Affirmative Action as Equalizing Opportunity: Challenging the Myth of "Preferential Treatment

By Luke Charles Harris and Uma Narayan


Affirmative action is an issue on which there has been considerable public debate. We think, however, that it is a policy that has often been misunderstood and mischaracterized, not only by those opposed to it, but even by its defenders (Harris and Narayan, 1994). In this essay, we intend to describe these misconceptions, to ex-plain why we consider them misconceptions, and to offer a much stronger defense of affirma-tive action policies than is usually offered. In the first section, we examine and challenge prevalent misrepresentations of the scope of af-firmative action policies – misconceptions about the groups of people these policies are designed to benefit, and about the benefits they are intended to achieve. In the second section, we address misunderstandings about the rationale for affirmative action policies, and take issue with those who regard affirmative action as bestowing "preferential treatment" on its bene-ficiaries. We argue that affirmative action pol-icies should be understood as attempts to equalize opportunity for groups of people who confront ongoing forms of institutional discrim-ination and a lack of equal opportunity. In the third and fourth sections respectively, we take issue with those who defend affirmative action on the grounds that it is a form of compensation, and with those who defend it on the grounds that it promotes diversity and a range of other long-term goals. We argue that such rationales mischaracterize affirmative action as providing justifiable "preferences" to its beneficiaries. In the final section, we argue that the "stigma argument" against affirmative action dissolves if affirmative action is understood as equalizing opportunities, and not as bestowing preferences.

Clarifying the Scope of Affirmative Action Policies

The debate on affirmative action often misrepresents the scope of these policies in several important ways. The most perturbing of these misrepresentations is the widespread tendency to construe these policies as race-based policies alone, and further, to talk about African Ameri-cans as the only racial group they are intended to benefit. This picture of affirmative action policies is, to put it bluntly, false. Even when these policies were first initiated, they were designed to benefit members of other disadvantaged racial minorities besides African Ameri-cans. For example, almost two-thirds of the students admitted under the affirmative action program of the Davis Medical School that was challenged in the landmark Bakke case in 1978 were Latino or Asian American. Nonetheless, almost the entire public debate surrounding the case discussed it in terms of Blacks and Whites only. Even more oddly, the opinions of the Justices of the Supreme Court that considered this case – the majority opinions as well as the dissenting opinions – discussed affirmative action only as benefiting African Americans. In the context of the racial politics of the United States, we believe such a misrepresentation of the scope of these policies is not only false, but also dangerous since it is easier to negatively stereotype these policies when African Ameri-cans are viewed as their only beneficiaries.

Thus, even at their inception, when affirma-tive action policies were predominantly race-based, they were designed to remedy the insti-tutional exclusion of a number of racially disadvantaged groups. In many institutional contexts, they have long since expanded to cover other pounds on which groups of people face dis-crimination and unequal opportunity. A great many educational institutions, professions and trades have opened their doors to women as a result of affirmative action, promoting the entry of women into a range of formerly male domains, from law schools to corporations to police departments. This has benefited not only women of color, but many middle-class white women. Affirmative action policies in some institutions such as professional schools have also promoted the entry of working-class applicants, including working-class White men, a fact that is seldom discussed and little known. Derrick Bell points out that "special admissions criteria have been expanded to encompass disadvantaged but promising White applicants," and that, for example, the on admissions pro-gram of New York’s City University system, which was initiated by minority pressure, has benefited even greater numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class Whites than Blacks (Bell, 1979).

We need to remember that the world in which affirmative action policies were initiated was a world where a great many prestigious institutions and professions were almost exclu-sively enclaves of upper class White men, and where many of the blue-collar trades were predominantly the preserve of White working-class men. . Affirmative action has been crucial in opening up the former to women, to members of racial minorities, and to working-class Whites, and in opening up the laner to women and members of racial minorities. We are not arguing that each and every instance of affirma-tive action does or should consider each category of class, race, and gender. Which factors should be considered depends on the patterns of exclusion within a particular occu-pation and institution. For instance, affirmative action policies in the blue-collar trades and police and fire departments need to affirma-tively promote the entry of women of all races and of minority men, since they were the groups who faced obstacles to entry, not White working-class men. On the other hand, student admissions policies at institutions that used to be women’s colleges attended predominantly by White upper-class women such as our institu-tion, Vassar College, should seek to affirma-tively recruit students of color and students from working-class backgrounds, including White working-class men. What we are arguing is that, taken as a whole, affirmative action policies in many contexts have long operated on multiple criteria of inclusion, even though they continue to be portrayed as policies that either only benefit or principally benefit African Americans.

