The Case for Affirmative Action Historical Injustices Demand Rectification

Past injustices such as slavery involved subjugation and oppression of human beings. Subjugation and oppression are not only bad but unjust and they make a life worse pro tanto. What is to be done about such past practices and their consequences in the present?

On 29 June 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This ruling is based on the belief that affirmative action violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The ruling sets a precedent against affirmative action in social institutions and private businesses.  

Affirmative action is a policy that was first initiated by Lydon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, in 1965 when he issued Executive Order 11246. Affirmative action aims not just to repair the historical injustices that are sexism, slavery, and racism (and to some extent, colonialism) but also to increase access to educational opportunities, equal employment, and other opportunities for underrepresented groups that continue to face the adverse effects of historical injustices.  

Although the Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action is recent, the antagonism affirmative action faces can be traced to the 20th century, when the policy was first introduced. In his 1998 influential paper, ‘The Case Against Affirmative Action’, American political theorist, Louis Pojman, argues that when we consider that the statement ‘two wrongs do not make a right’ is a good moral assumption and preferential treatment is wrong, any justification that the proponents of affirmative action might hold becomes null. But what do people opposed to affirmative action get wrong about it? 

The arguments of opponents of affirmative action are explicitly dedicated to undermining the position that under the condition of a past injustice that puts a person, S, in an underrepresented group, we ought to treat S with more leniency than we would treat a person, P, who does not satisfy the condition of being affected by past injustices when they apply to the same job or school for admission. Since sexism, slavery, and racism are what belong to this class of historical injustices, antagonists of affirmative action do argue that the preferential treatment that (white) women, Black people, people of colour, and indigenous people get is detrimental to white males—especially white males that are hardworking and who in no way participated in those historical injustices that they have been asked to bear its consequences. Thus, opponents of affirmative action argue that it is both racist and sexist since it applies against white males and, thus, is bad for propagating a just society. The exemption of white males from benefiting directly from affirmative action is predicated on the historical fact that white males are the main perpetrators of these historical injustices and the fact that white males are better off in the United States (and most societies) shows how they have benefitted from historical injustices that are slavery, sexism, and colonialism. (To be clear, I do not mean past white males are the only perpetrators of these historical injustices. Most African societies, for instance, are misogynistic—even up till today).  

The anti-affirmative action group argues that we must differentiate between promoting equal opportunity in a polity and the preferential treatment that requires an individual or institution to discriminate against the people presumed to be better off in a society in favour of underrepresented groups suffering from historical injustices. The difference is between what they call ‘strong affirmative action’ and ‘weak affirmative action’. Strong affirmative action refers to preferential treatment that requires an individual or institution to discriminate against the people presumed to be better off in a society in favour of underrepresented groups suffering from historical injustices. Weak affirmative action, on the other hand, refers to the promotion of equal opportunity in a polity. The group accepts that the latter is needed for a just society but rejects the former on the basis that it is both racist and sexist since it applies to white males and, thus, is bad for propagating a just society.  

These arguments beg the question: is equal opportunity enough when it has been established that—as a matter of history—the playing ground has an unjust foundation? If fairness is a kind of justice, and justice is a virtue that cannot be overridden in a society that presumes that justice is needed to lead flourishing lives, then, as Canadian-British political philosopher and social theorist, Christine Sypnowich, argues, merely relying on providing citizens with the chance to live a flourishing life cannot be enough. Our social organization—and even our distribution of resources in such social organization—ought to centre around fairness by taking into account that the outcomes ought to be equal, especially given that certain (historical) injustices have occurred. As a society that upholds justice as a virtue, we should focus on what opportunity achieves, not just on making opportunities available for everyone. It is one thing to say that ‘no one is stopping Travis, a black boy in Alabama, from becoming a Harvard Professor of Mathematics since he can easily study hard to achieve such a feat and compete with others for the same position.’ It is another thing to understand and acknowledge that there are socio-economic factors, rooted in historical exploitations that impede Travis from achieving such a feat that will not impede Charles, a white boy from Washington DC.  

