Affirmative Action: A Failed Experiment in Social Justice?

Few subjects will result in such lively and heated discussions as the issues surrounding affirmative action. That there are passionate opinions on either side of the issue suggests that, as a social experiment, it is far from fully understood. This likely has much to do with the manner in which President John F. Kennedy first used the term in 1961 in Executive Order 10925[6]. It may be that, however well intentioned, affirmative action has developed into a policy of social redress that has failed because, in it present form, it could never achieve the ambitious results envisioned by Kennedy.

Arguably, when using the language “The contractor will take affirmative action…” Kennedy was suggesting that employers seeking contracts with the government should take meaningful steps to ensure that hiring and employment practices were fair and impartial with respect to the social issues and demographics identified in the Order. However, since its first use, the term has morphed into a policy title as opposed to a form of guidance. Perhaps therein lies the source of the social difficulties affirmative action has faced and continues to face.

To better understand this it is useful to consider at least one definition of affirmative action as applied today. According to Robert Fullinwider, “’Affirmative action’ means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded.”[4]. On the surface, this definition seems to be in conflict with the intent of President Kennedy’s statements. The danger then is that the enforcement of a policy against one group on historical grounds without regard for that group’s current position is likely to result in opposition.

There are no reasonable arguments against the reality that, in general, various minority groups in America have suffered under the yoke of discriminatory practices. That being said, it is perhaps unfair to level the accusation of oppression at the feet of today’s “white males” as is so often the case today, without considering the reasons for the historical imbalance that has resulted in present day practices.

Necessarily, the answers to this question reach far beyond the context of this private exploration but it seems clear that white dominance in the Americas has its roots in the advancements both technological and social that came about in European culture. It is instructive to consider that disadvantaged Europeans emigrated to the “New World” because of inferior conditions in their home countries. In a very real sense, those early immigrants were themselves escaping that period’s discrimination. What may be consequential here is that rather than allowing themselves to continue to be oppressed, these immigrants instead fought to build a new nation. Whilst it is true that that society went on to oppress others it does pose a question with respect to the level of responsibility any group must accept for allowing themselves to become oppressed. In 2105 authors Willian Shaw and Vincent Barry noted in their book Moral Issues in Business, “…three out of four whites believe that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to prefer living on welfare…”[10]. For me, that this is an empty proposition but it cannot be ignored that that the belief has its origin somewhere.

To some extent, affirmative action is an attempt to cure a disease by treating a symptom. In one respect it is a redress of past exclusion or a social good that does no harm to justice[4]. For Shaw and Barry, the arguments for and against affirmative action list: “Compensatory justice…”; “…fairer competition.”; “…infringes on their rights.”; “…violates the principle of equality.”; “Nondiscrimination will achieve our social goals…”[10]. Clearly, at the heart of arguments for and against affirmative action are the implications on justice and this is critical because justice is impartial and it demands a realization of cause. Therefore, to evaluate the correctness of affirmative action programs it is necessary to understand why they may be needed.

There can be no doubt that many opinions surrounding affirmative action policies have their root in race and sex biases. Some years ago, the English comedian Eddie Izzard performed a stand up routine in San Francisco titled Dressed to Kill. As a part of his performance he discussed the actions of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the legacy of more than 500,000 civilian deaths. During the routine Izzard remarked, “…and we’re fine with that.” when referencing the fact that those who died were “them” not “us”[3]. This is an important consideration because it describes the willingness of one group to rationalize actions and behaviors directed at others. To some extent it may be described as an in-group coping device but it puts at risk any out-group individual who may become victimized. America is a multi-cultural nation. Its members have ethnic and cultural roots that span the globe and many of those members recognize those ethnicities by describing themselves at “Something-American”. This tendency speaks to an important issue with respect to group behavior because the notion of hegemony is very real. The subject under consideration alludes to this notion in battle cries such as, “…white males have been the most powerful group in the United States.” Viewed through this lens, it is not difficult to understand why affirmative action programs exist but it also begs the question of whether the cultural mores that underpin a need for redress would even exist if the citizenry were to refer to themselves only as Americans. Reasonably, identification with a group brings group acceptance and rewards. It is only when the group rejects an individual that any society can be sure that discrimination truly exists.

