Affirmative action is a domestic policy that reflects an obsession with race that is peculiar to America

Today’s Guests Are:

EVE ENSLER:  (Playwright/Performer/Activist), award-winning author of The Vagina Monologues, creator of V-Day. The Vagina Monologues has been translated into over 45 languages and is running in theaters all over the world, including sold-out runs at both Off-Broadway’s Westside Theater and London’s West End (2002 Olivier Award nomination, Best Entertainment.) Her experience performing The Vagina Monologues inspired her to create V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. Ms. Ensler has devoted her life to stopping violence, envisioning a planet in which women and girls will be free to thrive, rather than merely survive. Today, V-Day is a global movement that supports anti-violence organizations throughout the world, helping them to continue and expand their core work on the ground, while drawing public attention to the larger fight to stop worldwide violence (including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual slavery) against women and girls. V-Day exists for no other reason than to stop violence against women. In just eight years, it has raised over $35 million and was named one of Worth magazine’s “100 Best Charities.”

GAY MCDOUGALL:  Former representative on the UN’s Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination. McDougall supervised the International Human Rights Law Group staff and the development and implementation of country and thematic programs and initiatives in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas. She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1999 for her “innovative and highly effective” work on behalf of international human rights. In 1998, she was elected to serve as an independent expert on the United Nations treaty body that oversees the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. McDougall was the first American to be elected to the body of 18 international experts who oversee compliance by governments worldwide with the obligations established under the treaty. At its 1996 session, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights elected her to serve a four year term as a member (alternate) of the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Human Rights commission. In 1989, Ms. McDougall founded the Commission of Independence for Namibia, a bipartisan group of 31 distinguished Americans who monitored in detail the 12 month process to independence mandated by the United Nations. She earned her JD at Yale and her LLM in public international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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MYTH: Affirmative action is a domestic policy that reflects an obsession with race that is peculiar to America.

FACT: Affirmative action is not the product of an American obsession with race. It is embraced by the International Covenant for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Across the globe, many countries have pursued and embraced affirmative measures to address various forms of institutional/structural subordination. Moreover, in an increasingly interdependent world it is supported by many mainstream corporations ad their clients who recognize the competitive advantages of a diverse workforce.

Opponents of affirmative action are keen to portray it as a particular symptom of the American obsession with race. In this view, it can be neatly cabined as a peculiar invention grounded in a particularly vile history of racial discrimination. Critics of affirmative action warn other societies against proceeding down this perilous path. But, in reality, affirmative action is neither unique to the US, nor limited to the particular type of post slavery/apartheid society that the US represents. Many countries around the world employ various forms of affirmative action to advance social justice concerns. For instance:

* South Africa’s Constitution explicitly endorses affirmative action. Section 9 (2) of the Bill of Rights is dedicated to equality and provides that: “To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.”

* India has a long history of using reservations to ensure that all classes are included in the representative government and in governmental positions. Article 330 of the Constitution requires that seats in the House of the People be reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Article 332 requires similar set-asides of seats in the Legislative Assemblies of States. Article 338 establishes the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The purpose of the Commission is to participate in the economic development of historically subjugated classes, and to assure the protection of their rights.

* Brazil is pursuing affirmative action in higher education and in corporate employment. In 2001, the State Legislative Assembly in Rio de Janeiro set aside 40% of the state university seats for black and brown people. Later that year, the Ministry of Justice mandated that no less than 20% of its high level staff, consultants, and subcontractors would be Black. Moreover, the Federal Supreme Court mandated that not less than 20% of the employees of subcontracting firms would be Black. The following year, 20% of the Worker Assistance Financing budget was allocated to professional training for Blacks, particularly Black women. Read more HERE.

* Affirmative action is consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s equality clause lays the foundation for affirmative action, giving the government the power to create “any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of the conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups, including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

* Israel uses affirmative action, among other things, to integrate Arabs and Ethiopian Jews into government employment, and educational institutions.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

“Father of the Indian Constitution”

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an Indian scholar, lawyer and politician who dedicated his life to ending the Indian Caste System on behalf of the Dalits, a group which faces the most severe forms of discrimination in Indian society.

