fairness — NOUN — impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination:
Slavery and Jim Crow?
A counter argument is that some handicaps are so damaging they demand special redress for the group involved. And many think the damages inflicted by America's slavery and Jim Crow racism, for instance, fit that description. We should never minimize the negative impact of literally having ancestors who were owned by another. Nor should we pooh pooh the systematic exploitation that followed. Still, it's been 6 generations since slavery and nearly 3 since Jim Crow was flushed down the toilet of history. Plus, and this is vitally important, many non African-Americans who came here seeking a better life endured slave-like situations when they got here. What's being done for their descendants?
"Slave-like situations?" Yes, slave-like situations. Let's look at a couple of examples. During 19th and at least half of the 20th Century, most coal miners were in slave-like situations. They performed the absolutely vital task of fueling the nation. But they endured truly awful, sometimes deadly, working and living conditions. They typically worked 10 hour days, six days a week in foul air under feeble light, hundreds of feet below ground.
Many were badly injured, crushed to death, or incinerated by gas explosions. Moreover, all of them breathed clouds of coal dust that slowly clogged their lungs and left many of them fighting for breath. Indeed, "black lung" suffocated thousands. Many began working in this hellish environment as young as 9 or 10. (See photo below.) This is when slave children were also put to work. Plus they had to buy at inflated prices in the company store, and also rent their shabby homes from the company. Typically, at the end of the main street, there was a huge smoldering pile of mine waste, its sulfurous smoke fouling the air and turning all the structures in town a ghastly shade of yellow. If dad was killed in the mine, the company evicted his wife and kids. And, around 1900, coal miners endured all of this for what today amounts to about $4.50 an hour.
if this unrelenting exploitation drove some miner to try to unionize and demand to be treated like a human being, the company fired him and evicted his family. If the collective had the courage to actually organize and go on strike, they were beaten, even shot down, courtesy of the state police, national guard, or even federal troops. What did the law do about coal company killings? Nothing. The law belonged to the coal kings and their allies, the steel and railroad barons. They "owned" coal country local and state governments as well as a host of judges. (For an epoch example of this check out The Battle of Blair Mountain.) No, these coal miners weren't slaves. But they lived and died in similar misery. In fact some slaves lived better if they enjoyed relatively privileged positions.
I know people who grew up in these coal towns. In fact my next door neighbor did. And as she grew up she watched black lung smother her father. Her life was forever altered by her coal town experiences; and it wasn't for the better. Yet she is entitled to no affirmative action whatsoever. Be assured she would be if policy makers were even mildly interested in fairness.
How about the Irish immigrants who did the dangerous, underpaid, back-breaking work of building America's railroads, canals and tunnels — largely by hand? America's transportation infrastructure was chiefly built by their back-breaking labor. And they typically lived in wretched temporary work camps, labored 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, died by the dozens from work-place accidents and contagious diseases; and were paid next to nothing for their trouble. Should they die of infectious diseases or be killed on the job, they were often buried in unmarked mass graves that are still being discovered to this day.
To top it off, they and their families endured vicious attacks for being both Irish and Roman Catholic. The Thomas Nast cartoon, below, captures some of that nastiness.
Like the miners, these immigrant laborers were no one's property. But in terms of disrespect, exploitation and wretched living conditions, they might as well have been. Why, then, is there no discussion of affirmative action for their progeny? Does their ancestor's suffering, which often rubbed off on subsequent generations, merit no consideration whatsoever? No it doesn't.
Other, Less Obvious Victims
Many other Americans also have gotten (Some continue to get.) the dirty end of life's stick through no fault of their own, But they escape nearly everyone's attention. Here are a few examples of a long, long list of folks afflicted by unmerited handicaps that are utterly ignored when it comes to affirmative action:
Aristotle observed, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." Research proves him right. For instance, in a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association documented a phenomenon they referred to as the "physical-attractiveness stereotype." Investigators 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 consistently rated them as confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972). And the physical-attractiveness stereotype is robust. Research has repeatedly proven its existence in different experimental settings. (Feingold 1992).
Should we have affirmative action programs for the unattractive? After all, they may well suffer more unfair treatment than, say, a physically attractive African-American.
Overweight is a characteristic that attracts discrimination and unfair treatment. Research shows overweight people are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive (Grover, Keel, and Mitchell 2003). Several studies 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 (Roe and Eickwort 1976); are less likely to be promoted (Larkin and Pines 1979); and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers (Rothblum, Brand, Miller, and Oetjen 1990).
Should we have affirmative action programs for the obese? Wait, you say, a person is fat because they eat too much. Unlike skin color, it's something they can and should control. But is it? Not for everybody. Research demonstrates there is a genetic component in many cases of obesity. Nevertheless they are discriminated against on the basis of this often acquired, rather than achieved, characteristic. Now, ask yourself, just how is being born with a propensity for obesity different from being born African-American?
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 (Jackson and Ervin 1992). 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 (Bonuso 1983); short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees (Loh 1993); and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates (Gillis 1982).
How about affirmative action programs for shorties? Ridiculous, you say? Maybe not. Might a 5'4" white male actually be more disadvantaged than a 6'4" black male, all other things being equal? And it's even more likely that a short, unattractive, obese white male might well be considerably more disadvantaged than a tall, handsome, slim, black man. How should affirmative action handle that?