The prevalent failure to consider the range of people that affirmative action policies have benefited breeds a number of misplaced objec-tions to these policies. For instance, many people argue that affirmative action policies should be class-based instead of race-based, since they believe that middle-class African Americans do not need or "deserve" affirmative action (Carter, 1991). This view is problematic in a number of ways. First, many proponents of this view pose the issue as a choice between race and class, ignoring the fact that affirmative action policies have been both class-based and race-based. Secondly, proponents of this view-believe that middle-class Blacks do not suffer from the effects of discrimination despite sub-stantial evidence to the contrary.

In 1985, independent studies by the Grier Partnership and the Urban League revealed striking disparities in the employment levels of Blacks and Whites in Washington, DC, an area that constitutes one of the "best markets" for Blacks (Pyatt, 1985). Both studies cite racial discrimination as the major factor that accounts for this difference. A 1991 study by the Urban Institute examined employment practices in the Chicago and Washington, DC areas by sending equally qualified and identically dressed White and Black applicants to newspaper-advertised positions. The testers were also matched for speech patterns, age, work experience, physical build and personal characteristics. The study-found repeated discrimination that increased with the level of the advertised position, and revealed that Whites received job offers three times more often than equally qualified Blacks (Turner et al., 1991).

Finally, the limitation of the view that middle-class Blacks do not suffer racial discrim-ination becomes cle
ar when we attend to gender-based affirmative action policies. No one has seriously suggested that the sexism and gender-based discrimination women face in a variety of institutions is merely a product of their class status, or that middle-class status shields White women from these effects. Just as affirmative action policies that attend only to class disadvantages are unlikely to remedy the institutional exclusions faced by women, they would surely fail to remedy race-based exclu-sions faced by members of several racial minor-ity groups. In short, the effects of gender and race bias would be only partially curtailed by purely class-based policies. Indeed, purely class-based policies would mostly benefit working-class White men, whose race and gender are not the sources of invidious discrim-ination. As some recent feminist works teach us, we must, therefore, pay particular attention to the interconnected ways in which factors such as class, race, gender and sexual orientation work together to sustain disparities between different groups of Americans in a variety of institutional and social contexts.

There is, then, no need to pit class against race (or against gender) as the only valid basis for affirmative action. An array of factors that contribute to institutional discrimination — such as class, race, gender and disability – should be taken into account. When several factors inter-sect and jointly contribute to a process of dis-crimination, as in the case of a working-class Black woman, each factor should be considered. When only one aspect of a person’s identity adversely affects his or her opportunities in a given setting – for instance, class status the case of working-class White men, or race in the case of middle-class Black men – then only those factor should be taken into account.

Another prevalent objection to affirmative action policies that seems connected to misun-derstanding its actual scope is the objection that truly disadvantage poor Blacks have not benefited from these policies. The impression that affirmative action benefits only the Black middle class and that few working-class or poor Blacks benefit from these programs is mistaken. For the vast majority of Blacks were working-class prior to the Civil Rights Era and the promulgation of civil rights laws and affirmative action initiatives. These efforts have combined to play a major role in the creation of the Black middle class that exists today. Blauner points out that due to occupational mobility that is in part a product of affirmative action, nearly 25 percent of Black families had incomes of more than $25,000 (in constant dollars) in 1982, compared with 8.7 percent in 1960. Moreover, the proportion of employed Blacks who hold middle-class jobs rose from 13.4 percent in 1960 to 37.8 percent in 1981. The number of Black college students rose from 340,000 in 1966 to more than one million m 1982 (Blauner, 1989). From sanitation depart-ments to university departments, from the construction industry to corporate America, these programs have helped to open doors once tightly sealed.An empirically accurate assessment of af-firmative action policies shows that they have not only benefited poor and working-class Blacks, but poor and working-class people of all races, including some White working-class men and women. White working-class people’s opposition to these policies based on the belief that they are "victims" of such programs is based on a mistake, a mistake facilitated by discussions of these policies that portray them as only benefiting Blacks.