Whilst it is true that, presently, American culture appears to be dominated by white male preferences it is not clear that this situation came about because of evil or improper intent (discrimination). Of course this is not to say that discrimination does not exist in America but this nation is built on the notion that anyone willing to work hard can achieve success. This is a feel-good remark and it is also trite but the growing list of newly wealthy individuals in America support the notion that hard work pays rewards yet it is wise to remember that that hard work takes place within an established environment that promotes progress. There is rule of law; there are established markets, a stable government, and an infrastructure that supports the effort. In a very real sense, no one person is successful alone. They are forced to rely heavily on the structures provided by the many. And everyone and anyone is entitled to avail of that environmental advantage. Understandably, it is claimed that minorities are disadvantaged in accessing this environment but disadvantage is not exclusion.

It would be hard to argue that Russell Simmons was given his success. The surviving members of Run DMC would certainly take issue with such a claim. Like other actors, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freemen “paid their dues” and, with the assistance of his mother, pressed to escape the “ghetto” and to take those he cared about with him[1]. Success is not something that may be given and this is perhaps the single most damaging indictment of affirmative action. The dominance of white male groups does not by definition equate to discrimination. That successful minority members exist confirms that opportunities are available to those who seek them out. Quite simply, one may argue that white males came first. That they exploited their advantage to secure their position is not unreasonable. What may be unreasonable is that they should be expected to surrender that advantage simply because large groups from other demographics cannot achieve the same success rapidly. It should be remembered that it took white males hundreds of years to secure dominance. That it may take a similar time frame for minorities to achieve that same level of success should not be beyond belief. Inasmuch as it may be claimed that current white males benefit from those that went before, it may also be argued that today’s minorities benefit from the foundations built by those males.

Consider the following. Is it really a valid argument that the dominance of African-Americans in the rap and hip-hop genres is unfair? What would be the market reaction to an insistence that a higher percentage of white rappers’ compositions must be purchased simply because they are underrepresented in the community? I suspect that the market would reject the demand out of hand while accepting that valid contributors such as Eminem exist. Consider the absurdity of demanding that Bill Gates surrender much of his success simply because as a white male he received advantages not available to minorities. Ask how many other white males had the same access Mr. Gates had to the new computer environment or how many white males had the level of access to the CEO of Motorola that Steve Jobs had. Being a white male is not a panacea. White males must seek opportunity too. That these individuals may have a structural advantage is no fault of theirs and it seems clear that affirmative action imposes a punishment on them for that unsought advantage. It does not reach the level of reverse discrimination because discrimination is a tangible intent to disadvantage or exclude an individual based on given criteria. In this regard it may be concluded that with respect to affirmative action, reverse discrimination does not exist. In reality, the negative side effects of affirmative action are instead systemic. To an extent, these side effects are akin to condemning an African-American for being more advantaged than a Somali rather than condemning that individual for being black. Nevertheless, inasmuch as it is an accident of birth that an individual has the ability to live in America it is similarly an accident that that individual may be a white male.

Sadly, on the issue of affirmative action there is great emotional baggage. I read Judy Mann’s essay Affirmative Action’s Long Record. As a white male, I found the essay difficult. Ms. Mann’s remarks came across as visceral. While she did point to valuable issues her patent venom at white men undermined her message. Declaring “…Europeans settled this continent, slaughtered Native Americans and sanctified the rule of white men.”[8], is an inflammatory statement and it conveniently misrepresents the truth. Europeans sanctified white rule not the rule of white men.

Mann goes on to imply that women are forced to cluster into so-called “pink-collar”[8][10] occupations that tend to be lower paying. This is somewhat inaccurate and inappropriate. Accepting the disturbingly ongoing disparity in generalized pay scales, it is a fact that selected women’s’ professions such as nursing are in fact highly paid with many advanced practice nurses earning at levels well above males in comparable worth occupations like policing and firefighting[7].

Mann also comments on the existence of the glass ceiling with respect to women. As with many pro affirmative action arguments Mann doles out a collection of statistics as proof of its existence as if those statistics are enough to convict white men for their unfairness. It may be indisputable that the glass ceiling exists but it may be argued that largely, women are chiefly responsible for maintaining it[5]. Generally, women experience reluctance to self-promote in the workplace. The results of Goodson’s study of 322 male and female executives indicate that women find self-promotion to be unacceptable behavior. Typically, they hold the opinion that hard work and dedication are sufficient to allow direct competition with men. The study also indicated that women tend to be “over-preparers.” While they work hard on getting their work technically correct they fall short of ensuring supervisors and other influential persons within the group recognize their efforts. As I have noted elsewhere, without a strong network operating around them such as the “old-boy’s-network” there appears to no socially formed mechanism that pushes women into prominence. Goodson believes that these difficulties are compounded by the fact that women who have broken the glass ceiling to rise up the corporate ladder pull the ladder up behind them. In this way, they obstruct other women from building upon their success.

