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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • schm0e

    Goodbye. You lost me at “obviously in line with”.

  • James Swetnam, S.J.

    I taught introductory Greek in Rome for 36 years. I had about 1,500 students from about 85 countries. I had many students from Africa, to take just one U.S. minority. Theses Africans had differing abilities. Some could only be described as brilliant. Others, somewhat less so. Still others much less so. But most if not all were not as culturally prepared to cope with the standards we demanded at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. But with help most could make up for this deficiency. The course I taught was in what we called “the Preparatory Year”. The whole purpose of the course in Greek was to prepare them to take the Institute’s qualifying exam in Greek for admittance to the regular Greek course at the Institute. “Affirmative Action” in matters educational in the U.S. could have benefitted, I believe, from studying our program in Rome. James Swetnam, S.J.

  • ROB

    Where is the justice, Professor, in denying employment or admission to a more qualified person on the sole ground of his color? This is not a question for the faculty lounge but a zero sum game in which there are real winners and losers. Nowhere in our constitution can it be found the suggestion that a white applicant for, say, a fire or sanitation department should be made to stand aside in favor of a less qualified man or woman on the grounds of historical injustice. Nice of you to sweep that aside with a stroke of the pen.There never was a time for such a result disguised as “affirmative action”.

  • grump

    Obama’s election and re-election were little more than “affirmative action” writ large. Rather than attaining the highest office in the land by merit, achievement and qualification, he became President largely on the basis of “white guilt” atoning for the alleged “injustices” of the past.

    Having dispensed with “racial bias,” America can now move on to fixing “gender bias” and install Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office to “redress” the discrimination against women. The state-run media already have her lined up for the job so it’s merely a matter of making it official at the polls.

    Afterwards, “the first Gay President” (however, according to Time magazine, Obama already fills the bill) is sure to be advanced in the interest of “justice and equality,” along with “the first Jew,” “the first Latino,” “the first Asian,” etc.

    Perhaps by the year 3000, all segments of society will have been made President of the United States, and then — assuming there is still a nation and a Constitution in operation — citizens can get back to voting for the best qualified person.

  • Howard Kainz

    @ROB: You misunderstand me. Affirmative action was initially focused on cases where an equally or better qualified person was simply not considered because of race or sex.

  • Lou J Apa

    Please Phase OUT as this is an idea that has run it’s useful cause!

  • Rich in MN

    In an increasingly relativistic culture where people and ideas rise to prominence by sheer political power and judicial fiat, how is “quality” to be measured? To take Dr. Kainz’s “diversity in philosophy courses” example, how long before Aristotle and Aquinas become the proverbial “needle in a haystack”? Then, once Aquinas’ Summa Theologica has been set on a par with John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a thousand other things, how long will it take before the Thought Police remove the annoying Aquinas on the grounds of [fill in the miso-/-phobia du jour]? “Imagine there’s no Heaven — it’s easy if you try….”

  • James DeNino

    Of course affirmative action is not in line with social justice. If there is one just, non racist university, corporation, or gov’t institution, then affirmative action is institutionalized discrimination. Not reverse discrimination (please tell me what this is?), but discrimination, the very subtle process affirmative action seeks to remove, and instead overtly enshrines as law.

    It goes wrong because it’s too broad. Who can know who is racist and who isn’t? How to isolate and affect those who are, and leave alone those who aren’t? Only communities- not federal, and barely state, governments. I suggest reading “Small is Beautiful” by Schumacher.

  • John Waters

    In my admittedly rather small exposure to Affirmation Action programs they were for the most part active reverse discrimination in the service of the interests of less competitive individuals and tokens of various favored groups. Has the cosmic balance now come sufficiently back into tune that we can talk about, admit and stop this denial of individual merit and accomplishment?

  • Myshkin

    @Dr. Kainz,
    You should take a look at the recent book “Please Stop Helping Us,” by Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board. He examines how well-intentioned affirmative action in higher education, while intended to address past discrimination, actually results in fewer black college graduates than would otherwise exist, and weakens historic black colleges.

    As you indirectly write, the only thing keeping affirmative action alive at this point is the federal court system. Not so curiously, that’s the same system which established contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage as Constitutional rights. The only conclusion is that they must be reformed before any good can come of them.

  • Jack,CT

    Our Society has been well served by AA laws and
    this is obvious in the merging of all aspects
    of our society not just education.

  • Jill

    ‘Seems to me we’ve moved from “Diversity is our strength” to “Divide and conquer.” Any chance a sane middle ground might be found?

  • Paul

    Some think there isn’t any problem government can’t solve. And like all others they messed this one up also. It went from affirmative action to reverse discrimination pretty quick. This and other programs like welfare have made minorities worse off it seems. It should be best person for the job period. If a person is unable to manage on their own then of course society has a roll to help but no quotas and offer a hand up not a hand out.

  • Jack,CT

    @Paul, More whites by % are on welfare,so they
    must be as “held down” in your view?

  • William Eshelman

    One of the (many) innovations that the Children of Israel brought to bear on our culture was individual responsibility and self-reliance. Group responsibility was shown-up for what it is: no one’s responsibility.

    Affirmative action is an attempt to turn the clock back to group-think — with all the negative consequences that implies,

  • Mack

    Professor Kainz,

    Had there been “affirmative action” (what a wonderfully Newspeak phrase meaning racism) when you were young, you would not have been a professor at all.

    Stop oppression based on race and gender.

  • Paul


    Of course there are more whites on welfare. Maybe white people need an affirmative action plan now. If a white person needs help then society should help. No able bodied person (white, black,yellow,red, brown, male, female, LGBTQ or any other label you want) should get money from the government for doing nothing. If you’re old, sick or disabled and can’t work that’s a different story. And no preferential treatment of one group over another. What happened to — “ask not what your country can do for you”? In Canada it’s — “I’m entitled to my entitlements”. Anybody in the wagon that’s able should get out and help the rest of us pull, don’t you agree?