Lastly, some people also argue against af-firmative action on the grounds that it has not solved a host of problems pertaining to poverty in the inner-city and the "underclass" (Steele. 1990). It is entirely true that affirmative has not solved these problems. Neither has it solved problems such as rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. However, we do not think these are legitimate objections, since they more obviously over-inflate the scope of what these policies were intended to accomplish. Af-firmative action polices cannot be, and were not intended to be, a magic solution to all our social problems; indeed no single policy can solve every social problem we confront. Their pur-pose is a limited though important one – to partially counter the ways in which factors such as class, race, gender and disabilities func-tion in our society to impede equal access and opportunity, thereby promoting greater inclu-sion of diverse Americans in a range of insti-tutions and occupations. They have clearly succeeded in this goal, and should not be con-demned for failing to solve problems they were not intended to solve.

Re-envisioning the Rationale for Affirmative Action: from "Preferential Treatment" to "Equal Opportunity"

We believe that many mistaken views about af-firmative action result from misunderstandings about the justification or rationale for such pol-icies. Unfortunately, the debate on affirmative action has largely been a dialogue between two broadly characterizable positions. On the one hand, its critics describe it as a form of "reverse discrimination" that bestows "undeserved pref-erences" on its beneficiaries. On the other hand, its defenders continue to characterize the policy as "preferential treatment," but argue that these preferences are justified, either as "compensa-tion" or on grounds of "social utility." Few question the assumption that affirmative action involves the "bestowal of preferences," or chal-lenge the premise that it marks a sudden devi-ation from a system that, until its advent, operated strictly and clearly on the basis of merit. Setting out a view of affirmative action that rejects these ideas is our central task here.

In our view, affirmative action is not a matter of affording "preferential treatment" to its beneficiaries. Our position is that affirmative action is best understood as an attempt to promote equality of opportunity in a social context marked by pervasive inequalities, one in which many institutional criteria and practices work to impede a fair assessment of the capabilities of those who are working-class, women or people of color. Thus, affirmative action is an attempt to equalize opportunity for people who continue to face institutional obstacles to equal consider-ation and equal treatment. These obstacles in-clude not only continuing forms of blatant discrimination, but, more importantly, a variety of subtle institutional criteria and practices that unwarranted circumscribe mobility in con-temporary America. These criteria and prac-tices are often not deliberately designed to discriminate and exclude; the fact remains, however, that they nevertheless function to do so, as our subsequent examples demonstrate. Thus, in countering such forms of discrimin-ation, affirmative action policies attempt only to "level the playing field." They do not "bestow preferences" on their beneficiaries; rather, they attempt to undo the effects of institutional prac-tices and criteria that, however unintentionally, amount in effect to "preferential treatment" for Whites.

Those who believe that affirmative action constitutes "preferential treatment" assume (a) that the criteria and procedures generally used for admissions and hiring are neutral indicators of "merit," unaffected by factors such as class, race, or gender, and (b) that such criteria are fairly and impartially applied to all individuals at each of the stages of the selection process. In the rest of this section, we will try to show why Hits’1 two assumptions are seriously open to question.

Although test scores on standardized tests are often "taken as absolute by both the public and the institutions that use the scores in decision making," there is ample evidence that they do not predict equally well for men and women. A study of three college admissions tests (the SAT, the PS
AT/NMSQT, and the ACT) reveals that although women consistently earn better high school and college grades, they re-ceive lower scores on all three tests. Rosser argues that "if the SAT predicted equally well for both sexes, girls would score about 20 points higher than the boys, not 61 points lower" (Rosser, 1987). Standardized test scores ad-versely affect women’s chances for admission to colleges and universities, their chances for scholarships, and entry into "gifted" programs, as well as their academic self-perceptions. Simi-larly, James Grouse and Dale Trusheim argue, on the basis of statistical evidence, that the scores are not very useful indicators for helping to "admit black applicants who would succeed and reject applicants who would fail" (Grouse and Trusheim, 1988).

The literature on such standardized tests demonstrates that they are often inaccurate in-dicators even with respect to their limited stated objective of predicting students’ first-year grades in college and professional school. Yet, they are often used as if they measured a person’s overall intelligence and foretold long-term success in educational institutions and professional life. As a result of these unsupported beliefs, affirmative action policies that depart from strict consider-ations of these test scores are often taken to constitute the strongest evidence for institu-tional deviation from standards of merit, and constitutive elements of the "preference" thought to be awarded to women and minority applicants.

