From educational Horizons Spring 1995

"Positive Discrimination"

©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

Does the term "positive discrimination" seem an oxymoron, a self- contradiction? If so, it is particularly pertinent because that is what "affirmative action" is called in the United Kingdom. Is this just a harmless idiomatic difference between British and American English like lorries becoming trucks? Not at all. The U.K. usage quickly gets us to the heart of present-day criticisms of affirmative action -- namely that, even given the best of intentions, discrimination based on ascribed rather than achieved characteristics is unjust.

Ascribed characteristics are traits one is born with and has done nothing to earn. Achieved characteristics are things earned through individual effort. Race, for instance, is an ascribed trait. It requires no individual effort, no pain, no strain, no striving; only that one be born to one set of parents rather than another. That is why it is so terribly unfair to discriminate against someone because of their race, gender, age, ethnicity, and so forth. Being held responsible for something one does not control is the height of injustice. In fact, this sort of thing is particularly loathsome because it runs so counter to what America, at its best, is all about. In this America no one is born to a life of inferiority. In this America you are judged by what you can do, not by what you can't control.

Academic achievement requires effort. Admittedly, everyone does not have the requisite talent for scholarship; but excellence still cannot be achieved without effort. Achieved characteristics are like that. They may require acquired talent for true excellence, but great effort is still necessary for real achievement. Consider that remarkably accomplished operatic singer Marion Anderson. No doubt blessed with extraordinary potential, it still took years and years of uncommon effort for her to achieve singular excellence. Nevertheless, in 1939 officials of the Daughters of the American Revolution judged her acquired racial characteristics to be far more important than what she had so laboriously achieved when they forbade her from singing in concert in their Constitution Hall. Happily, Eleanor Roosevelt was outraged by this injustice, publicly resigned her membership in the D.A.R. and used her influence to arrange for Ms. Anderson to deliver an unforgettable performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Unhappily, however, most victims of discrimination never experience such vindication. Their best efforts are instead crushed by unfair burdens assigned at birth.

Little wonder, then, that people who cherish justice would want to repair the injustices created by racism, sexism, ageism, and other discrimination based on acquired characteristics. In fact, the idea behind "positive discrimination" is to undo the lingering effects of just this sort of injustice. But is it effective? And even more important, is it just?

The plan is to continue to discriminate on the basis of acquired characteristics, like race or gender, but with a positive purpose -- namely, establishing greater fairness or justice. The strategy is to select people using the same acquired characteristics that originally brought disadvantage and, by giving them special consideration, turn that acquired characteristic into a compensatory advantage. It is, in effect, using racism to combat racism, sexism to contest sexism. After all, acquired characteristics, such as race, are still the basis for judgment. But what this approach overlooks is that the individuals who suffered the injustice are often not the individuals gaining the compensatory advantage. Nor are those who enjoyed the benefits of past discrimination necessarily the same individuals who pay the costs of compensatory reparation. It is a simple-minded mentality that believes that past injustices are somehow undone by present remedies. Just as easily we end up with two wrongs that don't make a right.

Consider a hypothetical "positive discrimination" college admission policy that assigns preferences based on gender, race and ethnic heritage -- all acquired characteristics. There are more candidates than places at this college, and two candidates are tied with identical cumulative averages and admission test scores for the last opening.

One of these candidates is a Hispanic female, let's call her Juanita. She is Cuban - American from an affluent neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her father is an extraordinarily wealthy Florida cigar manufacturer, her mother a physician. Juanita was raised in luxury, traveled the world with her parents on extraordinary vacations, had private dance and music lessons, lived in a home filled with books, magazines, newspapers and original art, enjoyed a circle of friends from similarly sophisticated backgrounds, and so forth. Juanita, however, was unmotivated in school and did not utilize the advantages afforded by her background. In fact, her indifference to school work led to her failing out of two exclusive private schools before her parents angrily placed her in West Palm Beach's very well-funded public high school (the tax base in the district is vast) from which she barely graduated.

The other candidate for the college's last available space is a white male, let's call him Sam. Sam is from Panther Hollow, West Virginia. Sam's father, a laid-off coal miner, died of black lung when Sam was twelve. (It so happens that Juanita's family owns stock in the coal company Sam's dad worked for. It was an attractive investment because of its unusually profitability which the company maintained by dodging coal dust suppression regulations and laying off middle-aged miners.) Sam's home is a battered trailer more filled with overdue bills than books. Sam has never been more than 100 miles away from home. His friends are as poor and unsophisticated as he is. Sam's mother, who had to drop out of school to support her widowed mother, has worked as a waitress in the local diner since her husband died. To help his family while in high school Sam worked 8 hours a day at minimum wages in the same diner busing tables and washing dishes. Despite this burden, Sam did the best he could in his badly underfunded public school (the tax base for Panther Valley School District is meager) and, with great effort studying between bursts of business at the diner, ended up, like Juanita, barely graduating from high school and with an average score on the college's admission test.

Guess who gets into the college's last available space, and figure out how that sets aright some past injustice.