Personal Life Situations
Whom do you think is more disadvantaged, an African-American raised by loving parents in an intact family or a European-American with an absent father, a drug addicted mother and little love for the child? How about a female "person of color" who lives in a Palm Springs mansion, whose caring dad is a bank president, and whose loving mother owns her own accounting firm vs. a male white kid in Nowhere, West Virginia whose invalided coal miner dad is slowly being suffocated by black lung and whose mother is profoundly depressed? ,
The point here is that there is a lot more to one's life situation than skin color. And these factors can be absolutely crucial for determining who is disadvantaged and should get a compensatory break. Clearly we should have affirmative action for people who have had damaging life experiences growing up, such as having an abusive parents. Why? Because it surely makes them unequal. But how can the obviously severe handicap of a dysfunctional family be accurately measured? This sort of thing is often hidden deep among all the other family secrets. Affirmative action completely ignores such often devastating handicaps. And to the extent that it does so it is profoundly unfair.
Other Factors Plus Reverse Discrimination
How about being poor. Isn't that an unfair disadvantage? Whether you are white, brown or black, the color that matters most in America is green. The "long green." Consider the issue of obtaining equal justice under the law? In court we get the justice we can afford. Rely on a court appointed attorney and you are far more likely to serve time even if you didn't do the crime. Contrariwise, if you did the crime but can pay for a dream team of clever barristers, there's a good chance you will get off. (Remember the O.J. Simpson trial?) But does affirmative action right all the wrongs spawned by poverty? It doesn't even try; and that too is profoundly unfair.
There also are other less dramatic factors to consider. Research indicates, for example, that people with red hair, especially men, are stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" (Heckert and Best 1997). Negative stereotyping that is based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, etc.) also is a common occurrence (Anisfield 1972). Even children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers," compared to children whose parents can't afford name brands (Elliot and Leonard 2004).
Advocates of affirmative action have an ethical obligation to also apply compensatory measures to any persons who are handicapped by things they didn't cause and can't control. Yet only a very small proportion of life's victims presently qualify for fair share treatment. Why? Largely because the neglected disadvantaged lack the political muscle to successfully file a claim. They're too disadvantaged to even be considered for special treatment.
Worse still, the victims of reverse discrimination typically pay the most immediate costs of providing others with special benefits. Then, to make matters worse, many of these victims also must endure workplace "sermons" on hidden bias by pious affirmative action "evangelists" who are well paid to chide them, like errant children, for their prejudices. Their resultant anger and resentment set them up for exploitation by glib, grifting demagogues like Donald Trump.
Remember, benefits usually are limited in number. So when you give someone a special advantage, you place others at a special disadvantage. In the U.K., affirmative action is tellingly called "positive discrimination." That helps clarify the fact that if you positively discriminate in favor of persons A, you must negatively discriminate against persons B and C if the contested resource is finite. How does that serve fairness?
Stigmatization is another negative outgrowth of affirmative action. The experience of present-day Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is illlustrative. PBS's "Frontline" reports that Thomas owes his rise from Pin Point, Georgia to the Supreme Court to affirmative action. It got him into Yale Law School. But because of affirmative action, his presence there was questioned by fellow students. Many thought he was incapable of achieving entry on his own. They perceived him as a token presence who had not fairly won the right to attend. Years later that memory still gnaws at Thomas.
When Thomas graduated from Yale Law he failed to receive the accustomed job offers from prestigious law firms, PBS reports that he also regards this as a consequence of affirmative action. He thinks it caused prospective employers to shy away from hiring him and discount his considerable capabilities and accomplishments. (One imagines that's a key reason why he expresses opposition to affirmative action in his court decisions.)
So far as affirmative action is concerned, stigmatization goes with the territory .
Affirmative action also subtly undermines any sense of personal agency. With the eager help of politically correct professors, some minority college students, have mastered all of the grievance rhetoric. They can rattle off the current palaver about "the tyranny of "white cisgendered males," for instance. With others to blame for everything they may fail to read their assignments, or even learn how to paragraph. They don't see themselves as responsible in any degree for their own life situation. They see no connection between lack of effort and failure. It's all the fault of "the system." So their job is to sit around griping and bellyaching until "the system" is fixed. Good luck with that!
The Importance Principle
One last, but very important, thing. The more important something seems to be, the less appealing affirmative action is. We shy away from applying affirmative action to anything that really matters to us.
Professional sports provide a trivial, but telling, example. Just 25% of NFL players are European-American, 58% are African-American. The NBA's situation is even more dramatic. Here a remarkable 73.2% of the players are African-American. Yet Blacks make up just 12% of the U.S. population. These imbalances seem to demand affirmative action. But there is no discussion of applying it. Why not? Because adopting affirmative action requires selecting players who are less talented. And that's where we call a halt. Racial equity be damned. We want our team to win; and actuating affirmative action virtually insures that they won't.
The importance principle applies to other jobs as well. Jobs where results are at a premium. Suppose, for instance, you're an airline passenger flying through heavy turbulence when your pilot announces: "This is your Captain speaking. I want to give a big shout out to Eagle Airlines affirmative action program for getting me in this pilot's seat." Would you be glad to hear that? Similarly, shall we select our heart surgeons via affirmative action? How about structural engineers who design the structures we depend on? I don't think so!
But affirmative action is readily applied when selecting folks for less 'important' jobs. Jobs like teaching, for instance. Here, competence should trump everything else just as it does in the NFL or NBA. But it doesn't.
Affirmative action is both unfair and unwise. Unfair because it awards favor illogically and incompletely. Unwise because it undermines personal agency and promotes stigmatization. But once you start affirmative action, it's awfully hard to call it off — even when you should.
What, then, is to be done? End affirmative action and boldly embrace the prescription that Martin Luther King, Jr. presented on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Focus exclusively on the content of individual character and the achievements that are manifestations of that character. Nothing more, nothing less. Some claim that advocating a racially blind prescription is, in itself, racist. That's a doublethink distortion if there ever was one.