There are also many other examples of estab-lished rules, practices and policies of institu-tions that, no matter how benign their intention, have the effect of discriminating against the members of relatively marginalized groups. For instance, word-of-mouth recruit-ment where the existing labor pool is predomin-antly White male reduces the chances of women or people of color applying for the jobs in ques-tion, as do unions that influence’ or control hiring in well-paid jobs in the construction, transportation and printing industries when they recruit through personal contacts. A 1990 study reports that over 80 percent of executives find their jobs through networking, and that about 86 percent of available jobs do not appear in the classified? (Ezorsky, 1991). "Last hired, first fired" rules male more recently hired women and minorities more susceptible to lay-offs. The "old boy network" that results from years of social and business contacts among White men, as well as racially or sexually segre-gated country clubs or .social organizations, often paid for by employers, also have discrim-inatory impacts on women and minorities. Fur-thermore, stereotyped beliefs about women and minorities often justify hiring them for low-level, low-paying jobs, regardless of their quali-fications for higher-level jobs (Kantor and Stein, 1976).

Indeed, some empirical studies show that many Black candidates for jobs are rated mort negatively than White candidates with identical credentials. Other studies demonstrate that the same resume with a woman’s name on it re-ceives a significantly lower rating than when it has a man’s name on it, showing that gender-bias operates even when there is no direct con-tact with the persons evaluated. Still other problematic practices include evaluations where subjective assessments of factors such as "fitting in," "personality," and "self-confi-dence" serve class, race and gender prejudice.

Personal interviews, job evaluations, and rec-ommendations all have an inescapable subject-ive element which often works in the favor of better-off White men. As Lawrence A. Blum (1988) writes:

Persons can fail to be judged purely on abil-ity because they have not gone to certain colleges or professional schools, because they do not know the right people, because they do not present themselves in a certain way. And, again, sometimes this son of discrimination takes place without either those doing the discriminating or those being discriminated against realizing it…. Often these denials of equal opportunity have a lot to do with class background, as well as race or sex, or with a combination of these.

Interview processes that precede being selected or hired are often not as "neutral" as assumed. A two-step experiment done at Princeton Uni-versity began with White undergraduates inter-viewing both White and Black job applicants. Unknown to the interviewers, the applicants in the first stage of the experiment were all con-federates of the experimenters and were trained to behave consistently from interview to inter-view. This study reported that interviewers spent less time with Black applicants and were jess friendly and outgoing than with the White applicants. In the second stage of the experi-ment, confederates of the experimenters were trained to approximate the two styles of inter-viewing observed during the first stage of the study when they interviewed two groups of White applicants. A panel of judges who reviewed tapes of these interviews reported that White applicants subjected to the style previously accorded Blacks performed notice-ably worse in the interviews than other White applicants. In this respect, there is also substan-tial evidence that women are asked inappropri-ate questions and subject to discrimination in interviews.

None of the discriminatory institutional structures and practices we have detailed above necessarily involve conscious antipathy toward women and minorities or the operation of conscious sexist or racist stereotypes. Some discriminatory structures and practices involve unconscious stereotypes at work, from which women and people of color are hardly immune in their evaluations of other women and minor-ities. Many of the examples we discuss involve practices central to hiring and promotion that work to disadvantage many marginalized Americans even when all persons involved sin-cerely believe themselves to be fair and impar-tial. Because the processes of getting through an educational program, or being hired, retained and promoted in a job involve the possibility, for example, of women and minority applicants being subject to a variety of such practices, it seems likely that few, if any, women or people of color are apt to escape the cumulative adverse effects of these practices. In the context of these structures and practices that systematically dis-advantage some Americans, it would be naive, at best, to believe that our society is a well-functioning meritocracy.

The problem is far more complicated than is captured by the common perspective that working-class people, women and minorities have generally not had equal advantages and opportunities to acquire qualifications that are on par with those of their better-off, White male counterparts, and so we should compensate them by awarding them preferences even though they are less well qualified. Their qualifications, in fact, tend to be under-valued and under-appraised in many institutional contexts. Moreover, many of the criteria that are unquestioningly taken to be important impartial indi-cators of people’s competencies, merit and potential, such as test scores, not only fail to be precise measurements of these qualities, but systematically stigmatize these individuals within institutions in which these tests function as important criteria of admission.

We do not however wish to deny that factors such as class, race and gender often impede persons from acquiring qualifications. A 1981 study, for instance, showed that Black school districts received less funding and inferior edu-cational resources compared with similar White districts, often as a result of decision-making by Whites. There is also increasing evidence of disadvantaging practices in the pre-college ad-vising offered to minority students. Evidence suggests that teachers often interpret linguistic and cultural differences as indications of low potential or a lack of academic interests on the pan of minority students; and guidance
coun-selors often steer female and minority students away from "hard" subjects, such as mathemat-ics and science, which are often paths to high-paying jobs.

