They Call it ‘Reverse Discrimination’

Affirmative action has to be among one of the most contentious, controversial, and misunderstood social policies. I encounter all kinds of bizarre attitudes when it comes to talking about affirmative action, not least of which is people who insist on calling it ‘reverse discrimination’ in some sort of backhanded attempt at suggesting it’s just as evil as denying people opportunities on the basis of being female, say, or a person of colour, and should be abolished on those grounds. Because, oogity boogity, under affirmative action, all people are not considered blank slates with universal experiences, and thus, it’s a discriminatory policy.

Here’s what affirmative action is: A policy and programme adopted in many regions of the world to encourage employers and educational institutions to consider the history of discrimination against certain classes of people when it comes to admission and hiring decisions. Such policies usually cover women, people of color/nonwhite people, and people with disabilities. The goal of affirmative action is to counteract the effects of centuries of discrimination to create more opportunities for oppressed groups of people by not shutting them out of education and employment opportunities, acknowledging that prejudices are often deeply internalised and people can’t overcome them by sheer force of will. (And are often not aware of how deep they run.)

Here’s what it isn’t: A demand to always hire/admit the marginalised person, no matter what. Yet, it’s often framed that way, as seen in the ‘reverse discrimination’ slang. Everyone, it seems, has a sob story about how ‘someone they know’ didn’t get a job because there was a less qualified Black woman or disabled man or someone else who was there to swoop in and take the employment opportunity away, riding smugly on a cloud of affirmative action1. I have had dyed in the wool liberals informing me with clear, innocent faces that their white, middle class, nondisabled, heterosexual, cis friends and relatives have been horribly oppressed by being passed over in favour of ‘underqualified’ marginalised people who just happened to compete for the same jobs/places at school. They inform me that this is unfair and awful and should stop immediately because it’s wrong.

People. No.

Here’s what affirmative action is about: When you have, say, an employer who is considering a group of job applicants, that employer is asked to consider the applicants equally. Not to, for example, throw out an application from a woman who uses a wheelchair for mobility because it will be ‘too hard’ to accommodate her. To give everyone reasonably qualified a chance to interview and to honestly and fairly evaluate applicants for a job, rather than deciding that someone is automatically unfit on the basis of personal characteristics. And, yes, if you have two equally qualified candidates, one of whom happens to be a member of a dominant group and one of whom does not, to consider preferentially hiring the person who has not benefited from discriminatory practices throughout life. No affirmative action policy demands that people hire the less qualified people, deciding whom to hire solely on the basis of who is the most oppressed.

People talk about ‘quotas’ and they talk about how businesses and educational institutions ‘get in trouble’ if they don’t have enough ‘token minorities’ and they miss the  point entirely. I see this depicted everywhere from pop culture (Cuddy yelling at House for not having a female physician on this diagnostic team) to casual interactions with people who inform me that they ‘would’ apply for a job somewhere but ‘some Latina will probably snag it from me anyway because they’re worried about not having enough brown faces behind the front desk so what’s the point.’ Actual cases where businesses and schools have been punished for failing to adhere to affirmative action policies haven’t involved a government auditor checking to see how many marginalised people they have, but documented discrimination against marginalised groups in interview and admissions policies.

Do affirmative action programmes in colleges and universities ask for more leeway on things like test scores? Yes, they absolutely do, and there’s a reason for that: People in oppressed classes are less likely to do well on standardized tests, for a whole lot of reasons ranging from unequal access to educational opportunities to biases built in on the tests themselves. This means that, yes, when an applicant identifies as poor, for example, that the school will weigh that in the student’s application and will consider the impact that poverty might have on test scores and academic performance. The school won’t say ‘oh, we should let a clearly unprepared student in because she’s from a lower class background,’ but the school will say ‘this student clearly has potential, even if she’s not there yet, so let’s give her a chance, given that she’s had an uphill slog to get to the point where she can even apply for college.’

What this asks people to do is to consider the historic role of discrimination in access to everything from education to employment, to recognise that because of the widespread and deep biases in society, some people can’t access the qualifications/experience that others can. And, yes, affirmative action does ask people to consider marginalised people preferentially, in the hopes of balancing out internalised biases and attitudes; trust me, people, in terms of how people actually behave, it’s a wash.

People say this is ‘unequal treatment’ and that ‘if you want to be treated like everyone else, you need to be held to the same standard.’ What they miss is that the standard is inherently discriminatory and biased. Holding everyone to the same standard is effectively an act of discrimination, because it demands that people fit into a mold they can never fit into, reach goals they can never attain, because the deck is stacked against them from the start.

It’s an attempt to compensate for privilege to say that the lived experiences of applicants should be considered to contextualise their applications. Not an act of discrimination. A corrective measure, an attempt to address and rectify an entrenched culture of prejudice by creating more chances for people who have historically been denied those chances, is not ‘reverse discrimination.’ And I’d like to humbly suggest that people retire that particular slang term, post haste.

  1. I note that this usually includes the assumption that the marginalised candidate was automatically, inherently, less qualified.


  1. Where do affirmative action policies consider disability? To my knowledge, in the States, they cover women and racial minorities (which I’m totally down with, for the reasons you mention).

  2. Ugh. I just did a post on this, pointing out that if you are a member of a privileged group (i.e., white, male, straight, cisgender, etc.) you have and do experience affirmative action every day of your life. Doors are opened for you that are closed for the oppressed, and affirmative action is simply a way of leveling the playing field.

    You’d think I suggested filleting a kitten live on youtube.

  3. Shaun, a lot of places in the U.S. have policies that include disability. For example, a quick google turns up Cleveland State University, the University of California system, and discussed here at the US Department of Labor site.

  4. I was rather disturbed when a number of years ago a family member assisted a family friend in writing an essay for a debate class about affirmative action.
    The essay was anti-affirmative action.

  5. I will be really thrilled when we don’t need affirmative action (or equal opportunity hiring as it’s known elsewhere) because people of all kinds have equal opportunities. But that’s a long, long way away.

  6. I definitely see where you’re coming from. My psych class covered this issue a little as well, but as it was an intro psych class I didn’t feel like pressing any questions I had were something the rest of the class would take in the right context. It serves me right for signing up for it as a senior, I guess.

    My question, which I’m just looking for an opposing view point on, is whether or not the bias built into the tests is indicative of the later success of the individual. My thinking is that cultural biases that are present in standardized tests are likely to be just as present in the workplace. From what I can see from a quick glance, the current research leans either way on this one (although I’ve yet to find a distinct comparison of lower ethnic test scores and non, just related studies).

    If that is the case, is affirmative action enough? Will it be necessary to eliminate other sources of stereotype threat in the workplace for these individuals to succeed? Is that really possible?

  7. Thanks for this, s.e.. I’m still working on doing away with nasty old stereotypes when it comes to my view on this topic, and this is just the kind of reminder I need to see how things really are as opposed to how they’re spun in the public eye.

    If people really want equality, at least in university admissions, they should redirect their energies from opposing affirmative action to calling for a ban on “legacy” admissions.

  8. Oh my goodness! I had never heard of legacy admissions until reading Cat’s comment, and when I googled it, I was utterly stunned that it is allowed to to exist.

    Nothing like that is allowed to OPENLY exist in the UK. I’m sre there are *secret* bribes by the rich to to let their chilren into high-ranking universities, but the idea that a person can OPENLY bribe a university to take their child utterly astonishes me. How is that even LEGAL?

  9. K, debate classes often divide the class into “pro” and “anti” regardless of the beliefs of the members, because the point is to be able to argue your position well, even if it’s not the one you would take in real life. I don’t know if that’s what was going on with your family friend, though.