Affirmative action is a losing deal for everyone

By Joseph Schultz

We at Macalester are a discriminating bunch. We prefer people of particular skin colors, demographics, genders, and a list of other measures for things like admission, grant awards, and faculty hiring. We have done so for decades and we do so knowingly. But why?Affirmative action policies are designed to benefit underprivileged classes. What these policies do is give preference to any job, grant or admission candidate who falls into an underprivileged class over privileged classes beyond what merit might warrant. Of course how these classes are defined has varied over time. It once meant only people of black skin color. Soon after it included being female. Now it encompasses pretty much anyone of non-white skin color that is not male. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but this oversimplification does not detract from what follows.

First and foremost, affirmative action policies are discriminatory. Their stated goal, after all, is to discriminate. To say that they counter discrimination, as is often claimed, is simply wrong. They increase the level of discrimination for arbitrary reasons. Now nothing is wrong with discriminating. Indeed, I think there are obvious things on which we should discriminate: merit, potential, perseverance. But why skin color or gender? The typical argument is that these groups suffered from discrimination in the past and are in some sense entitled to benefit from discrimination in the present day. But isn’t discrimination, when used in the arbitrary sense, a bad thing? And who is really benefiting and being hurt by institutionalizing those discriminatory policies? I find it comical that almost all groups that use affirmative action policies also have a statement similar to the following:

“We do not discriminate on the bases of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or any other legally protected characteristic.” But hypocrisy aside, people who are supposed to benefit from affirmative action policies typically don’t. For example, a person who gets a job because she is black and not because her credentials warrant it is less likely to perform well in that position. Because she was hired due to affirmative action, upper management simply writes off her lackluster performance as a cost of doing business (imposed by the government).

In the short term, black women benefit from this scenario (a black woman did, after all, get the position); however, in the long-term, all the position has served to do is confirm existing stereotypes. This means that black women will continue to advance only at the behest of government, a very disheartening situation if ever there was one. The problem is similar for other groups that supposedly benefit from affirmative action.

In the long run, affirmative action only serves to reinforce the existing, white, male dominance of positions in government and business. It creates an atmosphere of dependence on government for disadvantaged groups, one which will not go away. These policies rob underprivileged groups of their inherent ability to succeed on their own. But is there a better alternative to affirmative action? I believe that we should not have affirmative action policies in place. First, the groups supposed to benefit do so only in marginal terms, and always at the cost of long-term success. Second, the penalties associated with the policies are luminous, particularly for the groups the policies aim to help.

Society is dealt a blow when the disadvantaged are relegated to whatever positions the government doles out. All society suffers by having less qualified people in positions of power.

Another real fear is what affirmative action policies can become. If skin color and gender are valid measures upon which to discriminate, what else? Should we promote based on political orientation? How about religion? How about how strong someone’s belief is in the goodness of capitalism? What about sexual orientation? All of these things sound silly, and are expressly forbidden by government (though they are also expressly condoned by government).

The real message here is that affirmative action is just another fancy word for discrimination, and not the good kind of discrimination.

Contact Joe Schultz ’06 at [email protected]