Affirmative Action: Perpetuate or Phase Out?

One of the most important “precepts” of the natural law, enunciated by Aquinas, Suarez, Grotius, and other theorists, is the duty to work for, and contribute to, harmonious and just social and political conditions, according to one’s abilities and state in life.

The principle now known as “affirmative action” is obviously in line with this precept, insofar as it is geared to addressing some glaring inequalities in education, housing, employment, college admissions, status and promotions in the workplace, wages and salaries, etc. This principle or “movement” has been particularly utilized in America to alleviate situations where there had been systematic and serious discrimination against minorities and/or females, in cases where, on the basis of merit alone, they would not have been subjected to discrimination. Since its inception, affirmative action has been an aid to maintenance of civil rights in such cases.

In discussing American civil rights, it is sometimes necessary to dispel the myth/stereotype that the Republican Party is historically an opponent of civil rights. The Republican Party, founded in the nineteenth century as the anti-slavery party, has from the time of the Civil War up to the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, been responsible for all civil-rights legislation and movements – including the 14th, 15th, and 16th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Reconstruction Act of 1867, anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax bills, a bill protecting black voters, implementation of desegregation of the military and of public schools, and the 1958 creation of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The “affirmative action” movement in the United States thus capped off a long series of attempts to assure basic democratic equality, especially in areas where glaring inequalities had persisted.

In the United States, during the 1950s, Richard Nixon as Vice President under Eisenhower was speaking the language of affirmative action when he said he stood for a “positive policy of nondiscrimination.” When running for president in 1967, he announced, “people in the ghetto have to have more than an equal chance. They should be given a dividend.” As president, Nixon accelerated the desegregation of Southern schools, and also initiated the first effective government-sponsored affirmative action policy in 1968 with his “Philadelphia Plan,” geared toward attacking rampant discrimination in the building trades. This plan involved measures not favored by members of Nixon’s own party – racial quotas and timelines, enforced by Labor Secretary George Shultz on federal contractors. But the movement rather quickly spread beyond the building trades to many other areas, including higher education.

As I began work as a young assistant professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1967, Fr. James Groppi and other civil rights activists were busy with demonstrations and initiatives. Students from Marquette and the University of Wisconsin, including some Marxist-oriented communes, and some organizations under religious auspices, were also very much engaged in these movements – which also had some untoward side effects, such as contributing to the increase of “white flight,” which had already gathered momentum in the 1960s.

As a professor at Marquette University for thirty-five years, I was occasionally on search-committees, for which we were instructed to follow affirmative-action guidelines. The guidelines included the prohibition of asking questions about the religious affiliation of interviewees. We were allowed to ask them how they felt they could contribute to a university under “Jesuit/Catholic” auspices; but our job advertisements also emphasized that “Marquette is an equal-opportunity employer,” and other statements disavowing any possibility of discrimination. Not even atheism could be taken as a disqualification.

In line with this policy, we were careful to give adequate consideration to minorities and females. Hiring in our department, one of the largest philosophy departments in America in the 1970s and 1980s, began to include more females. It was particularly difficult to hire African-Americans, however, because of aggressive competition. Some universities were willing to pay extraordinarily high starting salaries for new black philosophy professors – prices with which we could not compete. And eventually, some of our doctoral students, vying for interviews, began protesting “reverse discrimination” – allegedly not being considered, or losing an edge in interviews, because they were white or male.

Now several decades have passed since major affirmative-action policies and programs began. Not only in the building trades, but in universities, corporations and businesses, police and fire departments, in many cities, blatant institutionalized discrimination has diminished. And is there any doubt that the ideal of affirmative action had a strong influence (aside from the extraordinary weakness of Republican candidates) on the success of Barack Obama in the last two elections? Was his election not, among other things, considered a triumph of the civil-rights movement? Isn’t the fact that the present Obama administration and cabinet and appointees are replete with females and minorities one sign that things have indeed changed since the 1960s?