In his critique against affirmative action, Pojman first assesses some key arguments for it. These include the views that: underrepresented groups need role models in social institutions; there is a need for compensation for historical injustices; there is a need for compensation from those who innocently benefitted from past injustice; there is a need to ensure diversity in social institutions; there is a need for citizens’ equal rights; the ‘no one deserves his talent’ argument against meritocracy. These first six are negative: he uses them to show that the best arguments for affirmative action fail. Pojman also puts forward three arguments against the practice, noting that affirmative action requires discrimination against a different group; encourages mediocrity & incompetence; and that there is strong evidence to support the observable value in the principle of merit and practice of awarding of positions on its basis. Overall, the nine arguments are intended to demonstrate that the policies opposing affirmative action fulfil the justificatory demands they provoke. These arguments can be taken as representative, but not exhaustive, of the anti-affirmative action group. 

I do not think that affirmative action might be the best way to achieve a just or equal society, or economic sufficiency for underrepresented groups. Nevertheless, the reasons the anti-affirmative action group gives do not state clearly how affirmative action fails to aid in building a more just society. The arguments against affirmative action—including those of the US Supreme Court justices who voted against affirmative action—run on fallacies and misinterpretation of the authentic goals of affirmative action.  


First, the anti-affirmative action group misses the point when they argue that affirmative action is racist and sexist. Racism is rooted in discrimination based on the belief that a particular group or individual is inferior to another group or individual. Affirmative actions that work against white males are not rooted in a sense of superiority, inferiority, or dominance. Instead, it is an attempt to build a more just society, given certain injustices that occurred in the past. Perhaps from another vantage point, a policy that works against white males could be seen as racist. But that would mean we need to do away with our conceptions of what racism is, and we need to offer another socio-ontological theory on how to see racism and what counts as racism. If racism and slavery are rooted in a sense of racial superiority and inferiority, then preferential treatment on the grounds of building a more just society—which is what affirmative action does—would fail to qualify as racism. Given this point, even the claim that affirmative action is (reverse) racism is not justified. 

The anti-affirmative action groups also fail to recognize one of the most important reasons for affirmative action: Representation. One of the major reasons for affirmative action is that a lack of representation in social institutions runs counter to building a just society, and this harms marginalized people. The anti-affirmative action group would argue that representation does not override competence. But this would mean neglecting the veracity of standpoint epistemology, which suggests that marginalized people are more situated to represent and proclaim their experiences. Thus, marginalized people must have access to the appropriate resources—education, jobs, housing, etc.—that would make them offer profound suggestions while engaging social institutions and while speaking in elite spaces, a space that does not only anchor social organization but also responsible for making and maintaining a just society.  

Most people against affirmative action predicate their argument on the idea that it is, by implication, saying that ‘two wrongs make a right,’ and this is reverse racism. The moral theory on which this claim rests is nebulous. Making this kind of argument against affirmative action leads us to a concern about what is ideal—or what we ought to do or ought to be doing. Thus, our concern lies within the arms of political, social, and moral philosophizing. One thing that separates philosophizing from other forms of thinking is its normative commitments—rather than a mere description of our world. Given this normative commitment—that is the concern with what ought—anti-affirmative action proponents could enjoy more validity if they assume a moral theory. If we must consider political philosophy—due to its normative commitments—as political ethics, then the goal of our ethical assumptions must be clear. For instance, on utilitarian ethical grounds, one can assume that two wrong actions could be better than a right action if the consequential good of the one right action is lower than the two wrongs.  

Lastly, some antagonists of affirmative action are not opposed to scientific racism. For instance, they argue that a comparison of average IQ scores, SAT scores, etc., across different races, will provide scientific evidence that group differences exist, and thus, affirmative action is unjustified because it neglects the scientific truth that some races (perhaps more clearly, the white race) are just intellectually better than others. The claim of the antagonists of affirmative action here is that since people often accept scientific claims as true and allow scientific truths to govern their lives, no one should be opposed to accepting that white males are significantly superior to others since IQ scores, SAT scores, etc., elicit this. But since the resources we have or that are available to us affect and dictate how we live and what we do, one has good reasons to disagree with this sort of racial assumption in the arguments against affirmative action. This way of thinking has been adequately classified as unwarranted scientific racism. Antagonists of affirmative action that make this sort of argument misses the point that limited resources—e.g., poor education—are responsible for poor performances across different projects. 

