Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fairness, Equal Opportunity and Overlooked Handicaps


Numerous people now benefit from affirmative action programs that are intended to make up for past wrongs, insure the disadvantaged get a fair share and promote diversity.  The trouble with this approach is that many genuinely disadvantaged people are left out. Consider the following.

Physical Attractiveness
In a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures.

Compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students rated them confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing. The physical-attractiveness stereotype has been replicated in several different experimental paradigms. As Aristotle noted, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction."

Obesity
Weight is another physical characteristic that results in discrimination and unfair treatment. Research shows they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive. Several studies also demonstrate that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight; are less likely to be promoted; and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers.

Short Stature
Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men. Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants; short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees; and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates.

Some Other Factors
Research also demonstrates that people with red hair color are often stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird." Negative stereotyping based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, ebonics) also is a common occurrence. Additionally, children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers" compared to children who do not wear name brands.

What does such research have to do with affirmative action? The answer is "Everything." If unattractive, obese, or short people, for example, experience discrimination in a broad setting shouldn't we be prepared to apply compensatory measures for anyone victimized by prejudice? Why should some qualify for fair share treatment (positive discrimination) just because their particular group has more political muscle?

Conclusion
Instead of focusing on skin color or other group differences, perhaps we should embrace the character-based vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and focus on each person's individual humanity, rather than his or her race,ethnicity, or what have you. After all, in the end, isn't character, not group membership, the most important difference of all?

No comments: