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Affirmative Action is Not Reverse Discrimination

Affirmative Action is Not Reverse Discrimination

Affirmative Action is not meant to help blacks because of the color of their skin, but because they deserve compensation for past and continuing injustices. Opponents may criticize the wisdom of how this compensation is meted out, but they cannot question the principle of compensatory damages, which enjoys a long tradition in our society.

To many opponents of affirmative action, a color-blind society should not discriminate at hiring time on the basis of color, sex, etc. This would make the preferential hiring of blacks just as wrong as preferential hiring of whites.

Furthermore, opponents claim, the introduction of past injustices does not change this logic. If blacks were mistreated in the past for a morally irrelevant characteristic (being black), then to give them preferential treatment for the same morally irrelevant characteristic is equally indefensible.

There is an error of logic here: the premise is faulty. Preferential treatment is not being given to blacks because they are black. They are being given preferential treatment because they have been mistreated. And society has a long and approved tradition of awarding compensatory damages to victims of mistreatment.

To put it another way, blacks came by their current disadvantage for two reasons:

1. Whites decided that a morally irrelevant feature (having black skin) was in fact a morally relevant feature.

2. Whites mistreated blacks on that basis.

Affirmative action does not justify preferential treatment based on the first point; it justifies it on the second. That is, supporters do not believe that being black is a morally relevant feature which deserves discriminatory behavior; but…

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…angible “victims” who were shut out by the end of job discrimination, then we can also point to tangible “victims” who are shut out of public contracting and funding by the end of voting discrimination. If critics of affirmative action can point to “discrimination” in favor of minorities at hiring time, we can point to “discrimination” in favor of minorities in legislation and public funding. And penalizing someone who discriminates (in the legitimate sense of the word) against minorities by denying them jobs is no different from penalizing someone who discriminates against minorities by denying them the vote. The loss of undue privilege is not the same thing as the loss of rights. Unfortunately, many critics of affirmative action attempt to frame the debate that way.


1. Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, 1994), p. 26.

The Many Benefits of Affirmative Action

The Benefits of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has helped the income, promotion and labor force participation rates of both women and minorities. For example, between 1982 and 1995, the percentage of female managers and professionals in the U.S. rose from 40.5 to 48.0 percent; blacks from 5.5 to 7.5 percent, and Hispanics from 5.2 to 7.6 percent. By comparison, these groups form 51.2 percent, 12.6 percent, and 10.2 percent of the population, respectively. Progress has been steady, but still incomplete.

Many critics of affirmative action believe it has failed to achieve its stated goal of equal employment opportunity. A few even believe that it has done more harm than good. A review of the statistics, however, shows that both minorities and women have made substantial progress towards equality in the last several decades.

Before reviewing the relevant statistics, it would be helpful to build a timeline of important dates in affirmative action history.

An affirmative action timeline

In 1961, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that intended the end of discrimination in federal contracting. “The Contractor will 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.” (1) The act did not mandate quotas, only discrimination-free employment practices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 broadened this policy. Title IV declared that “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

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… Population Reports, P25-1095, P25-1104 and unpublished data.

7. ACLU Briefing Paper on California affirmative action.

8. Poverty rate: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Income and Poverty, 1993. Unemployment rate: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Series ID: lfu21000002. Civilian employment/population ratio: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Series ID : lfu1600002. Income and income ratio: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P60.

9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Monthly Earnings, 1994.

10. Poverty: Figures before 1990 from U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1960-89. Figures from 1990 on from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Income: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P60. Percentage of white median: derived from same income table by Steve Kangas.

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