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What is "Positive Discrimination" Anyway?

Two weeks ago Neil Mahapatra (NG) and Jonathan Kelly (OD) expressed some strong views on positive discrimination and political correctness. Until I read their articles, I hadn’t heard the term “positive discrimination.” What is it anyway?

As a starting point, it seems clear that there are inequalities in the U.S. and around the world that are highly correlated to race. And it seems clear that there is a lot that can be done to address the inequalities. For example, we could provide better public education, which could provide all kids, regardless of who their parents are, a chance to succeed in the world. And we could provide better public health care, which would provide all sick and injured people the support they need when they are most vulnerable.

Positive discrimination (or affirmative action, as I’ve heard it referred to before) is different. It goes further because it provides a particular group extra help. In Australia, an example is AbStudy, which provides Aborigines extra support to go to university. Another example, and perhaps the most internationally recognized, is Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa.

Neil and Jonathan debated positive discrimination passionately. But what is the debate all about with regard to the United States? I have only been in the United States a short time, but I have not seen many examples of positive discrimination. Harvard is an interesting case. My impression was that the encouragement of minorities to attend Harvard was due to the idea that diversity produces a better learning environment for all. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of Harvard simply wanting to help minority communities, even if helping minority communities ultimately turned out to be a significant benefit. Harvard is also a private institution, which makes its actions different from the affirmative action practiced by the government.

A common argument against affirmative action is that affirmative action breeds dependence and a sense of entitlement. Moreover, it creates separateness between communities and resentment (particularly by people who are poor or suffering but are excluded from the programs). A common argument in favor of affirmative action is that it can correct deep inequalities. Certainly, in the case of South Africa, this argument makes a lot of sense. And arguably it also makes a lot of sense in the United States, but the situation is more complex given the huge mix of ethnicities and socio-economic situations in the United States.

Neil and Jonathan also debated the relative merits of homogenization and individualism. While both made strong arguments, it seems to me that homogenization and individualism are not mutually exclusive.

I have generally thought of the United States as a melting pot; people from many different backgrounds come in, but all come out as Americans. Ultimately, I see the ideal as a situation where every person is judged based on their character, not stereotyped based on their race, sexual preference, looks, etc. I thought this is what Neil was getting at when he talked about “homogenization,” although perhaps that term was a little misleading. I think a better word is multiculturalism. In the ideal American melting pot, cultural heritage would be celebrated but it would nonetheless be in the background. And people from different races and backgrounds would be scattered throughout the suburbs and workforce.

In contrast, an example of a bad situation I saw while living Europe was a town where the majority of the Europeans lived in the beautiful old town while the majority of middle-eastern immigrants lived in a satellite town. Such a system divided the community and lead to racial tensions and misunderstandings.

To me multiculturalism means one America and many individuals, with each individual being judged on their character, not on their race. From this viewpoint, one of the important considerations is: what creates multiculturalism? And how can ethnic ghettos be avoided? The debate about whether homogenization or individualism is better becomes largely a moot point.

A dimension of the debate that I found interesting was the difference between the law and social realities. While the law can provide for equal rights, and goes even further with affirmative action, equality may not necessarily be the result. Addressing the social realities requires change in individual behavior, not just laws. And that requires grassroots change and engagement between communities.

Neil and Jonathan traded polite insults about political correctness. The debate about political correctness is very interesting, not least because it crosses traditional political boundaries. I’ve met both liberals and conservatives who hate political correctness. And I’ve met both liberals and conservatives that love it. My impression is Jonathan supported political correctness because it represented good manners, showed respect and engendered positive feelings. But is it more than that?

I can identify a few different types of political correctness. First, political correctness can mean avoiding certain topics that might be offensive. I agree with Neil when he says that people in the United States are more reticent to express a view on sensitive issues such as race than in many other countries. And consequently there is less debate. I’m unconvinced this is positive because it may stifle debate and result in maintaining the status quo; at least when people are talking about the issues it means they are thinking about them and perhaps coming to a solution.

Second, political correctness can mean using inoffensive language. Neil and Jonathan both expressed strong views on the merits of this type of political correctness. Maybe, like Jonathan says, it is just manners. Maybe not. To me, it often seems like political correctness is mere spin. I remember John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister saying at an election about five years ago, “We [Australians] will decide who comes into this country.” Sounds pretty uncontroversial right? In practice, it meant locking up asylum seekers (some of whom were illegal immigrants, some of whom were refugees and some of whom were young kids) in desert detention centers for years. When John Howard said, “We will decide who comes into this country” it was hard to argue with him because his language had a cloudiness that hid its true meaning. Likewise, perhaps using politically correct language can cloud issues.

On the other hand, maybe the situation in America is such that an open debate with blunt language would entrench people’s viewpoints and stop progress-an unfortunate situation if it were true, but one that would make perfect sense to avoid.

November 13, 2006
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