Saturday, February 14, 2009

The paradox of "affirmative action"

A recurring theme in America involves such things as the "Rooney Rule" in pro football, where NFL teams are required to interview (but not to hire) some minority candidates for coaching positions.

I've had various things to say in the past about various forms of prejudice, here and here, for example. This blog will, hopefully, be a short version of what I want to say. The whole notion of forcing employers to fill positions with historically underrepresented folks (blacks, Hispanics, women, ... whatever) in a segment is a form of reverse discrimination. That is, discrimination that favors the historically underrepresented. Can discrimination be used to solve the problem of discrimination? An interesting question, that.

It seems evident to me that discrimination, left unchallenged, likely will go on forever. Arbitrary exclusion tends to feed on itself. Without the federally-enforced requirement for integration in the deep South, it's likely that apartheid would still be in effect there. Has this changed the situation, for the better? I believe it has, although I think any person who was opposed to segregation would have preferred that people would have changed their minds simply by force of logical and moral argument. The fact is that some people will oppose change of any sort, even to the point of violence. Has racial hatred disappeared as a result of forced integration? Not hardly. But people forced into contact sometimes change their minds when confronting real individuals rather than abstractions. Bigotry of any sort certainly can withstand frontal assault for a long time, but when you actually know and work with someone who perhaps got a position because of reverse discrimination but who evidently deserves respect for their actions, it becomes difficult to justify irrational prejudice. Minds can be changed, slowly, one at a time.

There often is a hue and cry about affirmative action giving positions to unqualified people. This becomes a rallying cry for opponents to reverse discrimination. But you have to ask yourself, of all the lily-white males who dominate so many sectors of our society, are all of them competent? Look around yourself. Not by a long shot! What I think reverse discrimination accomplishes is to give historically underrepresented folks an equal chance to be incompetent, just like most of the current occupants of those positions! Along the way, a few of them just might prove to be more competent than most. But if they don't get a chance to fail, neither do they get a chance to succeed!

In the best of all possible worlds - surely not this world! - affirmative action wouldn't be necessary. But so long as people are excluded for arbitrary reasons, then I believe that this is a way up from entrenched "forward" discrimination. Hopefully, reverse discrimination is only a temporary measure, designed to put truth in the words "equal opportunity for all". I don't like quotas any more than most, but part of creating equal opportunity is for people to be given a chance when they otherwise can't even get their foot in the door. What happens after that depends on the individual beneficiaries of reverse discrimination - will some, or even most of them prove to be incompetent? Perhaps, but they should fail because they're incompetent, not because they're black, or Hispanic, or female, or whatever.

A response to Roger's comment:

Brutally simple, indeed. If we end affirmative action, then experience tells us that entrenched "forward" discrimination will continue. I agree racism works both ways. I agree that using discrimination to cure the ills of discrimination seems paradoxical or even wrong. But history shows us we won't minimize racism by ending affirmative action - we'll only maintain the status quo.

BTW ... I was not hired once because of affirmative action, and it was made clear to me at the time just why. But I did try elsewhere and eventually was given an opportunity. For many victims of forward discrimination, they're being excluded consistently and systematically.

To use a sports analogy, Ty Willingham apparently isn't a very good college head coach and he shouldn't have a guaranteed job indefinitely just because he's black. But historically excluded folks need to be given the chance, to fail or succeed. If they fail - outta there and try someone else.