Affirmative action, in theory, is a matter of distributive justice, which is why liberals and progressives tend to look benevolently on it while conservatives and libertarians consider it a travesty. But in practice, does it actually advance the cause of justice in America? In some respects it has attempted to remedy the long-term effects of slavery and racial segregation; then again, programs that benefit women and recent immigrants cannot be defended on those grounds. Is it supposed to enhance “diversity” in colleges, professional schools and workplaces, or is it more specifically a set of programs for enhancing the class mobility of people who are structurally disadvantaged from birth? How can we decide whether affirmative action has been successful–and how can we decide whether affirmative action could ever be so successful as to become obsolete?
Advocates of affirmative action have three arguments at their disposal: It is a corrective for past inequality and oppression; it is a corrective for present inequality, much of which derives from past inequality and oppression; and diversity in the classroom or the workplace is not only a positive good in itself but conducive to greater social goods (a more capable global workforce and a more cosmopolitan environment in which people engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs). Critics of affirmative action, for their part, have insisted that it is unfair to people who have never practiced race or gender discrimination; that it is counterproductive insofar as it damages the self-esteem of its beneficiaries and the public trust of institutions that practice it; and that it has deleterious consequences for society at large, because it promotes the unqualified and the incompetent over the talented and industrious.
Affirmative action in college admissions has been problematic, sometimes rewarding well-to-do immigrants over poor African-American applicants–except that all the other alternatives, like offering admission to the top 10 or 20 percent of high school graduates in a state, seem to be even worse, admitting badly underprepared kids from the top tiers of impoverished urban and rural schools while keeping out talented students who don’t make their school’s talented tenth. In the workplace, affirmative action has been checkered by fraud and confounded by the indeterminacy of racial identities–and yet it’s so popular as to constitute business as usual for American big business, as evidenced by the sixty-eight Fortune 500 corporations, twenty-nine former high-ranking military leaders and twenty-eight broadcast media companies and organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs in the recent Supreme Court cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).
The thorny legal and political issues affirmative action raises are made still more complex by the fact that affirmative action is inevitably recursive: The extent to which it works in practice depends considerably on our interpretations of it. Administrators and organizations that oppose it tend to be quite bad at implementing it; likewise, female and minority students and employees who are told that they are taking the places of more qualified applicants tend to doubt themselves and perform less capably than women and minorities who are told that they have every right to be right where they are.