The Ethics Of… Affirmative Action (aka Reverse Racism)

In this wonderful modern, progressive country I live in we have advanced so far in the last few decades that it’s now extremely rare to hear a blatantly racist statement in a public place. Sure there are still plenty of racist attitudes lingering about, but it takes a very brave and/or very stupid person to actually voice their bigotry out loud in anything other than the most inbred of backwater towns (like Brisbane for example).

Even on the hottest of racial topics like indigenous welfare payments, substance abuse or asylum seekers, the debate is usually couched in very careful language to make sure the debate stays on neutral topics like economics, culture, law and anything that isn’t specifically about the colour or ’nature’ of the people involved. But if there’s still one topic that you can always rely on to start a full-blown shouting match about “those people” and “what they’re doing to this country”, it’s affirmative action.

Affirmative action’ or ‘reverse racism’ as it’s often known, is the simple idea that people from disadvantaged groups be given priority when it comes to opportunities. This can take a lot of forms, from businesses being given quotas of people from these groups to employ, special scholarships or reserved places for disadvantaged groups in university courses or elite schools, and even targets for the number of elected politicians that should be male/female/black/white, etc.

On paper this sounds great; disadvantaged groups being given a leg up to improve their circumstances will greatly help that community stop being disadvantaged, which is good for all of society in the long run. Whether we’re talking about poor people getting a chance to get an education, new immigrants learning English, or even women getting a better representation in parliament, the outcomes of the efforts don’t just benefit the group involved, but society in general through better integration and pooling of collective resources – less people dependant on the system and more people supporting it with work, taxes and ideas.

Where the trouble starts is when people realise the obvious flip-side of this proposal – those opportunities being given to disadvantaged groups have to come from somewhere, and where they come from is at the expense of everyone else.

Of all the topics I cover on this blog, I’m unlikely to ever find another as controversial as this one. This is not because it affects a lot of people or has particularly serious consequences for those involved, but rather because it seems so completely goddamn wrong that most people can’t help but be revolted by it, often to the point of expressing that anger publically.

To further fan the flames, a sizable proportion of the people who would generally support this sort of work – people who actively oppose racism and bigotry in society – find themselves stumped by this proposal. Why? Because while on paper it appears to be working for a good cause, it does it by deliberately discriminating against one group of people in favour of another… on the basis of race, gender and income. In other words, the exact same sort of behaviour they oppose.


The reason I’m writing about this topic at the moment is that the Victorian Government (where I live) has recently announced that, as of now, all government appointments MUST be 50% female – this includes all Victorian courts and all paid Government board positions, including the Treasury Corporation, Public Transport Victoria, Melbourne Health and the Country Fire Authority. While this quota doesn’t affect who is elected to actually make decision in parliament, it’s still a massive reform and to say it pissed some people off is kinda an understatement.

Apart from the token women-haters who jumped on the bandwagon, the majority of the people opposing this policy did so for a very simple reason – what the hell ever happened to merit? Shouldn’t the person who gets a job be the best qualified person for that job? And if the best qualified person happens to be male, then are we really going to appoint a less-competent person just because they’re a woman? Are we really going to put the essential infrastructure of the Treasury, Transport, Health and FIRE services in the hands of inferior candidates just so we can say that there’s a woman in the job?

That’s madness! Not only is it insanely irresponsible to trust such huge responsibilities to someone who was less qualified by definition, but isn’t it also massively condescending to the women we are trying to empower to suggest that they can only get their positions when we give them extra-special treatment? “Never mind ladies, we know you’ll never be as good as men at these sort of jobs, but we’ll give you a go anyway to make you feel better then clean up the mess after you’re done”. Fuck that! Any true feminist would want any women who gets such a job to win it fair and square, without relying on men to give it to her!

This is a compelling argument, but it does have one pretty serious flaw to it – this is the government we’re talking about here. Merit never had anything to do with it.

This isn’t just a snarky shot at the competence of governments in general (ok it was a little), but more a reflection on the nature of these roles: they’re not about running the department, they’re about setting the strategy in line with what the government wants. You know what you don’t need to do that? A single god-damned clue about anything the department actually does.

Case in point, meet the current Chairman of the Board for Melbourne Health: Mr Robert Doyle.

So majestic.

What qualifications does Mr Doyle have for this role, you might ask? Well, he’s a politician. He was also a teacher once. And that’s it – that is the entirety of Mr Doyle’s work experience. You may notice that it has sweet fuck all to do with health.

See the point of a Board isn’t to run the department – that’s what the department is for – the Board is there to oversee the direction it takes, and in the case of government appointees, to make sure that direction fit’s what the government of the day wants it to do. Christ people, these are politicians we’re talking about here! The single most cynical profession in existence? Seriously, the idea that someone is appointed by any government because they’re really good at their job in naïve beyond description – the reason a government appoints anyone is to support their policy platform, which in turn makes them look successful, which gets them good polls, which gets them more donations, which gets them re-elected. It really is that simple.

