Affirmative Action is Not Reverse Discrimination

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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.
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