Affirmative Action is Not Reverse Discrimination
Affirmative Action is not meant to help blacks because of the color of their skin, but because they deserve compensation for past and continuing injustices. Opponents may criticize the wisdom of how this compensation is meted out, but they cannot question the principle of compensatory damages, which enjoys a long tradition in our society.
To many opponents of affirmative action, a color-blind society should not discriminate at hiring time on the basis of color, sex, etc. This would make the preferential hiring of blacks just as wrong as preferential hiring of whites.
Furthermore, opponents claim, the introduction of past injustices does not change this logic. If blacks were mistreated in the past for a morally irrelevant characteristic (being black), then to give them preferential treatment for the same morally irrelevant characteristic is equally indefensible.
There is an error of logic here: the premise is faulty. Preferential treatment is not being given to blacks because they are black. They are being given preferential treatment because they have been mistreated. And society has a long and approved tradition of awarding compensatory damages to victims of mistreatment.
To put it another way, blacks came by their current disadvantage for two reasons:
1. Whites decided that a morally irrelevant feature (having black skin) was in fact a morally relevant feature.
2. Whites mistreated blacks on that basis.
Affirmative action does not justify preferential treatment based on the first point; it justifies it on the second. That is, supporters do not believe that being black is a morally relevant feature which deserves discriminatory behavior; but they do believe that injustices based on that mistake should be compensated. Being black is only morally relevant in that it was used to justify the original sin.
The situation is akin to the Jews who survived the Holocaust. Germany paid a large sum in compensatory damages to the state of Israel after World War II, and no one decried this as reverse racial discrimination.
Now, opponents of affirmative action may question whether affirmative action is the right way to go about correcting past and present injustice. For example, can we compensate the living for sins committed against their ancestors? Is it right to compensate groups instead of specifically harmed individuals? But these are separate issues, ones that should be addressed elsewhere. (The reader may find them in the next essay.) The point here is that affirmative action is intended not as reverse discrimination, but as compensatory damages for injustice.
Those who use the term "reverse descrimination" are actually engaging in moral absolutism, a completely unworkable concept that has never been practiced by any society in history. An example may best highlight its difficulties. Suppose our society passed a law that says,...