In such contexts, even if the criteria used to determine admission and hiring were otherwise unproblematic, it is not at all clear that taking them simply "at face value" would fairly or accurately gauge the talents and potential of disparate individuals. When some candidates have to overcome several educational and social obstacles that others do not, similarity of cre-dentials may well amount to a significant differ-ence in talent and potential. Thus, treating identical credentials as signs of identical cap-abilities and effort may, under prevailing condi-tions of inequality, significantly devalue the worth of credentials obtained in the teeth of such obstacles. We would argue that individuals who obtained their credentials in the face of severe obstacles are likely to do better than those who have similar or even somewhat better credentials obtained without coping with such obstacles, especially over a period of years, where they have opportunities to remedy their handicaps. Affirmative action policies with respect to admissions and hiring recruit individ-uals for positions where "success" depends on the nature of one’s performance over several years. Such recruitment should rightly concern itself with a person’s evidenced potential for success rather than simply assess what their capabilities appear to be, based on the compari-son of credentials acquired by individuals under distinctly different circumstances.

We are not arguing, however, that affirmative action policies are, or can be, magical formulas that help us determine with perfect precision in every case the exact weights that must be accorded a person’s class background, gender, and minority status so as to afford him or her perfect equality of opportunity. Particular insti-tutions must use practical wisdom and good-faith efforts to determine the exact measures that they will undertake to promote equality within their frameworks, as well as monitor and periodically reassess the parameters and scope of their institutional policies. Nor do we wish to deny that some persons recruited as a result of affirmative action policies might turn out to be incompetent or demonstrate signifi-cant limitations in their ability to meet require-ments. After all, the same incompetencies and limitations are manifested by some who are recruited by "regular" channels. No recruit-ment policies are immune to these problems. What we do argue is that in contexts where, for example, class, race, and gender operate to impede equality of opportunity, affirmative action policies have enabled many talented and promising individuals to have their talent and promise more fairly evaluated by the institu-tions in question than would otherwise have been the case.

The Limitations of the Compensation Rationale for Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has frequently been defended on the grounds that it provides preferential treatment to members of marginalized groups as reparation or compensation for injustices they have suffered. The term compensation draws heavily on the mode) of recompense or payment of damages that is found in tort law. In the context of tort remedies, the particular agent who is responsible for injuring another compensates the specific person injured by paying what is judged to be an appropriate sum of money for the actual extent of the injury he or she has caused. This rationale tends to raise a number of questions precisely at those points where affirmative action policies seem to differ from the practice of tort-based compen-sation. Some argue that those who are "paying the price" for affirmative action have no direct responsibility for any harms or injuries suffered by any of its beneficiaries. Others raise the question of why the specific form of payment involved – construed as preferences for jobs or preferential entry to educational institutions – is the appropriate form of compensation, rather than monetary awards. Such critics reinforce these arguments by pointing out that affirma-tive action policies do not seem to be the most equitable form of compensation because those who have been most injured are probably not the ones receiving the compensation since their injuries have resulted in their not having "the qualifications even to be considered."

There have been attempts to defend the com-pensation rationale against these objections (Boxhill, 1978). However, we believe that it remains an inadequate and problematic ration-ale for affirmative action. In suggesting that affirmative action compensates individuals for damage done by phenomena such as racism or sexism, this rationale implies that the problem is one of "damaged individuals" rather than a problem due to structures, practices and insti-tutional criteria within our institutions that con-tinue to impede a fair assessment of the capabilities of some Americans. We have argued in the previous section that there is ample evi-dence to show that many prevalent criteria and procedures do not fairly gauge the capabilities of members of marginalized groups. The com-pensation model, however, does not question the normative criteria used by our institutions or encourage critical reflection about the pro-cesses of assessment used to determine these "qualifications"; and, as a result, it fails to question the view that affirmative action in-volves "preferential treatment." We consider this a serious weakness, since it does not challenge the view that affirmative action policies promote the entry of "less qualified" individ-uals. Rather it merely insists that "preferences" bestowed on less qualified individuals are justi-fied as a form of compensation.

The compensation literature also conflates the rationale for race- and gender-based af-firmative action policies with that for policies that promote institutional access for veterans. Policies based on veteran status may indeed be understood as compensation for their risks, efforts, and injuries sustained in the service of the nation, which may also have impeded or detracted from their employment or educational goals. However, it does not necessarily follow that a rationale that works best to explain one type of special assistance program works equally well to explain all others. In this respect, not only is a person’s veteran status usually less visible than their race or gender, veteran status per se does not very often render persons targets of prejudice and institutional discrimination.

