Is Affirmative Action ‘Fair’? Discrimination Hidden In Claims of Fairness

June 25th, 2012 | Categories: Gender, Race

A recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (6/7/12) struck a cord with me. Stewart’s lengthy tirade on fair game in politics is insightful especially when he points out that some claims of ‘fairness’ have no merit. His tirade reminds me of the role fairness plays in perpetuating discrimination and the absurdity of these claims of fairness.

When it comes to discrimination some claims of ‘fairness’ also have no merit. This argument for fairness suggests that everyone should be treated equally. Two brief and important examples highlight the absurdity of this idea of ‘fairness.’

Some people claim that affirmative action is not ‘fair’ to non-minorities.

However, this ignores cases in which a minority is more qualified than a non-minority applicant and, thus, deserves the job. In this case the better candidate got the position. It seems fair that both applicants had an equal chance at the job and the better candidate was chosen.

The anti-affirmative action argument also ignores that, historically, if two applicants- one minority and one non-minority- had the same qualifications the position would go to the non-minority because of prejudice and discrimination. In this case affirmative action reverses the previously invisible discriminatory practice. Affirmative action is fair here because it takes the ‘equality’ that has existed historically for non-minorities and applies that same ‘equality’ in a systematic (rather than invisible) way to minorities.

Perhaps you can concede to these previous two points easily. However, the main gist of the anti-affirmative action argument is that a minority group member who is presumed to be unqualified is given a position, raise, or promotion instead of a more qualified non-minority. Yet, this too ignores important details. First, it ignores that an unqualified non-minority can also get a job he or she didn’t deserve. Second, it ignores that an unqualified non-minority can take a job away from a qualified non-minority.

Third, it ignores that what counts as ‘qualified’ for a position. It reminds me of the old argument against the SAT. Here it is from an article by Melissa Lee in the Harvard Crimson:

Schaeffer says numerous studies indicate that SAT questions discriminate against minorities and less privileged students.

A Fairtest report cites examples of biased metaphors in the verbal section, such as “dividends is to stock-holders” and “checkmate is to chess.”

The requirements for ‘qualified’ for a non-minority (often never stated in the hiring process) can be different than what counts as ‘qualified’ to a minority. Golf expertise? Ivy league education? Cigar aficionado? None of these or similar ‘qualifications’ are in the job requirement listing included with the position advertisement. A non-minority may never know what he or she doesn’t know.

Fourth, the anti-affirmative action argument ignores that ‘qualifications’ are often based on non-minority cultural norms. A similar argument was made about the SAT’s. According to an article by Rebecca R. Ruiz, the SAT is “test that tends to favor white, male, upper income students with the means to prepare for it.” Similarly, ‘qualifications’ are norms that can reflect non-minority cultures. Minorities are often part of a lower socio-economic cultural group that may not have the same norms as exist in non-minority cultures. Minority cultural norms may be equally valid but not valued by the non-minority. Those who work in diversity and inclusion know that diversity has benefits one of which is the influx of new ideas that are outside of what is typically valued by non-minorities.

All four of these points get ignored in the anti-affirmative action argument. Why? Because in the interest of fairness and equality, a minority group should not be given a job unless he is qualified for the position. Unfortunately, this fairness and equality only applies to the minority applicant because people forget or ignore the lack of fairness and equality that transpires for the non-minorities.

The above discussion demonstrates the absurdity of claims that affirmative action is unfair.

Some people claim that pregnant women need to be protected from discrimination

A second argument that demonstrates the absurdity of some claims of ‘fairness’ that end up promoting discrimination relates to pregnancy discrimination.

The main gist of this argument is that women and men should be treated equally, regardless of gender or pregnancy status. So the presumption, again, is that to be fair to pregnant women, there should be equal treatment of pregnant women and non-pregnant women and men. Now think about that for a second. It sounds good, but what it implies is that people should have equal expectations and treatment of women who are pregnant as everyone else.

Well, with my first pregnancy I worked until the day before I gave birth – 14 hours straight in meetings the entire day. I handled it well. I had no complaints. My second pregnancy it was more of a struggle to get to work that last week before I gave birth. I didn’t have as much energy and I had much more discomfort. I was a trooper and barely even mentioned it – even when I was asked. So in neither of these was fairness an issue because I put in the equal amount of time (and then some) as would be expected for the responsibilities of my position. I was, it would seem, treated fairly.

Teaching evaluations, are one measure of a teacher’s abilities. As such, it would seem to be fair that teaching evaluations counted equally regardless of ones pregnancy status. However, consider some comments about my pregnancy included in teaching evaluations from students.

“Ask her not to get pregnant next time.”

“Prof. Kurylo shouldn’t have taught this semester because she oviously [sic] can’t handel [sic] having a baby while teaching”

“Please don’t teach when pregnant”

These comments could be taken into equal consideration in evaluating performance just as any other comments on an evaluation would regardless of pregnancy status. Does that still seem fair?

The Take Away

The absurdity of some claims of ‘fairness’ results from two terms being conflated. However, the affirmative action and pregnancy discrimination examples show that equal and fair are not the same thing.

Unfortunately, equal is a lot easier to enact and enforce than fair. Equal can be measured in an objective dispassionate way. Fairness cannot. As a result, equal becomes the fallback position when fair gets too complicated. This is because equal takes no thought. Equal treatment is a no-brainer. It’s ‘obvious.’ Fairness, in contrast, sometimes requires special consideration (i.e., thought) and, as a result, is often overlooked in favor of absurd arguments about equality.

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  1. June 29th, 2012 at 15:30

    Another example of this equality=fairness idea comes in the form of the closure of Tucson Arizona’s Mexican American Studies courses.

    For more information on what happened:

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