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