The Limitations of the Social Utility Rationales for Affirmative Action

We believe that our rationale for affirmative action is stronger than the "social utility" arguments that have been proffered in its defense. To illuminate our perspective, we will focus on one of the best known of such defenses, that offered by Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin understands affirmative action to involve "preferential treatment" and discusses affirmative action policies only as pertaining to Blacks. His argument can be summarized as follows. First, he argues that affirmative action policies that "give preferences" to minority candidates do not vio-late the "right to equal treatment" or the "right to equal consideration and respect" of White male applicants. Dworkin argues that these rights would be violated if a White male suffers disadvantage when competing with Blacks because his race is "the object of prejudice or contempt," but that this is hot the case with affirmative action policies. Secondly, Dworkin argues that the "costs" that White male applicants suffer as a result of affirmative action policies are justified because such policies promote several beneficial social ends, the most important of which is their long-term impact in making us a less race-conscious society. Other beneficial soc
ial ends that Dworkin argues are served by affirmative action include providing role models for Blacks, providing more professionals such as doctors and lawyers willing to serve the Black community, reducing the sense of frustration and injustice in the Black community, and alleviating social ten-sions along racial lines.Whereas Dworkin focuses on the negative claim that affirmative action policies do not violate the right to treatment as an equal, or the right to equal consideration and respect for the interests of White men, we make the posi-tive and much stronger claim that affirmative action policies are justified because they ‘are necessary to ensure the right to treatment as an equal for the members of marginalized groups, in a social context where a variety of social struc-tures and institutional practices conspire to deny their interests equal consideration and re-spect. While we have no quarrel with Dworkin’s claims about the social benefits of affirmative action, we do not rest our case for affirmative action on such consequentialist arguments about its long-term effects, arguments that are notori-ously vulnerable to counter-arguments that pro-ject a set of more negative consequences as the long-term results. Since we do not believe that affirmative action bestows "preferential treat-ment" on its beneficiaries or imposes "costs" on White male applicants, as Dworkin does, we do not need to rely on Dworkin-type arguments that the long-term social "benefits" of these "preferences" justify imposing these "costs."

Our rationale for affirmative action also differs from social utility arguments that justify these policies on the ground that they contrib-ute to a greater diversity of backgrounds and perspectives within academic institutions, thereby enhancing the learning process. First, "diversity" on a campus can be enhanced by admitting people from a wide variety of back-grounds, and with a wide range of special talents. A commitment to "diversity" per se could justify policies that promoted the recruit-ment of students from abroad, from remote areas of the country, and those with artistic skills or unusual interests. While there might well be institutional reasons for, and benefits from, promoting diversity in these forms, none of these students need necessarily have suffered from the systematic effects of social and insti-tutional forms of discrimination within the United States. Thus, many students who would provide "diversity" would not qualify for affirmative action, even though there might be other reasons for admitting them. Secondly, while admitting greater numbers of working-class people, women, and minorities into insti-tutions in which they are significantly under-represented would also increase institutional diversity in meaningful ways, we see such bene-ficial consequences as supplemental benefits of affirmative action rather than its central goal.

While we believe affirmative action has in fact had beneficial consequences in making many areas of work and education more inte-grated along class, race and gender lines, we see these consequences as the results of treating people more equally, and not as benefits that have resulted from "imposing costs" on non-beneficiaries of affirmative action. Our central objection to both the "compensation" and "social utility" rationales for affirmative action is that neither questions the related assumptions that affirmative action "bestows preferences" on some, and imposes "costs" on others, even as they regard these "preferences" and "costs" as justified. In short, we insist that affirmative action policies that attempt to foster equal treat-ment do not constitute "preferential treatment" and that such attempts to undo the effects of institutional practices and criteria that privilege the capacities of some people over others are not "costs" that need to be justified by pointing to the "benefits" of the long-term consequences of these policies.

