With many companies instituting policies to correct historical injustices and systemic discrimination, some employees and managers are pushing back. Many people use the “reverse racism” argument to dismiss affirmative action out of hand without giving serious consideration to the policy.

It’s an easy throw away that prevents engagement with discomfort and personal prejudice. These kinds of dismissals unfortunately tend to be most noisy and hide a more nuanced skepticism within the ranks of organizations. Those nuanced misgivings need to be addressed, especially because they have valid claims.

Chief among these qualms is the discrimination that lies at the heart of the policy. To discriminate on the basis of skin color feels inherently wrong. There is also the nagging feeling that such discrimination is causing harm.


Is there an intrinsic moral failure in affirmative action policy?

Answering that question will depend on your moral standpoint. For instance, your definition of racism will be vital. If you believe that racism is any form of discrimination that is based on skin color, then affirmative action is intrinsically racist.

On the other hand, you may see racism as not merely discrimination but rather the way in which discrimination combines with power, especially in human systems, to exclude certain groups of people on the basis of skin color (after all discrimination is what all humans do all the time such as when we choose our life partners).

Another way your standpoint matters is based on how you weight moral value. For instance, you may see moral good as measured by maximizing good (this is called a utilitarian position) rather than seeing any particular action as intrinsically moral or immoral.

A utilitarian would evaluate a theft on the basis of balancing harm and good – a hungry child stealing food from a market has a different moral weight than tax dodging which in turn is different from the actions of a burglary syndicate.

Then there is the matter of intention. Whether or not your ethics accounts for the intentions of a person or group of people will matter a great deal in evaluating the morality of their actions.


There are good examples of how affirmative action policies have caused harm:

  1. Some black professionals feel that the policy taints their hard work because they are seen as having an advantage over their white peers.
  2. When affirmative action is implemented in a lazy or careless fashion it often results in tokenism.
  3. Harvard’s affirmative action policy came under fire because it tended to favor black students of Caribbean or African descent over African Americans.
  4. There are plenty of examples of protest from those who feel excluded by affirmative action – not just white people, but also other racialized groups.

Equally, there are plenty of examples where the policy has made a material difference to both companies and individuals as well as society as a whole. For instance, affirmative action for women has had marked success in increasing representation of (mainly white) women in various sectors across society.

We must take into account the harm of not implementing affirmative action. A recent study from UC Berkeley examined the consequences California’s 1998 ban on university affirmative action and found that it resulted in decreased enrollments of black and latino students and a decline in their wages. The ban did not improve the lot of white and Asian American students.

Evaluating the cumulative effectiveness and deciding whether it is a net benefit or harm is very difficult indeed, but we cannot judge the policy in principle based on anecdotes. Anyone considering the policy needs to get to grips with the research not just to establish whether or not to implement but in order to “tune” their particular implementation.

Have the courage to act

Like all policies, there is a risk of harm when implementing affirmative action. For this reason, the policy should have built in checks and balances, be based on evidence and be contingent on continuous measurement. A “cut-and-paste” solution isn’t going to work.

Some organizations, after careful deliberation, have decided that a race-based affirmative action policy is too problematic, but they have still implemented a class-based affirmative action policy using carefully chosen proxies (such as family income, school history and son on) that will favor racialized minorities, especially black applicants.

Decisions like this may be because of personal awkwardness with using race as a marker but it can also be a pragmatic means of avoiding political fallout.

Since society tilts the balance of power toward white people, affirmative action seeks to push back toward a more balanced practice. Undoubtedly there are dangers in doing so because a policy might over-react or have unintended consequences. And it is not always easy to establish what the intent of policy is or secure the intentions of those who implement policy.

But to do nothing in the face of systemic injustice is arguably worse than attempting to address that injustice.

Equally, to wait until we have a “fool-proof” policy is an even greater danger: to paraphrase Voltaire, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.