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Affirmative Action: An Insoluble Debate?

Indians may not be familiar with the term, but they mention affirmative action in at least one conversation a day. Amidst ever-rising competition and a lack of employment, someone needs to be held accountable. And most Indians in the UR category put the blame on people from the reserved categories. Should it be called indignation or yet another symbol of privilege? Affirmative action has been one of the most controversial political issues since its inception. It is worth deliberating whether the subject matter will ever reach a consensus or not.

Affirmative action describes a set of policies that grant special concessions to underprivileged communities who were stripped of adequate opportunities in the past, particularly due to racial bias and apartheid. In a multicultural society like ours, affirmative action forms a significant part of politics. It plays an essential role in the endeavour of redistributing opportunities more reasonably. Affirmative action is, hence, a means to this end that has manifested as a result of the prolonged discrimination of ethnic, racial, and gender minorities.

Credits: The Guardian

To Americans, affirmative action is an American dilemma. To Indians, it is exclusively a manifestation of the centuries-old caste system. However, it is interesting to note that such remedial action is found all around the world. Group preferences are present in most modern nation-states with entirely different histories and ethnicities. What is called affirmative action in the US is called positive discrimination in Britain and India, standardization in Sri Lanka, and referring to the federal character of the country in Nigeria. All these different nations are under peculiar circumstances, but such circumstances are dealt with similar programs or policies.

Since affirmative action emerged out of the struggle to combat discrimination, it relies upon efforts to combat historical patterns of racial injustice. Compensatory justice has evolved as a core argument in defence of the policy. Samuel Krislov, an American political scientist, draws an analogy of a race in which two runners are competing but one of them is forced to bear a heavy burden. After the race begins, the unencumbered runner moves far ahead. According to Krislov, you cannot say to the runner cumbered under burden that you see their suffering and ask them to leave their burden at the side of the course. That does not make the race equal. Restitution has to be made for the prior injustice.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”

— Former US President Johnson

An additional utilitarian argument- pro affirmative action– rests on the belief that integration within organisations and society at large ensures constructive outcomes. This is because identities carry with them distinctive socialisation experiences that often result in diverse perspectives. The third argument is that of democratic values. Elizabeth Anderson has argued, for example, that the dismantling of barriers to opportunity, which has worked to the disadvantage of minority groups, is essential for the promotion of a democratic civil society. In the context of government bureaucracy, democratic values enhanced by inclusiveness are all the more important.

But not everyone is up for such policies. The most common argument against affirmative action is that individuals should be evaluated based on their personal merits. Opponents argue that giving special preference to some groups because they have suffered or continue to suffer, is simply substituting one form of inequity for another.

Credits: Indypendent Reader

Another argument made to attack the notion is that preference is often given to the wrong people; “the most fortunate of the least fortunate groups” and “less qualified minority group people in contrast to more qualified majority group people.” This argument suggests that:

  • (a) Not all members of the disadvantaged community need preferences, and (b) More qualified individuals deserve selection over less qualified ones, irrespective of their background.

Affirmative action not only benefits the wrong people but also that it is at the cost of innocent non-minority individuals who may have never been guilty of discrimination themselves. This has come to be known as reverse discrimination. As society moves from a system that advantaged majority groups, say, white men, to one where a greater share of opportunity is available to previously disadvantaged groups, say black men and women, it is inevitable that opportunities for white men will be reduced.

“To equate the efforts to remedy the plight of racial minorities with the actions that produced it is to twist history.”

— Stanley Fish

Fish’s opinion notwithstanding, it is further insisted that affirmative action is, in fact, not needed at all. That we could do away with it. It is vigorously argued that the minority groups are now well represented in the areas of education, employment, and the establishment. Hence, we can let go of institutions like these because the goal has supposedly been achieved.

The debate centres on the two competing values that are fundamental to democratic culture: liberty and equality. Supporters of the policy accentuate equality of opportunity for groups historically disadvantaged, while opponents lay more stress on liberty in the sense that employers should have the choice to select whoever they deem appropriate for a job role instead of focussing on their identities. Resolving this debate is a Herculean task, one that scholars have not been able to and don’t seem to achieve any time soon. Nonetheless, there is one point where both proponents and opponents of the policy would agree. Affirmative action, when first conceived, was supposed to be a transient tool. It was hoped that one day we would not need it anymore. However, what segregates the two sides of the issue is the question of when we will reach that day. For those against it, the time from when onwards we don’t need it has already arrived. And for those who continue to root for its presence, we are yet to arrive. Consequently, the day we reach a consensus on the preferential policies of affirmative action is yet to arrive too. Perhaps one day that goal will be realised, but in the interim, the argument continues.

Alisha Uvais is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Shoa Falak

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Written by Alisha Uvais

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