Given then that merit has sweet bugger all to do with the process, requiring that 50% of these government appointees are female actually makes a hell of a lot of sense. Why? Because the entire point of our parliamentary system is that it is meant to represent us, and given the Victorian public is currently 50% female and the number of women on government boards is closer to 35%, there is a bit of a problem here.

Ok, fine maybe this sort of thing has a place when we’re talking about government, since it’s based on a representative democracy and all. But that still doesn’t justify affirmative action in any other situation. What about all these special scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders at university? What about an entire public pool being closed so that a bunch of Muslim women can go for a swim without their burqas on (a garment we generally disagree with them wearing, I might add)? What about forcing employers to hire people because of their gender, their race or how poor they are? Aren’t all these practices exactly the same sort of discrimination we’ve been trying to stop all these years? And aren’t they all massively condescending to the groups they aim to help, effectively telling them that they could never be successful on their own?

Why should other people who could really excel with this sort of extra help miss out, just because they don’t fit the specific, arbitrary category we’ve decided should be given an unfair advantage? Hell, what about all the normal students who have less funding available to them because some of it is being funnelled off for the benefit of a small group of misfits who haven’t done anything to deserve it?

Affirmative action might be an honest attempt to help disadvantaged groups to better their circumstances, but surely these flaws make it manifestly unjust?

Well… yeah, pretty much. But then again, that’s kind of the point.

Affirmative action is unfair; it does encourage us to ignore merit, and it does discriminate on the basis of gender, race and wealth – something we have spent the better part of the last century trying to get rid of. And if we were trying to apply it in a perfect world then, yes, it would be a terrible practice that not only led to unfair outcomes but was also massively condescending to the groups it aimed to help.

But newsflash! This is not a perfect world. Racism, sexism, and discrimination on a whole range of stupid things are very much still alive and active in people’s decision-making about who they employ, who gets loans, and who should be elected amongst other things. We might have managed to iron out this sort of bigotry in public, but it still exists in private where it can’t be easily detected and removed. If someone is interviewing a group for an engineering job, and privately believes women aren’t any good at maths, then that bias is going to come through in their decision and, provided they’re not stupid enough to actually say they’re sexist, no one will be able to tell that sexism was a factor in the decision.

Similarly, if you’re looking for a rental tenant and privately believe that Aboriginal people are most likely to disrespect your property, then you’re going to give the tenancy to someone who isn’t black, aren’t you? And provided you don’t actually come out and SAY you’re a racist then there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it.

Affirmative action is also known as ‘positive discrimination’ for this very reason; it is a brute-force method to combat this passive bigotry by applying the same discrimination in the opposite direction.

Don’t want to employ people because of their race, but not stupid enough to actually say that? Fuck you, you are now REQUIRED to have 10% of your workforce non-Caucasian. Don’t like it, you can kiss my arse.

What’s that? You think all women are ‘emotionally unstable’ and therefore have no place in politics? Fuck you, 50% of all government appointments must now be female.

Oh, you reckon Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders should compete with everyone else for education positions, despite a history of oppression that still deeply affects those communities even today? Fuck you, special scholarships for people from those communities to make it easier for them. Oh, you feel the same way about poor people whose home life was so stressful it made studying virtually impossible? Fuck you, special scholarships for them as well.

I have an entire album for these gifs.

There’s no denying that these sort of ‘fuck you’ interventions are pretty ham-fisted; you’re essentially forcing people to make up for the bigotry of a few arseholes that ruin it for everyone, and it certainly makes life difficult for those who were actually doing the right thing. And yeah, that sucks but that’s also a pretty good definition of law in general – a sweeping rule that protects society from a minority of arseholes who ruined it for everyone. But that in itself doesn’t make affirmative action ethically justifiable, does it?

No, as usual what makes affirmative action ethically justifiable is the cost/benefit breakdown, ad since what we have here is essentially a choice between ‘slightly inconveniencing the majority for the enormous benefit of disadvantaged groups’ versus ‘ignoring serious, deeply ingrained and undetectable bigotry because dealing with it would be unfair’, the answer is pretty clear.

That said, there are some pretty serious limitations on this sort of regulation, and for affirmative action that limit is necessity; sure positive discrimination might be worth it to combat serious unspoken bigotry, but it absolutely is NOT justified when that bigotry decreases and disappears. Once the culture of society changes enough that these sort of unspoken biases aren’t that big a deal anymore, then effective but heavy-handed measures like affirmative action should be retired – keep them in play and they may very well start to become the counter-productive, condescending messes that we currently tend to describe them as.

