The Ethics of Affirmative Action

Government Is Most Responsible for the Conditions Minorities Face

Dr. Yates was a visiting philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina last year. He is a Salvatori Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and an Adjunct Research Scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation. He is also the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994).

Affirmative action has troubled the American political landscape for over three decades. Sooner or later, every ethicist must confront the dilemmas it and a variety of closely related policies—multicultural education, diversity management, sensitivity training sessions—pose. The dilemmas themselves indeed seem acute. It is true, for example, that U.S. history reveals poor treatment of this country’s minorities and its powerless. Native Americans were taken from their lands and forcibly relocated. Decades of enforced discrimination left blacks well behind whites politically and socioeconomically. Women were denied the right to vote for years.

The 1950s saw the start of an extensive effort to repudiate discrimination and bring about equal opportunity. Then something went wrong. The struggle for genuine equal opportunity was lost amidst the growing clamor by an ever-increasing number of groups for special government favors. Equal opportunity laws, which initially rejected preferential policies, were replaced by affirmative action programs which could not be implemented without them.

Backers of affirmative action argued that blacks and other victims of past discrimination were so far behind in the economic race that without preferential treatment, equal opportunity would never be more than a high-sounding phrase. Thus race-conscious policies emerged with a vengeance. Employers had to keep voluminous records on the race, gender, ethnic heritage, and religious background of prospective employees so they could prove they had not discriminated against those designated by the government as victims. Government agencies expanded their reach to oversee implementation. Those found not in compliance, even innocently, sometimes saw their businesses imperiled.[1]

White males started chafing at reverse discrimination right away. Well-known cases such as Bakke and Weber resolved little, though, and future litigation seems inevitable. Meanwhile, special programs of all varieties not only failed to help the vast majority of those in targeted groups but left them worse off than before; the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action, after all, have not been the economically disadvantaged blacks and Native Americans, but middle- and upper-class women. The welfare state, another legacy of the 1960s, has now produced second- and third-generation dependents with no marketable skills and no incentive to acquire them. Victimology has become the country’s largest growth industry—after government, of course.[2]

The affirmative action umbrella now covers roughly two thirds of the country’s population, with the disabled and homosexuals the most recent entrants. Tensions between groups are at an all-time high, with skirmishes occurring constantly. The prevailing philosophy of multiculturalism which now underwrites much discussion of race, ethnicity, and gender has fueled division by emphasizing differences between groups.

What ought to concern the ethicist is the prevailing response to these problems. Instead of serious soul-searching and re-examination, an ambience of disinformation, concealment, and, when needed, outright dishonesty, has protected affirmative action and its kin for years. Begin with language. Equal opportunity clearly does not mean equal opportunity but preferences for some at the expense of others. New-speak surrounds preferential policies with terms like inclusion, celebrating diversity, and sensitivity. Claims that affirmative action has sometimes forced businesses and entire industries to set quotas and hire by race and gender meet with belligerent denial, along with insinuations that only racists and sexists would make such charges. This tactic serves a very specific purpose: many white males, even those in positions of authority, will not question affirmative action for fear of being labeled racists. Finally, today’s “sensitivity training” seems intended to inculcate in the white male who is turned down for a job or a promotion in favor of a less qualified woman or minority that, as a member of the oppressor group, he had it coming!

If affirmative action had been the boon to women and minorities its advocates claim, I doubt there would be much debate. Its benefits would be evident to everyone. What do we see instead? We see growing populations of minorities who lack the basic skills necessary for economic advancement, and are actually slipping backward. We see an educational system which seems powerless to do anything, and rationalizes its own failings with doctrines which make achievement as well as experience a group-specific notion. In the view multiculturalists espouse, schools should give minority groups “self-esteem” instead of knowledge and marketable skills. Sometimes this means rewriting their histories to invent “achievements.” Afrocentrism is the best example, with its claims that the Egyptians were black, that the Greeks stole their culture from Africa (the real origin of civilization), and that two thousand years of racism has suppressed the truth.[3] Radical feminism, the noisy stepchild of affirmative action for women, is also shot through with bizarre claims about sex and rape, our pornography-driven culture, and the universal victimization of women by “patriarchal society.” The war against “sexual harassment” has created a climate in which men are guilty if charged.[4]

Clearly we are on a downward spiral. Writers all across the political spectrum have observed that this balkanizing trend threatens not only basic constitutional rights (such as First Amendment free speech protections) but the very fabric of representative democracy. Is there a better way? I think so. It’s called the free market.