Proponents of affirmative action would argue that the racial differences observable in characteristics like intelligence are due to the limited resources that historical injustices have created. Given these historical injustices, and as a moral demand, we need to bridge that gap by making, for instance, the admission criteria for marginalized people more lenient than for white males. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that the racial assumption of the antagonists of affirmative action is false – it is pseudo-scientific.  

The fact that individuals of type P outnumber those of type S in making good policies does not imply P’s policy-making supremacy. Instead, it only suggests that across a group, P, some individuals make better policies than others in another group, S. A lot of factors are responsible for this. One might be that many people in group P are more interested in making policies, or group P has better resources to equip its members to have a better education on formulating good policies. If we can find at least one person in group S who is good at policy-making, then that disproves this scientific racial assumption (and, of course, we would find a good number of people in group S who are good policymakers) since that would prove that the trait of good decision-making is not peculiar to group P. Though it shouldn’t be shocking that the defence of scientific racism often comes from white people, it is, however, worrisome.  

More importantly, the proponents of anti-affirmative action that hold this sort of racial assumptions as true fail to explain the kind of test that would be held as universal to account for racial differences (if they exist beyond the human skin and cultures). Most Africans do not write the SAT, so it would be unfair to make it the hallmark. The same applies to the GRE exam. Some, however, write the GRE to pursue graduate studies in the United States. Even though some Africans perform well in the GRE exam, since it is not mainly an exam for Africans it takes colossal dedication outside their normal school curriculum to write and pass the GRE. So, as a matter of fairness, using it as a paradigm must take into cognizance that performances across different groups are usually at the expense of different factors that might not be in the other group or hold larger across different groups. This makes the average score criteria unfair. Thus, looking at average scores in Western exams is insufficient. But this is probably the major characteristic of Western imperialism – Dictate to Others what would give the West an upper hand in a competitive system. 


Perhaps one could ask: What is the moral basis of affirmative action if it requires excluding another group of people? Consider a case: the case of Group A and Group B in event C. Group A and B’s ancestors were heading towards a land naturally enriched with gold. Both travelled through different routes. Both groups have ten more miles to go. During this journey, A’s ancestors learned that B’s ancestors were on a similar journey on a route very close to the route they were travelling. Instead of forming a coalition across the different groups on how to get to the land of gold together, A’s ancestors exploited B’s ancestors by making the ancestors of B carry them on their shoulders during the first five of the remaining ten miles both groups need to travel to get to the land. Due to this exploitation, A’s ancestors were able to reach the land of gold before B’s. This exploitation is what made Group A better (economically) than Group B, or at least, made Group B not develop at the same pace as Group A. Arguably, as a matter of moral obligation (in terms of economic fairness), present members of Group A have a duty to repair the past injustice.  

In this anecdote, the hypothetical intertemporal situation represents historical injustices and the current racial and gender inequalities. A critic could say that the crux of this example rests on whether one agrees that the actions of Group A’s ancestors were immoral. It seems that A and B were competing for those resources. Thus, there are naturally going to be winners and losers. Why is this an inevitable reason for injustice? Couldn’t B have done the exact same, but didn’t think of it, and thus lost a competitive edge? However, this objection misses the point of this case: the word ‘competition’ cannot replace ‘exploitation’ even though they are both parts of human competitive nature. As the distinguished professor of moral and political philosophy, Bernard Boxill, argues, ‘an injustice has occurred when someone makes it impossible for others to pursue a legitimate goal, even if these others never actually attempt to achieve that goal.’ 

Perhaps the moral case will make more sense for affirmative action if we perform some sort of reductionism: reduce the group case to a case about individuals in which we substitute Group A’s ancestor for A’s father and Group B’s ancestor for B’s father. A’s father exploited B’s father to carry her for five out of ten miles during their sojourn to a gold-filled land. Due to A father’s exploitation of B’s father during their sojourn, A’s father outran B’s father and used the gold to create wealth/build amenities for A that would let A lead a flourishing life. What sort of moral and economic obligation does A have to B in terms of both morality and justice? The intuitively plausible answer, for A, is to repair the historical harms that might be causing B to lead a less flourishing life. 

The antagonists of affirmative action could respond that this case bears on performing another sort of injustice on white males. But, as has always been the case in most ethics, we must allow a little bit of injustice for us to repair past wrongdoing to build a more just and equal society

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