Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In defence of affirmative action

There has been a flurry of articles in the local rag, The Cape Times, arguing about the pro's and cons of affirmative action. It was all started by prof David Benatar from UCT when he published an article arguing that affirmative action was unethical.

Prof Benatar argued that one of the problems with affirmative action was that employers woulkd appoint “less qualified” or “weaker” black candidates above “more qualified” or “stronger” white candidates. I find this kind of reasoning particularly unconvincing.

I would ask: on what basis exactly will those in charge at an institution decide that one person who happens to be black is “less qualified” or “weaker” than another person who happens to be white? Who will decide on the set of standards to be used, and on what cultural, institutional or other ideological assumptions will these standards be based?

In an organisation where the institutional culture is deeply entrenched (like in many previously “white” universities and companies) it is difficult for those deeply invested in the culture to recognise that their views about what is good and bad for the institution are not neutral or universal, but very much the product of a certain time and place and identity.

In such an organisation, an invisible norm – often based on a set of deeply ingrained cultural and racial assumptions – is deployed by those in power as a “neutral standard”, without any acknowledgement or understanding that this will inevitably perpetuate the unfair status quo and exclude those who do not share their worldview.

I have sat in many appointments committee meetings at my own university and have always marvelled at the way in which the first impulse of most people is to appoint candidates who are just like themselves. I do not mean that we instinctively want to support candidates of our own race or gender or sexual orientation, but individuals do seem to have an immediate affinity for those who symbolically represent what they think is best in themselves.

And we do so by telling ourselves that we are merely supporting the best candidate for the job, often not even thinking that we believe he or she is best because he or she is most like ourselves in terms of background, language, temperament, race or academic interests. It is thus not surprising that black candidates appointed in such institutions are often those who can demonstrate that they are very similar to the white people who appointed them. (In South Africa this means that we often appoint black candidates from other parts of English speaking Africa.)

In the absence of a clearly formulated affirmative action policy, there is little incentive for elites at major organisations to “think outside the box” and to interrogate issues around qualifications, standards and excellence. This results in the dominant group – which at many universities and private firms remains white, middle class and well-heeled – retaining a monopoly on authenticating knowledge and allowing them to be “gatekeepers” to the institution.

I am not claiming that those who act in this way do so with the intention to discriminate against those (often from a different race) who do not fit the mould. People who support “race-neutral” employment policies often do so because of a genuine horror of the perceived corrosive consequences of race-based policies. They may well genuinely believe that affirmative action will help to reify racial categories and will lock us into a race-obsessed world not much different from the apartheid system we have so recently escaped.

But I would contend that there is nevertheless a somewhat troubling reason why in the new South Africa some people (mostly, but not exclusively, white) find racial categories so problematic and hateful. For many of us white people, race has become a very scary and uncomfortable thing ever since we were told by black people that we too have a race. Unlike in apartheid South Africa when whites dominated political and economic discourse, powerful people like the President, Cabinet Ministers and BEE kingpins can now pointedly refer to our whiteness and can make us feel bad for being white.

Because power and control was in the hands of whites during the apartheid era, the world view of whites was so all-encompassing that it made it unnecessary for whites to develop any understanding of their own “unbearable whiteness of being”. For liberals who rejected racial classifications and claimed not to notice race, it was easy to make decisions about who were “qualified” for a job, say, without noticing that the criteria used were anything but race-neutral and objective, but instead were based on the worldview of the dominant white group.

The insistence on the importance of racial categories to deal with past injustice can therefore be deeply threatening because it is seen as an attack on the “universal” Western values that was never questioned during the apartheid era – even by proud and brave liberals like Helen Suzman. In a new South Africa where the racial power balance is beginning to shift, it may seem imperative to eviscerate racial categorisation from the world – otherwise the very neutral Western values that is the basis of white identity would be under threat.

Affirmative action is thus deeply troubling exactly because it has the potential to effect deep transformation. When an organisation is required to follow through on an effective affirmative action policy, it would not be sufficient for it to appoint a few black people to ensure the correct racial aesthetics for the organisation. Its leadership will instead be forced to reflect on the exclusionary nature of an existing institutional culture in which black people have a better chance of appointment if they are in any other way but skin colour like the whites in charge.


