action a good approach against discrimination?
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