The idea that different subcategories of humans exist, and that depending on one’s point of view, some subcategories are inherently inferior to others, has been around since ancient times. This concept eventually gained the label of “race” in 1789, a “zoological term… generally defined as a subcategory of a species which inherits certain physical characteristics that distinguish it from other categories of that same species.” (Tivnan 181). Although slavery has been by and large eliminated in virtually every part of the modern world, the concept used to rationalize its implementation, “racism”, still plagues most modern cultures. Races that were once enslaved, or are minorities within their society, are often discriminated against in a variety of ways. This attitude can result in actions as severe as the Holocaust of World War II, or as minor as a dismissive glance from a salesman at an uptown department store.
In America, an active war has been waged on discrimination since minorities and women rallied for equal rights in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. In the last 35 years, the American government has made strides toward ending discrimination altogether, enacting social policies designed to give the downtrodden minorities a leg-up in a white-dominated society. One such policy, Affirmative Action, generally refers to programs that give preferential treatment to minority groups based on socioeconomic status and which try to correct past injustices inflicted upon said groups. This use of racial criteria to award opportunities in fields like education and employment has sparked major debates over reverse discrimination and moral obligation in today’s America.
Many claim that blacks in America have a “moral claim” to compensate them for the “paramount injustice” inflicted upon them, slavery (Tivnan 202). Although slavery ended nearly 200 years ago, racism was tolerated and even encouraged by the American government and was “virtually public policy” for most of the 20th century (Tivnan 202). Proponents of affirmative action believe society owes blacks for these past injustices. In addition to repaying blacks, these policies are “socially useful” to the whole of society, according to Ronald Dworkin in his book “Why Bakke Has No Case”. By helping today’s impoverished blacks, we can attempt to end the vicious cycle of poverty within just a few generations. Parents assisted by affirmative action will be better able to raise their children, who will be better educated and therefore receive better jobs without assistance. In some cases, the color of one’s skin can be as important a criteria as their intelligence or experience. “If a black skin will, as a matter of regrettable fact, enable another doctor to do a different medical job better (e.g. minister to an urban ghetto population), then black skin ought to be taken as ‘merit’ as well” (Qtd. In Tivnan 206). The fact that black or white skin enables one to do a job better is not a measure of personal worth, just as people who can play basketball better because of their height are not inherently superior to those who cannot. Although affirmative Action does not solve all the problems, or resolve all the issues, you have to ask yourself: What would society be like without affirmative action? (Tivnan 211)
Other’s argue that “you cannot wipe out injustice with another injustice” (Tivnan195). Discriminating against whites is just as wrong as discriminating against blacks. After all, when a society wants to make things equal, it does not mean reversing the current situation and trampling the rights of different demographic instead. Whites and blacks shouldn’t be on separate lists in the career world, just as they shouldn’t have separate dining accommodations (Tivnan195). Another point raised is that affirmative action has been shown to hurt blacks more than it helps them (Tivnan 198). “Affirmative action implies inferiority” (Tivnan 198), and although it does give some blacks opportunities they would otherwise be without, it still propagates racism and racial tension in the workplace. “Preferential treatment…subjects blacks to a midnight of self-doubt, and so often transforms their advantage into a revolving door.” (Tivnan 198). They would prefer a “level playing field”, and hate that fellow employees think that they got to their position not through hard work, but through a government program, even though that may not be the case (Tivnan 200). Striving to attain “diversity”, the goal of so many organizations, often hides the fact that many blacks aren’t prepared for these opportunities. According to Shelby Steele’s “The Content of Our Character”, only 26% of black college students graduate from college within six years of admission. Although these figures are interesting, they are totally unrelated to the real victims of affirmative action: millions of poor blacks in inner-city ghettos who will never go to college and are only hoping for a decent job. To these blacks “outside the mainstream of the American occupational system”, these highbrowed issues are “stunningly irrelevant” (Qtd. in Tivnan 199). In spite of affirmative action, more blacks are serving time in prison than a decade ago. It is time for the successful members of the black community to embrace the black underclass by becoming community leaders with ideas and visions for the future of our country.
I believe that affirmative action is a noble and well-intentioned program, and that at one time it may have been the correct policy to uphold, but now “The moment for affirmative action has passed.” (Tivnan 200). Although the past injustices inflicted on blacks are certainly inexcusable, they are not justification for “payback” in a direct sense. Anyone directly involved in slavery is long since deceased, and although the legacy of slavery is alive and well today, we should be helping these impoverished people because we want to better our nation as a whole. By bringing as many people as possible above the poverty line, regardless of the color of their skin, we make America a better place. By increasing the quality of our pathetically under-funded public education system, and especially by easing cultural pressures on young inner-city blacks to drop out of school, we can make each generation better prepared to meet the challenges of today’s workplace until a program such as affirmative action would be seen as insulting by any race.
Tivnan, Edward. The Moral Imagination . New York: Touchstone, 1996.