Why then is the issue of affirmative action so divisive? If Americans generally agree that fairness is ethical why do these programs exist? Fundamentally, demanding that affirmative action programs be mandated as a resolution for the inequities of the past is not reasonable. There is a broader context to the entire issue and each claim must be evaluated within the scope of that context bearing in mind that every individual interprets that context through the lens of his or her ethical bias. However, that personal bias must be integrated with the ethical structure that permits the country to operate.

It may be argued that America’s ethics derive from egoism. Ethical egoism does not impose a duty to assist others but does impose a duty to the individual[10]. This position may be taken further to say that the ethical egoist seek to maximize his or her advantage to the exclusion of others unless assistance to those others would bring additional benefit. The ethical egoist sees no difficulty with this apparent exploitation because it is expected that all individuals will behave in the same way. As an ethical structure, this construct makes sense when applied to a capitalist economy and it overcomes objections because a nation cannot exceed the sum of its parts. It cannot be in conflict with its members even if the reverse is not true. As America pushes forward to maximize its advantage it sweeps is citizenry along with it. Yet the country has no regard (read obligation) to ensure that individuals are properly cared for. That is the prevue of the people.

If the nation prospers on the basis of egoism it follows that individuals applying a similar approach within it will also prosper and this appears to be true because it describes the ideal entrepreneur. Generally, it is not in the interest of a business owner to waste resources but it is in his or her interest to maximize advantage. If that means selecting human resources based on market or workplace preferences this will likely be the outcome. Humans tend to group together with similar humans. This effect is well observed in the Rising Income Gap Shapes Residential Segregation[9]. It should not be surprising then that white male business owners will tend toward white male employees. Arguable, minority owned businesses may hire greater number of minorities but the key question becomes do those businesses hire minorities into key positions. Presumably, this will happen if there is an advantage to the business.

What may be said of the society in general? On the whole, Americans are well-meaning people. They are generous, caring, and driven to correct severe inequities wherever they appear. For this reason, as a citizenry Americans appear to be utilitarian in their ethics. Utilitarianism seeks to produce on balance the greatest level of good possible. Attempts to provide social safety nets such as Social Security, The Civil Rights Act, The creation of the EEOC, The Family Medical Leave Act, the Affordable Care Act, or the American’s With Disabilities Act all speak to the general desire to provide good to the people because it is the morally right thing to do. Affirmative action is one such attempt but as a consequentialist might say, it is perhaps a feel good measure because it ignores the negative consequences of trying to level a playing field that developed for valid societal reasons.

Assuming that Americans are essentially utilitarian it should be obvious that over the long-term their goal will be to create the best outcomes for all. It should be equally obvious that, in this context, any effort aimed at uncovering inequities is morally valid. Still, as a society Americans must be mindful that by definition such efforts may result in apparently unjust outcomes especially when applied against a backdrop of an egoistic economy. It would appear that these difficulties exist with affirmative action and as such is should be considered a failure. It has not failed because it is bad policy. It had failed because to attempt to redress the abuses of previous societies by penalizing current actors.


  1. (2014). Retrieved from
  2. Are Women Responsible for the Glass Ceiling? (April, 2000). USA Today, pp 1.
  3. Dressed to Kill [Motion picture on VHS]. (1999). USA: Ella Communications Ltd.
  4. Fullinwider, Robert, “Affirmative Action”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =
  5. Goodson, S.L, and Dudley, G.W. 1997, Executive Women and the Glass Ceiling Revisited, Southwestern Psychological Association, Annual Convention, 1997.
  6. Kennedy, John F. (Mar. 6, 1961) Executive Order 10925 Establishing The President’S Committee On Equal Employment Opportunity. Accessed on 12/13/14 from
  7. Larson, J. (2008). Some Advanced Practice Nurses Earn More than Doctors. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from
  8. Mann, J. (1995, November 1). Affirmative Action’s Long Record. Retrieved December 7, 2014, from
  9. Rising Income Gap Shapes Residential Segregation. (2012, September 23). Retrieved December 7, 2014, from
  10. Shaw, W., & Barry, V. (2015). Moral issues in business (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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