Gerrit Brand said...


Pat Benatar het al heelwat vreemde - en daarom ook interessante - idees die wêreld ingestuur, byvoorbeeld in sy boek Better Never to Have Been, waarin hy aanvoer dat dit beter sou gewees het as geen voelende lewe ooit ontstaan het nie!

In this case he has a point. En jy ook.

His point is that when people are favoured for certain positions on the grounds of their race, it follows that the best candidate may in certain cases not be appointed simply because he or she has the wrong skin colour - which seeems morally questionable. As ek jou aanstel omdat jy swart is, dan is daar ten minste 'n kans dat jy nie aangestel is omdat jy die mees geskikte kandidaat was nie, en dat 'n meer geskikte kandidaat gevolglik dalk nié aangestel is nie.

Yet you also make a very valid point: The standards according to which "best" candidates are selected, are not obvious; they are a product of certain habits, outlooks, prejudices etc., and should therefore be examined critically, debated and sometimes contested. "Standaarde" is nie tydlose gegewes nie, maar menslik, al te menslik.

Dié punt kan egter nie dien as 'n argument teen die punt wat Benatar maak nie. It cannot serve as a counter-argument to the reasoning behind the claim that affirmative action is morally wrong. The reason for this is simple: When appointments are made, some standards will have to be applied. Granted, those standards must be negotiable, debatable, changeable, but this does not change the fact that some determination will have to be made as to who is, according to whatever standards, the "most suitable" candidate.

Unless one believes that membership of a certain race can itself count as a criterion for suitability or excellence, it remains a problem that race is used as a criterion, because it follows logically that suitability, however defined, is no longer the only criterion. Dat standaarde debateerbaar is, beteken nie dat ons sonder standaarde aanstellings kan doen nie!

What I like about your perspective, however, is that you suggest that transformation should be applied at a much deeper level than usually happens. What should be transformed, is not the colour of the faces in institutions, but rather the nature of those institutions, including the kinds of standards applying in them. Die standaarde self moet getransformeer word, anders sit jy inderdaad met 'n situasie waar transformasie niks anders beteken as rassediskriminasie nie.

To make this concrete: Say an institution makes proficiency in an African language a requirement, or at least a recommendation, for a certain position. in practice this would mean that, on the whole, black South Africans stand a better chance. However, they are not favoured BECAUSE of their blackness, but because they possess a valuable skill that has not, until now, been given the recognition it deserves: Their proficiency in an African language will make them better at the job in certain respects than those (mainly white) candidates who do not possess this skill. Hulle is eenvoudig in dié opsig meer geskik.

They are thus appointed on merit, but in the context of a transformed, more rational and humane, set of standards. In this scenario there is no conflict between transformation and faithfulness to the principle of appointing the best candidate.

As die onregverdige standaarde van die verlede gewysig word, dan is die voordeeltrekkers juis diegene wat in die verlede benadeel is, maar hulle trek nie voordeel op grond van 'n irrelevante kriterium nie.

Many similar examples could be developed. But what do we do in practice? We retain "white" standards, and then look for blacks who meet those standards - as you point out so eloquently in your contribution. We take a skill like proficiency in English, a skill mostly possessed by the pale and the rich, and make that a central criterion of excellence. Hoe onnosel!

- Gerrit Brand

Anonymous said...

Pierre, you don't engage in any way with what David Benatar wrote.

He said that AA, in its mildest form, "involves taking positive steps to avoid discrimination, to ensure that opportunities are open and available for all are open and available to all and that fair standards of selection are used...Nobody committed to fairness could take exception to AA in this form."

What he took issue with was the use of race classification and the favouring of people on the basis of such ascriptive characteristics.

As for your second point, you hardly need to be a rocket scientist to see that a vulnerable group at the receiving end of an aggressive racial nationalist agenda are going to find it "deeply troubling".