           Illustration from the University of Michgans online “Diversity Statement”

Perhaps so. On the other hand, in the name of civil rights, pregnant women now boast a “license to kill.” Gays and lesbians who used to be marginalized are now on the cutting edge, preaching their lifestyle, and making any opposition a “hate crime.” Immigrants, viewed as faithful potential voters for the Democratic party, are enjoying extraordinarily “affirmative” action,  and avoiding deportation in droves.

The watchword now, heard almost every day, and with respect to numerous areas of life, is “diversity,” and diversity for its own sake is extolled as the main civic virtue. Just one example: The American Philosophical Association recently conducted a survey of the ways in which philosophy courses around the country are promoting diversity. Many examples of courses in the curriculum were offered by members, including: African/Africana and African-American Philosophy, Asian and Asian-American Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, Indigenous Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, Latin American Philosophy, LGBTQ Philosophy, Multicultural/World Philosophies, Philosophy and Disability, Philosophy of Gender, and Philosophy of Race. (We can hope that maybe there might still be some places left in the curriculum for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, ethics, metaphysics, phenomenology,  etc.– that is, some presence of Western philosophical traditions; we can also hope that at least some academic rigor can be applied in these courses – in other words, that they do not just turn out to be quasi-support-groups, almost impossible for a student to fail.)

Numerous other expressions of diversity can be found in theology departments, English departments, and other areas of liberal arts curricula. In other words, it seems that – if such changes in curricula are a reliable indication – at least in academe, almost all possible discriminations are now being aggressively combated.

Some states have lately come to the conclusion that affirmative action in college admissions has accomplished its purposes, and can be deemphasized or dismantled. This trend was indicated in the April 22 Supreme Court case Schuette v. BAMN and the 6-2 decision (Justice Kagan recused herself) upholding Michigan’s ballot initiative against racial preferences in college admissions. The Court ruled that “there is no authority. . .for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit to the voters the determination whether racial preferences may be considered in governmental decisions, in particular with respect to school decisions.”

States that forbid affirmative action in higher education, like Florida and California, as well as Michigan, have seen a significant drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities, along with an increase in Asian enrollment; while enrollment of females throughout the country often exceeds male enrollment. But – short of perfect social equalization, which will never be reached – is there still evidence of blatant discrimination in those states?

Examining anew the pros and cons, we should consider whether the principles that originally gave rise to “affirmative action” are still urgent. It is important to take into account the original imbalances that gave rise to affirmative action in the first place. In places or occupations or institutions in which stark imbalances still exist, affirmative action initiatives may still be reasonable or even morally requisite. But elsewhere, continuing quotas and/or stringent “social engineering” may be a species of “overkill.”

We should also take into account the unavoidable and often unfair stigma attached to minorities or females who have risen to positions of success with the help of affirmative action – or the unfair presupposition that those who succeeded on their own, in spite of obstacles, “must have been helped” by affirmative action. Justice Sotomayor in her dissent to the Schuette decision brought up the widespread “doubt” by minorities about “belonging” to mainstream society. Chief Justice Roberts responded to that objection: “[I]t is not ‘out of touch with reality’ to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and – if so – that the preferences do more harm than good.”

At present, it is at least not clear that the diversity of situations throughout the country and in so many different types of life and work require further interventions on the part of the federal government. Corporations, colleges, and institutions, which have moved toward integration, and in which there is no longer any written or unwritten bias, should be permitted to shelve aggressive affirmative-action programs, if the latter have largely accomplished their goals. It seems that many state and local governments and judiciaries now should now take the lead in, yes, applying affirmative action where necessary, but also, where warranted, lightening the load of “social engineering,” and focus just on basic principles of equal opportunity and fairness in competition.

As Voltaire put it, “the best is the enemy of the good.” Perfection, in the sense of absolute social equalization, can be pursued only by Draconian measures. The last century offers us examples of frightening attempts to produce such “perfection.”


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.