Challenging the "Stigma" of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been criticized on the grounds that it "stigmatizes" its participants because both they themselves as well as others regard the beneficiaries of affirmative action as "less qualified" than non-beneficiaries. Affirmative action policies are also criticized on the grounds that they cause resentment among the "more qualified" people who are denied entry as a result of these policies and thereby forced to pay its "costs." We believe that both criticisms are often the results of failing to accurately understand the rationale for affirmative action. Furthermore, we believe that these arguments about "stigma" and "resentment" are unwit-tingly reinforced by those who defend affirma-tive action on the basis of the "compensation "or "social utility" arguments, since these argu-ments fail to challenge the claims that affirmative action promotes the "less qualified" and imposes "costs" on those who are "better qualified" for the positions in question. Instead they merely insist that such "preferences" and "costs" are justified either as "compensation" or as a means to promote a range of long-term goals.

Our view of affirmative action as a policy to foster equality of opportunity rejects the claim that its beneficiaries are "less qualified." We argue instead that there is good reason to believe that their capabilities are not accurately gauged or fairly evaluated by prevailing selection criteria and procedures. Without affirmative action policies, as we see it, those who are its beneficiaries would not be given equal consider-ation, or have their qualifications and capabilities assessed fairly. Given our rationale for affirma-tive action, the "stigma problem" disappears since we see nothing demeaning or stigmatizing in being given equal consideration or in being treated as fairly as one’s peers. Thus, from our perspective, not only do the beneficiaries of af-firmative action have no valid reason to fee) "inferior," the non-beneficiaries of it have no good reason to regard themselves as "more qualified" than affirmative action beneficiaries.

Our account of affirmative action, then, also helps to illuminate why resentment by non-beneficiaries is unjustified. We believe that such resentment is based on the false belief that the "better qualified" are being burdened by having to bear the "costs" of "preferences" bestowed on others, a sentiment reinforced by views that see affirmative action as preferential treatment. Since we do not believe affirmative action bestows preferences we do not think that affirmative action imposes any corresponding costs or burdens on non-beneficiaries. On the contrary, we believe that it should be under-stood as an attempt to counteract a variety of procedures and criteria that work to unfairly privilege those who are middle-class, White and male. We believe that the only costs to non-beneficiaries that result from affirmative action policies are the loss of these privileges, privileges that are the results of a lack of fairness 10 and opportunity for others.

Neither affirmative action policies, nor a fair and judicious assessment of the performance of their various beneficiaries, are the central causes of the prevailing negative stereotypes about the competencies of women, working-class people, or people of color. Critiques of affirmative action along these lines often suggest that the world was once a fairer place, which has only recently become tainted with new stereotypes about the capabilities of women or members of racial minorities as a result of affirmative action policies infusing large numbers of its "under-qualified" and "unqualified" beneficiaries into American in
stitutions. Such critiques suggest that affirmative action has exacerbated the old negative stereotypes about women and people of color which had begun to wane. In fact, how-ever, it was racist and sexist stereotypes, and the institutional practices that worked to perpetuate and reinforce them, that made affirmative action policies necessary.

One of the ways in which racist and sexist stereotypes function is to obstruct our ability to see women and people of color as individuals. Thus, an individual woman or minority per-son’s inadequacies can be generalized and seen as signs of the incompetence of w hole groups, whereas the failures of White men remain per-sonal limitations. Moreover, success stories in-volving women or minorities often tend to be interpreted as exceptions, and not as examples of the capabilities of women or people of color generally (Harris, 1994). Much of the discourse on affirmative action reveals this pattern: in-stances of women and people of color who have failed to meet the requirements of a pro-fession or institution are taken to be testimony to the grand failure of affirmative action policies and the incompetence of the bulk of its benefi-ciaries. No nuanced account is given of the possible causes of these failures. The fact that no set of admissions or promotion criteria can guarantee that everyone who manifests potential for success will in fact succeed gets lost amidst anxious rumors of incompetence. Seldom dwelt upon are the numerous stories of those who have succeeded as a result of affirmative action.

As far back as the debate over the admission of minority applicants to the Davis Medical School in the Bakke case, little attention was paid to the success stories of people admitted as a result of affirmative action. Yet four years after the admission of the sixteen "affirmative action" candidates to Davis in 1978, thirteen had graduated in good standing, several had excelled, and one of their number had earned the school’s most prestigious senior class award for "the qualities most likely to produce an outstanding physician." Much of the debate in 1978, however, presumed, just as it does now, that affirmative action’s departure from the traditional admissions criteria represented a de-parture from objective criteria of "excellence."

