McGowan: Into the Slag Heap of Affirmative Action

July 18, 2018

“There are very mediocre people out there who run stuff, but nobody out there told them they can’t. You’re just as capable.” — Michelle Obama to the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, quoted by Suzette Hackney in the Feb. 13 Indianapolis Star

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

Recent news stories have again focused on affirmative action, the program established on behalf of those who have been disenfranchised by government design or cultural neglect. That groups of people — kinds of people — have been excluded from the bounty of society and treated unjustly is a sad fact of America’s history. Affirmative action programs provide remedy.

Affirmative-action programs based in charity might pass muster. Head Start programs come to mind. They are said to help young people to acquire the education and skill to ensure that the opportunity to enjoy society’s bounty is theirs.

Other affirmative-action programs treat people differently based upon unalterable characteristics and are preferential in nature. Harvard University is currently involved in a lawsuit regarding its admissions policy; the school may be treating Asian-American and African-American applicants differently.

Arguments for and against preferential forms of affirmative-action programs are well known and the four major, ethical considerations of rights, justice, utility and care show why the issue remains contentious.

Those for preferential programs maintain that they protect individual rights which otherwise would not be respected; display compensatory justice to those who have suffered injustice, restoring what was lost through injustice; produce the greatest good by reducing social tension and widening the candidate pool; and exhibit care, the requirement to protect the vulnerable and dependent while strengthening the bonds of community.

However, preferential programs violate the right to equal treatment and consideration; fail to meet capitalist justice, wherein burden and contribution equals or roughly equals benefit and reward; lead to inefficiency if unalterable traits unrelated to a position’s performance replace merit; and enable a disenfranchised candidate to do less than his or best work, the uncaring “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Hence the difficulty finding resolution: Arguments built on foundational ethical concepts compete,

Preferential programs, though, depend upon some notion of collective responsibility. As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “Whites have traditionally been the losers of affirmative action. Proponents sometimes justify this as the price for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Whatever the merits of this argument, the Asian-American experience is hard to squeeze into the box of racial privilege.”

Implicit in the remarks are notions of collective responsibility and of white privilege. But “white privilege” is a kind of a priori construct. What does the evidence say about white privilege? Anyone who has read J. J. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” has an answer.

The European immigrant experience, the one my brothers, sisters and I lived, is also hard to squeeze into the box of racial privilege. My family has not been here long enough to have produced slavery or received its benefits, nor created Jim Crow and other obnoxious laws that excluded people from society’s bounty, nor burdened any group of people.

Like so many other European immigrants, we grew up without privilege. My chemistry professor brother Dr. McGowan said, “We were poor. We had meat maybe once a week.” At least he ate seafood — my older brother and I caught it.

The argument for preferential programs based in compensatory justice needs revisiting. Not all whites, not even all white males, grew up in privileged circumstances. Many European immigrants and their children from 1920 to 1965 grew up like us, poor. We were taught that hard work and education were the keys to the immigrant dream: the next generation does better than they did.

Immigrants had no power to effect the historical reality of slavery, Jim Crow, and other freedom-limiting policies; yet preferential programs lump whites together as though all bear individual responsibility for the sins of racism. Should “the sins of the fathers” be visited upon their children? Arguments regarding the immigration situation on America’s southern border suggest “No.”

The son of a black surgeon in Washington, D.C. has lived a privileged life far beyond many immigrants. If affirmative action is about helping those who faced hardship and started with less, my business professor brother Dr. McGowan should not be treated differently based on race. Why burden him and thousands like him?

Some would argue that the rights of a few can be overlooked because the gain to society is great. The reasoning leads to our past: Enslave the few for the gain of the many. My preference, though, is for society to do the hard work of treating each individual with dignity and respect. Examine each case on its merits.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. This is excerpted from an article to appear in the upcoming issue of the foundation’s quarterly journal.


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