Friday, April 13, 2012

Affirmative Action: A Poor Policy For America

Employment Politics

Work plays an important role in the lives of many persons. This is the last part of a three-part series this week on work and the workplace in the West. The first part was on Monday:  Men At Work: A Meaningful Life; the second on The UnProductive (& UnHappy) Workplace (Wednesday).

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Affirmative action was never meant to be permanent, and now is truly the time to move on to some other approach.
Susan Estrich

Affirmative action has been a boon to those blacks who were already affluent and particularly for those who were rich but has done little or nothing for those blacks who are neither. Moreover empirical data from other countries around the world shows the same general pattern from group preferences.
—Thomas Sowell, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study
(Yale University Press, 2004)

America likes to believe itself a nation where the values of fairness, equality and the pursuit of happiness are not only understood but followed, sometimes in odd ways. One of the chief ideas is that everyone needs a fair shot, a square deal and that discrimination is not only a dirty word, but bad public policy. Yet the pursuit of this idea— a noble one—has led to an especially difficult and intractable problem, namely, that a policy alone cannot alter the fact that there are inequalities in people's abilities and talents. This is not the same as achievement, since persons with limited or average intellectual abilities can achieve great things with sufficient drive, determination and expenditure of energy. That also means you have to apply yourself dilegently, focus and work hard.

Yet, that is not the way it plays out today. The United States, like all western democracies, have enacted laws to right the wrongs of the past. The result of more than 40 years of progressive legislation is discouraging to say the least. Policies to encourage certain classes of persons—visible minorities, women, the disabled, among others—to be treated with respect and dignity have enabled them to be placed in a preferential and distinct position when it comes to hiring practices. In many ways, such privileged groups have become stigmatized by the very same laws that were supposed to ennoble them. Such policies and practices actually rob the individual of the dignity that we all require, a dignity that often comes from hard work and earning a place in society. For many liberals, this policy makes perfect sense, since it levels the playing field. Past discriminatory practices against visible minorities and women are the primary reasons cited for the legislation's continued requirement.

It is known in the U.S. as affirmative action and in Canada as employment equity; the legislations are similar in many areas in terms of employer hiring practices, but the U.S. legislation is more sweeping and includes university admissions inextricably linked to federal funding. (The word affirmative means to agree with of give assent to.) As with all such ideas it was born with good intentions, that in hiring persons, affirmative action ought to be taken to hire persons without considering race, religion and national origin. Following on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such was the language of the 1965 legislation of President Lyndon B. Johnson; gender was added in 1968 as an addendum when the women's-liberation movement, or feminism, became a more powerful force. (In Canada, employment equity became law in 1986.)

In the U.S., the program's original intention was to encourage the hiring of more minorities and later on more women. But it eventually became a policy that was transformed to hiring minorities and women first as a preferred or privileged groups. (University admissions offices hold similar policies.) In effect, restrictive quotas were established against white males. Quotas were actually illegal in the original legislation addressing employment equality, but that mattered little in the politicization of race and gender. Social engineering dictates that such polices are the only way to address former grievances and injustices.  Many call such a policy "reverse discrimination," a descriptive term that is not without merit.

After all, is it not discrimination to make a clear choice of one group over another, of one candidate over another in both university admissions and hiring practices. To choose the weaker candidate in both cases? So, in effect, such discrimination has become legal in the U.S. with the intent of leveling the playing field. In effect, it has become, in result, acute discrimination against white males. With academia providing the intellectual reasoning and justification for such a policy, and the U.S. Supreme Court generally ruling in its favour (generally as Title VII cases), it soon became normative to say that affirmative action is not only both legal and necessary, but also morally justifiable.

One of the results is that in 2008 Barack Obama was elected as the U.S's first affirmative action president. Many white liberals applauded this result, their guilt somewhat assuaged by this reassuring example that now all was well in the United States of America. In effect, the sins of the fathers are passed on to the many generations of white males; visible minorities and women are exempt, gaining a free pass from any examination of their past history by dint of being in a privileged group. White male liberals ought to feel some sort of redemptive power when this happens, the purifying power of certain privileged minorities providing the healing balm.

The defenders of affirmative action will point to the need for diversity and integration in the workforce; nothing more has to be said. If you dare attack its justification or principles, you would be regarded with suspicion as being anti-progressive at the least, and racist and misogynist at the worst. To criticize a policy is to have an individual mind, which is contrary to group-think and the new faith of consensus and accommodation. Under such ideas, all persons ought to think and act alike and agree that affirmative action is good, even if they don't (really) agree. But many don't agree. What happens, then?

Consider the following: Jews, on the other hand, a small sliver of a minority group, who faced serious discriminatory practices not only in education, employment, but also in housing and membership in private clubs between the 1920s and 1940s, have never benefited from such government programs. They found other ways to get ahead.

I doubt that affirmative action and its resonant policies will ever go away, despite its corrosive effect on capitalist democratic America. Too many persons benefit from its practices, no matter how discriminatory they might be. The theories of Marx as it applies to social engineering (i,e, "democratic planning") are strongly enmeshed in the political, legal and cultural thought processes and principles of the West, including in the U.S. Such Marxist theories, which angrily rail against injustices and demand the elimination of all biases, no matter how it is done, run alongside the Enlightenment principles and the U.S. Constitution, which form the basis of a democratic capitalist society. When you think about it, it makes for strange bedfellows.

Affirmative action might seem like a good, if not morally sound, idea to bring about fairness in human decision-making. But it is a bad idea in the one area that is not often examined: its policies will only make America and its workforce poorer in the one thing that counts the most—human dignity.