An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons

Rewritten 1/12/16

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Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Does the term “positive discrimination” seem an oxymoron, a self- contradiction? If so, it is particularly pertinent because that is what “affirmative action” is called in the United Kingdom.

Is this just a harmless idiomatic difference between British and American English like lorries becoming trucks? Not at all. The U.K. usage gets us to the heart of present-day criticisms of affirmative action — namely that any discrimination based on ascribed rather than achieved characteristics is both unwise and unjust.

Ascribed characteristics are traits one is born with. Achieved characteristics are earned through individual effort. Race, for instance, is an ascribed characteristic. It requires no individual effort, no pain, no strain, no striving to achieve; only that one be born to one set of parents rather than another. That is why it is so unfair to discriminate against someone because of an ascribed trait. Holding someone accountable for a characteristic they are born with is the height of injustice. It runs absolutely counter to fairness. Fairness requires being judged by what you do, not what you inherited.

Now to schooling. Academic achievement requires effort. Some are born with more of the requisite talent for outstanding scholarship. But academic excellence cannot be achieved without effort. Achieved characteristics are like that. Natural talent is not enough. Consider Marion Anderson, that remarkably accomplished operatic singer of the mid 20th Century. She was blessed with a potentially great voice. But it still took her years of uncommon effort to achieve singular operatic excellence. Now comes the kicker. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution forbade Ms. Anderson to sing in their Constitution Hall based solely on her acquired racial characteristic — that of being black. The singing skill she had so laboriously achieved was irrelevant to those forbidding her performance. In contrast, any woman 18 years or older who can prove lineal, bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in American independence is eligible to join the DAR. And that applies even if she has also achieved the status of a first class bitch. In other words, becoming a member of the DAR requires only an ascribed status. There is no requirement that a candidate have actually accomplished anything. 

Incidentally, Eleanor Roosevelt was so outraged by the DAR’s injustice, that she publicly resigned her membership. Then she arranged for Ms. Anderson to deliver an unforgettable performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

Unhappily, most victims of ascribed discrimination never experience such vindication. Little wonder, then, that people who cherish justice would want to repair the injustices created by racism, sexism, ageism, and other discrimination unfairly based on acquired traits. In fact, the idea behind “positive discrimination” is to undo the lingering effects of just this sort of injustice. But is it effective? And is it just?

The positive discrimination plan is to continue to discriminate on the basis of acquired characteristics, such as race or gender, but with a positive purpose — namely, establishing greater overall fairness or justice. The strategy is to select people using the same acquired characteristics that originally brought disadvantage and, by giving them special consideration, turn that acquired characteristic into a compensatory advantage. It is, in effect, using racism to combat racism, sexism to contest sexism. But acquired characteristic,s such as race, are still the basis for judgment.

What this approach overlooks is that with every individual multiple characteristics, both achieved and acquired, are involved. In addition, the generation who suffered the worst injustice are usually not the same generation gaining the compensatory advantage. Moreover, those who enjoyed the benefits of past discrimination typically are not the same individuals who pay the costs of compensatory reparation. It is a simple-minded mentality that imagines past injustices are somehow undone by present remedies based on the idea that a single acquired characteristic fairly categorizes an individual. 

Let’s consider a hypothetical “positive discrimination” college admission policy that, because of past discrimination, assigns a preference to African-Americans — an acquired characteristics — to add diversity. Now, let’s suppose two candidates are tied for the last admission opening for X College. Both have identical cumulative high school averages and admission test scores. Plus both have been similarly active in extracurriculars..One candidate is a African-American female, let’s call her Juanita. She is from an affluent neighborhood in Atlanta. Her father is a wealthy banker, her mother a physician. Juanita was raised in comfort, traveled extensively with her parents, had private dance and music lessons, lived in a home filled with books, magazines, newspapers and original art, enjoyed a circle of friends from similarly sophisticated backgrounds, and had no need or inclination to seek employment. Juanita, however, did not fully utilize the advantages afforded by her background. In fact, her lackluster school work led to her flunking out of an exclusive private school before her parents placed her in another with more relaxed academic standards. She graduated in the middle third of her class.

The other candidate for the college’s last available space is a white male, let’s call him Sam. He is from Panther Hollow, West Virginia. Sam’s father, a laid-off coal miner, died of black lung when Sam was twelve. Sam’s home is a battered trailer more filled with overdue bills than books. Sam has never been more than 100 miles away from home. His friends are as poor and unsophisticated as he is. Sam’s mother, who had to drop out of school to support her own widowed mother, has worked as a waitress in the local diner since her husband died. Sam also works 8 hours a day, beginning at 4 P.M., at minimum wages in the same diner busing tables and washing dishes after school. Despite this burden, Sam did the best he could in his badly underfunded public school (the tax base for Panther Hollow School District is meager); and, with great effort, studying between bursts of business at the diner, ended up, like Juanita, in the middle third of his high school class and with an average SAT score.

Guess who gets into the college’s last available space. It might not be Sam. After all, he’s white and male. How could he contribute to diversity? Then ask yourself how Juanita’s admission would correct past injustice or even contributes to diversity? Do you think her experiences add more diversity than Sam’s? 

There also is another question. Having started affirmative action, when and how do you turn it off? When is enough, enough? And, if closing it down is finally decided, how do you shut it off without seeming racist, sexist, or what have you? 

It is true that for hundreds of years African-Americans were legally discriminated against in outrageous ways. In fairness, that must be considered. But so should the fact that Juanita never experienced that herself. Indeed, her generation gained legal advantage via race. Moreover, we should not too hastily conclude that Sam has never experienced legal discrimination. The reason his Dad’s black lung slowly smothered him was due to weak mine safety laws that legally favored wealthy mine owners.

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