By: Hendrik van der Breggen
Let’s think discriminately about discrimination (yes, you read that right). I’ll distinguish two senses of discrimination, and then I’ll raise seven questions about reverse discrimination.
Discrimination 1: to discern/differentiate between things; show a partiality/preference to specific things/people for some (usually) good reason. We discriminate between foods, wines, friends, potential spouses.
Such discrimination is typically not problematic.
But discrimination 2 is problematic: it happens when we differentiate between people unjustly.
Discrimination 2 occurs when, say, we don’t hire a qualified black man simply because he is black. Ditto for women, aboriginals, ethnicities, etc.
Philosopher Louis Pojman clarifies: “Discrimination [sense 1] is essentially a good quality, having reference to our ability to make distinctions. As rational and moral agents we need to make proper distinctions. To be rational is to discriminate between good and bad arguments, and to think morally is to discriminate between reasons based on valid principles and those based on invalid ones. What needs to be distinguished is the difference between rational and moral discrimination [discrimination 1], on the one hand, and irrational and immoral discrimination [discrimination 2], on the other hand.”
Enter reverse discrimination (henceforth RD), sometimes also known as “strong affirmative action.”
RD attempts to resolve past injustices by implementing employment practices that favor individuals belonging to groups unjustly discriminated against in the past.
Typically, RD involves hard quota hiring (percentages of women, natives, ethnicities, etc., in the work force must reflect the diversity of the larger population) or raising standards for privileged groups and/or lowering standards for (what I’ll call, with no disrespect intended) “official victim groups” (OVGs).
Now the seven questions.
1. If sexist, racist, etc. discrimination is wrong, is RD wrong too?
RD discriminates (allegedly in sense 1), albeit against a different, previously privileged group. But isn’t RD unjust when it now denies specific people opportunities for reasons—race, sex, etc.—that have nothing to do with their personal actions or abilities? And when not every member of the previously privileged group is privileged? And when not every OVG member suffered unjust discrimination?
2. If our goal is a less race (etc.) conscious society in which people are judged on their individual merits, is RD counter-productive?
By denying people opportunities for reasons (sex, race, etc.) that have nothing to do with ability, does RD reinforce group consciousness and stereotypes?
3. Does RD increase social tension and group polarization? I suspect that some non-OVG members resent OVGs, some RD beneficiaries are stigmatized, and some RD beneficiaries feel inferior because they aren’t hired for their merit.
4. Does RD encourage mediocrity? If standards of merit are lowered to allow underrepresented members to have a better chance at getting the job, does overall excellence suffer?
5. Does RD perpetuate victimhood? Does RD encourage OVGs to advance themselves by exploiting victim status via political remedy rather than by taking individual responsibility?
6. Does the creation of OVGs inadvertently create new OVGs? For example, are today’s young white males being unjustly discriminated against because of the sins of (much) older white males?
7. Is RD off-target? Wouldn’t it be wise to focus on strengthening family life and early education to ensure that all persons have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain credentials necessary to fare well in the job market?
Instead, RD focuses on society’s higher levels of education and employment where job competency and merit are crucial for society to function well. Is this detrimental to social and economic health?
Of course, past injustices should not be ignored: e.g., Canadian Japanese in Canadian concentration camps, native land claims, residential schools.
But perhaps solutions lie in compensating, where possible, those particular individuals who were unjustly treated, not groups?
We live in an imperfect world—an imperfect and terribly complex world—and maybe some problems can’t be solved. Should there be a statute of limitations for injustices done in the past?
Yes, we should care for the poor and seek justice. But this requires wisdom. Wisdom sometimes requires asking uncomfortable questions.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Providence University College, Manitoba, Canada. The views expressed by van der Breggen do not always reflect the views of Providence.