Affirmative action may well be a blunt instrument that fights fire with fire and gets a lot of stuff burned in the process, but when ancient bigotries like racism and sexism are the majority of the casualties then I’m pretty OK with that. Sometimes the ends justify the means, provided of course we keep a pretty close eye on those means…

7 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Affirmative Action (aka Reverse Racism)

  1. Great post! I have been having similar discussions with people, particular one old college friend who is now a big men’s rights activist and he thinks feminism has gone too far and that feminist groups sometimes actively fight against legislation that would benefit men. I tend to think of these things like an oscillation (and hopefully a damped oscillation) where as we make a push towards equilibrium it’s possible to overshoot the mark and, sometimes unconsciously or without self-reflection go too far. And laws very often benefit the greater good even if there is room for good people to be punished by the law. I was having a discussion recently about a case in which a teacher was charged with rape because she had a relationship with an underage student. While it’s possible that some young teachers and some mature 17 year olds might actually be compatible, in love and all that, and statutory rape laws might actually damage some legitimate relationships, it’s obvious that more often than not, not having that law will cause more harm than the few relationships to protect. Especially since love can also be patient.

    I tend not to think of it as people with merit losing out, but that other people with merit are finally being considered. And good people have deeply ingrained biases as well that they are not even conscious of. Ask men and women alike to draw a picture of a scientist and in almost all cases it will be a male. Children will do the same thing and it’s unlikely that any of them are really anti-feminist at that point in their life. When it seems natural to see a certain gender in a particular role or a certain race in a particular role we may not even be aware that we are being prejudiced against others. Affirmative action has more impacts beyond the obvious cases of discrimination. But I definitely agree that over time such laws do need to be faded out. That can be difficult too though. Here the supreme court removed the Voting Rights Act passed in the 60’s, claiming that nobody actively prevents minorities from voting anymore, which is complete and absolute bullshit. Knowing when racism is over, can be a difficult point to hone in on!

    • Hi Swarn, thanks for the comment! Excellent point about the statutory rape laws having negative impacts – I entirely agree that those sort of relationships can be ethical, but I suppose that’s the distinction between law and ethics; the law sets a baseline for behaviour that must apply to every conceivable situation, whereas ethics can/should be more flexible to specific circumstances.

      Good point also about non-racism biases. There really is no way of overstating how powerful norms are to how we think, and just because what we consider to be normal might be sexist/racist doesn’t mean we are – more that we just haven’t thought about it much. These sorts of broken assumptions obviously need to be countered, but since that effectively means shaking the foundations our worldviews are built on (not to mention telling us we’ve all been sexist/racists without knowing it) that’s going to be a painful process.

      Funny you mention the Men’s Rights Movement, because I feel they’re a perfect example of that in many respects. After a bit of research I agree that there are several issues of discrimination against men specifically that should be addressed, notably the automatic bias against fathers in settling child custody during divorce. That said, the way MRM groups tend to respond to these injustices by blaming feminism (a movement designed to eliminate gender bias) shows a certain resentment that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Curious topic; will do an article on it one day soon!

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  3. First, any person who meets the qualifications for the job merits the job. Second, unless there is some objective way to prove that the over-qualified person can actually do the job better than the fully-qualified person, there is no objective benefit to hire the over-qualified person,

    Having said that, I’m really surprised that someone would actually set a 50/50 quota. That’s a pretty radical remediation of the problem. Usually, the approach is to put special efforts into recruiting from the under-represented class. So I can see why the knee-jerk reaction would be so strong.

  4. On the racial side, there is a much stronger case for affirmative action by race, at least here in the U.S. due to our history. Here’s something I wrote up about that some time ago:

    No. Affirmative action is not about diversity. Affirmative action is how we repair the damage caused by racial slavery. This was not like ancient Rome, where a slave was an enemy defeated in battle. We justified our slavery by insisting that black skinned people were inferior. We wrote this prejudice into national and state laws. We taught this prejudice to our children. We hammered it into the black men and women we enslaved.

    We continued this indoctrination, well past the end of slavery, through segregated facilities and discrimination in all aspects of life. It has only been within my lifetime that black children were allowed to attend school with white children.

    The damage is real and can be measured objectively by the disproportionate number of black men in our prisons and the relatively small percentage of black men and women in professional careers.

    Enabling qualified black men and women to enter college and pursue professional careers, opportunities that we refused them in the past, is an important remediation. They must not be denied simply because someone else scored a few points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The prejudice that black people are inherently inferior cannot be sustained against the reality of black doctors, lawyers, generals, and elected leaders.

    When a child sees these examples he realizes that his potential is not limited to menial labor. When teachers see this reality, their expectations for black children are elevated. Aspirations and expectations motivate achievement, and achievement is the key to all real opportunity in our society.

    It is unprincipled to attack affirmative action on the grounds of unequal treatment. you cannot break your competitor’s leg the day before the race and then insist it is unfair for him to use crutches. If we value the principle of equal treatment we must take responsibility for the damage we caused when we violated it. Invoking the principle to escape our responsibility is self-serving and hypocritical.

    The only honorable argument for ending affirmative action is that the damage has been effectively repaired. That must be measured objectively. When the percentage of blacks who become doctors is close to the percentage of non-blacks who become doctors, and when the percentage of blacks who are unemployed or in prison is no greater than the percentage of whites in a similar predicament, then and only then can we responsibly end affirmative action.

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