There are a number of additional trouble-some assumptions that underlie the stigma ar-guments. For example, for decades, almost all of our elite institutions and professions, as well as many non-elite career paths, were domains that permitted entry to a very small, and extremely privileged segment of the population. Yet there were millions of equally talented individuals who, because they were working-class, or women, or members of racial minority groups, were deprived of the chances to develop their talents and capabilities, which may well have exceeded those of many of their privileged White male counterparts. Rarely, if ever, in all these decades, have privileged White men who benefited from such "undeserved privileges" ever castigated themselves or publicly expressed the feeling that they were not "really talented" or "really deserving of their positions" because they had acquired them in a context that had eliminated most of their fellow citizens, includ-ing the female members of their own families, from the competitive pool. We are unaware of a body of literature from these individuals filled with anxiety and self-doubt about their capabilities and merit. Indeed, one of the un-nerving effects of privilege is that it permits the privileged to fee) so entitled to their privileges that they often fail to see them as privileges at all. In such a setting, it is more than a little ironic that the beneficiaries of affirmative action programs designed to counteract the effect of institutional discrimination are now expected to wear the hair-shin of "stigma."

Many who complain about the preferential treatment they believe affirmative action accords to women and minorities in academia assume that everyone other than its beneficiar-ies is admitted purely as a result of merit. Yet, paradoxically, policies that favor relatives of alumni, and children of faculty members or donors to the university, have not created a storm of legal or social controversy, or even been objected to. Perhaps this is because such policies tend to benefit predominantly White middle-class individuals. Our point is not simply to claim, however, that people who accept preferential policies that benefit middle-class Whites are often outraged by "preferences" rooted in affirmative action policies. Our point is in fact a much stronger one that hinges on the profound differences between affirmative action and these other policies. Policies that favor chil-dren of alumni or donors are policies that may serve some useful goals for a particular institu-tion, but they are genuinely "favors" or "prefer-ences" with respect to the individuals admitted, in that such policies are in no way intended to equalize the opportunities of those thus admit-ted. We therefore insist on a conceptual distinc-tion between affirmative action and policies that are genuinely tantamount to bestowing prefer-ences.

Our point, however, is not to endorse a, "purely meritocratic society" as the ideal soci-ety, but rather to highlight the reality that many existing institutional structures not only fail to function as pure meritocracies, but also serve to systematically disadvantage whole groups of people including working-class people, women, and people of color. To those strongly commit-ted to traditional meritocratic ideals, we suggest that when close attention is paid to the system-atically disadvantaging effects of many institu-tional procedures, they may have reason to see affirmative action policies as conducive to their ideal rather than as deviations from it.


The intellectual confusion surrounding affirma-tive action transcends ideological categories Critics and supporters, of all political stripes have underestimated the significance of these policies, collaborated in equating affirmative action with "preferential treatment," and per-mitted important assumptions about how insti-tutions function, to lie unchallenged. We argue that affirmative action policies do not involve preferential treatment but should rather be understood as attempts to promote fairness, equality and full citizenship by affording members of marginalized groups a fair chance to enter significant social institutions.

The fact that formal legal equality seems commonplace and obviously justified to many today, should not obscure how recently formal equality has been a reality for many nor the struggles it took to make it a reality. More importantly, we should not imagine that the achievement of formal legal equality erased the consequences of centuries of inequality, making the promise of equality and full citizenship an immediate reality for those previously excluded. The institutional consequences of such histor-ically group-based exclusions in significant domains of occupational and social life still remain. Class, race, and gender, for example, continue to deprive people of the opportunities to participate in numerous forms of association and work that are crucial to the development of talents and capabilities that enable people to contribute meaningfully to, and benefit from, the collective possibilities of national life.

Only since the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century have some democratic political communities, such as the United States, sought to embrace the members of certain marginalized groups they had once excluded from the rights and privileges of citizenship. Only in the latter pan of the twentieth century has there dawned the recognition that laws and policies that pro-mote formal equality do not necessarily ensure substantive equality or genuine equal opportun-ity for all citizens to par
ticipate in all spheres of American life. In this respect, affirmative action policies are a significant historic achievement, for they constitute an attempt (o transform our legacy of unequal treatment with respect to cer-tain marginalized groups of Americans. They symbolize our political commitment to ensuring substantive participation in all domains of life for various groups of our diverse citizenry. Thus, we believe that affirmative action programs warrant a much more favorable evaluation, both as an historic achievement and in terms of their positive effects within contemporary American institutions, than they are usually accorded.


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  17. Shelby Steele, The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990)

1 Response to “Affirmative Action as Equalizing Opportunity: Challenging the Myth of "Preferential Treatment”

  1. 1 Marjorie Farrington August 4, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Your idea coincides with mine.and I Believe it’s Far better.

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