If transactions are voluntary and not coerced, businesses and other organizations will be free to hire according to their needs. This right will be recognized and protected by government. If personal responsibility is a central value, employers will not simply indulge base prejudicies or personal whims. Rather, business necessity—the necessity to remain as competitive as possible—will require employers to “cast their nets as widely as possible” and attempt to hire the best employees. A free market will ensure that information is available where qualified members of minority groups who are alert and seeking new opportunities will see it. In this sense, what has sometimes been called “weak” affirmative action will be permitted to continue on a voluntary basis among those who wish to continue it. As a voluntary enterprise, it may take a variety of forms which have the potential to address and solve the problems that coercive, government-driven affirmative action has been unable to touch, and without creating the dilemmas and rifts that coercive affirmative action has created.[5] Moreover, under conditions of genuine liberty, minorities will be freed from many constraints which have held them back: high taxes, licensure laws, zoning ordinances, etc.[6]

A question is in order. Given the freedom to do otherwise, will businesses and other institutions actually reach out to minorities? The mistrust evident in the question is actually misplaced. A recent study has shown that bigotry and prejudice are no longer considered acceptable to a majority of educated people.[7] Education has been and will continue to be the key. We should emphasize that racism is unfair to individuals whether directed by whites against blacks, or by blacks against whites. It is, in fact, a form of collectivism, and embodies its defects and follies in a particularly virulent form. Our tradition of individualism got rid of slavery. This tradition is still our best hope of keeping racism at bay.

At present, though, coercion, not education, is the norm. The proportioning of peoples by force is driving them apart rather than bringing them together. A new separation is loose in our society, fueled by the multiculturalist emphasis on how peoples differ instead of what they have in common.

Members of minority groups (and women) must be willing to question the dominant tendencies in what passes for education today. They need especially to question the collectivism and relativism inherent in multiculturalism, and affirm the values of liberty, responsibility, achievement, and toleration as values which hold universally, independently of race and gender. Then they will be motivated to obtain the skills they need to be employable, or to become entrepreneurs. This need not mean giving up a cultural or ethnic heritage but rather making an effort to preserve it in ways that don’t undermine their capacity to prosper in a free society.

To sum up, government programs can never allocate skills where they are most needed. Lest the whole concept of “voluntary affirmative action” seem to place too much trust in human goodness, it is important to remember that government is the institution most responsible for the conditions minorities face. Slavery had foes as far back as the Revolutionary War, but continued under the support of government. Government instituted Jim Crow laws and involuntary segregation. Then, in our century, it passed minimum wage and licensure laws which effectively priced blacks out of the marketplace and created impassable barriers to their entry into many professions. Coercive preferential programs amount to government efforts to solve problems the government created in the first place—rather like using gasoline in an attempt to put out a fire.

For peaceful affirmative action to replace coercive affirmative action, though, criticisms by white males such as myself probably won’t be enough. Women and minorities themselves must recognize that efforts by government to “help” them have proven futile. This means repudiating much of their current leadership. Fortunately, we have already seen the beginnings of such a trend in the writings of such black intellectuals as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Glenn Loury.[8] If the facts presented here and in countless other places can be shouted from the rooftops long enough, there may yet be hope for general economic advancement and intergroup peace in America. []


  1.   Consider, for example, what happened to the tiny Daniel Lamp Company in Chicago. In 1989 the EEOC filed suit against Daniel Lamp and forced its owner, entrepreneur Mike Welbel, to pay over $130,000 to compensate alleged victims of racial discrimination in which the only evidence was the absence of an officially approved statistical ratio. See my Civil Wrongs, chapter 1, for details.
  2.   See Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
  3.   See for example Martin Bernal, Black Athena (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991).
  4.   For the latest account see Richard Bernstein, “Guilty If Charged,” New York Review of Books, January 13, 1994, pp. 11-14.
  5.   Cf. Richard A. Epstein, Forbidden Grounds: The Case Against Employment Discrimination Laws (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  6.   For the best available account of these restrictions see Walter Williams, The State Against Blacks (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982). Cf. also S. David Young, The Rule of Experts (Washington: The Cato Institute, 1987), ch. 12, for the effects of licensure on minorities and the poor.
  7.   For some statistics on white attitudes toward blacks see Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza The Scar of Race (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).
  8.   For a good recent survey of “the new black vanguard” see Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson, Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment: Profiles of a New Black Vanguard (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Books, 1993).

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