Known as the father of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar ensured that it provided equality of opportunity for Dalits and other oppressed castes through what we would call a range of affirmative action programs. He attended Columbia University, and lived for a time in NYC where he acquired many close contacts in the American Civil Rights Movement. He frequently consulted with W.E.B. Du Bois — the celebrated U.S. scholar and Civil Rights activist — about the shared plight of Dalits and Blacks and the strategies necessary to secure their freedom. Indeed, when seeking to petition the General Assembly of the United Nations as to injustices endured by Blacks, Du Bois referenced a letter that described Amdbedkar’s work with the Dalits. Click HERE for more information.


Many multinational companies support affirmative action. A group of 65 U.S. based companies joined together to support the University of Michigan’s race based admissions policies challenged in the Supreme Court in the Grutter case. They argued as follows:

Because our population is diverse, and because of the increasingly global reach of American business, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints. Employees at every level of an organization must be able to work effectively with people who are different from themselves. [We] need the talent and creativity of a workforce that is as diverse as the world around it. (Click HERE to read more from these major employers)

Joining in the brief was 3M, a $16.7 billion manufacturing and technology company with operations in more than 60 countries and customers in nearly 200 countries. Another was, Boeing, which makes 70 percent of its commercial airplane sales to international customers.

Did You Know?

Affirmative Action is Good for Business

Major companies from across the United States have identified at least four reasons why affirmative action is important to global business and the national economy:

1. “[A] diverse group of individuals educated in a cross-cultural environment has the ability to facilitate unique and creative approaches to problem solving arising from the integration of different perspectives.”

2. “Such individuals are better able to develop products and services that appeal to a variety of consumers and to market offerings in ways that appeal to those consumers.”

3. “[A] racially diverse group of managers with cross-cultural experience is better able to work with business partners, employees, and clientele in the United States and around the world.”

4. “[I]ndividuals who have been educated in a diverse setting are likely to contribute to a positive work environment, by decreasing incidents of discrimination and stereotyping.


Non-US based companies are similarly investigating, supporting and developing affirmative action-type programs in education and in hiring. For instance, French companies have created initiatives designed to increase opportunities for groups that have been excluded from mainstream society. Spurred to action after post-September 11th attacks on North Africans, and later by riots in North African Parisian districts, 175 leading French companies have signed onto a “Company Diversity Charter.” In 2004, the Institut Montaigne published a call for the introduction of U.S.-style affirmative action policies to end discrimination against “visible minorities” — French nationals of North African or African origins.

Did you know?

International human rights agreements not only facilitate, but in fact encourage affirmative action.

The International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), article 1, paragraph 4, endorses special measures that are designed to ensure that minorities shall not be excluded from the full equal enjoyment or exercise of their human rights and that these measures shall not be deemed racial discrimination.

The Durban Program of Action, paragraph 99, explicitly encourages States to develop and elaborate national action plans that target racially marginalized groups. These remedial plans are not regarded as discriminatory, but as necessary to realize civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights in all spheres of life.

The Court of Justice of the European Community has endorsed affirmative action as a remedy for gender discrimination in various high profile cases over the last several years.

In short, affirmative action lies firmly within the parameters of mainstream human rights discourse. It is a legitimate expression of the rights of racial minorities and women, writ large, to seek to dismantle unwarranted obstacles that unfairly serve to deny them access to disparate institutional settings throughout society.

The Diversity Charter signals a “commitment to ethical and social diversity within [their] organizations.” Among the signatories are private and public companies, including leaders of the national economy: BNP, RATP, Carrefour, L’Oréal, Total, Airbus, PSA Peugeot Citroën, PPR, France Télécom, Schneider Electric, SNCF, Rhodia, Société générale, and Pernod Ricard.

In addition to the Diversity Charter, the Institut report called for:

* Recruitment of electoral candidates to ensure that elected officials reflect the ethnic diversity of the country

* The institution of admissions criteria that target communities of “visible minorities” living in segregated areas

* The modification of recruitment criteria at top universities to increase the diversification amongst future French elites.

* The promulgation of an “anti-ghetto” law to put an end to the concentration of social and ethnic minorities in the districts.

Click HERE to visit the english translation website of Institut Montaigne and read more reports.

Mythbusting Homework:

How can social inclusion measures developed in different societal contexts be enhanced through cooperation and knowledge sharing among academics, researchers and social justice advocates? How might affirmative action programs constitute a building block for social justice advocates seeking to challenge institutional/structural discrimination in a variety of countries around the world?

BOTTOM LINE: Affirmative action is a global project with transnational benefits.



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