Friday, May 18, 2007

It's the experience of opression, stupid

The affirmative action debate continues apace in the pages of the Cape Times. Yesterday I posted the letter of Willem Van Vuuren who argued that I made use of ad hominem arguments to discredit anti-affirmative action views. Let me try to respond. (Those already bored with the affirmative action debate can skip to the post of Christopher Hitchens calling Jerry Falwell a charlatan.)

I think Van Vuuren’s letter forcefully illustrates why we still need affirmative action in this country. Like Professor David Benatar and others who criticized my contribution to the affirmative action debate, he seems unwilling or incapable of grasping the fundamental point I tried to make. This inability, I think, reveals his blindness to the unfairness of “neutral” standards and criteria.

No, I am not saying that “when it comes to affirmative action, whiteys can’t think straight”. My argument is really a critique of the worst aspects of a kind of “universal liberalism” and is based on an understanding of how power works in any institution dominated by an economically, culturally and politically powerful group.

I am contending that the selection of candidates for any position or benefit must be based on a set of criteria. This set of criteria is not neutral, but is the product of (and therefore reflects) the values of the dominant group. In South Africa in many institutions this dominant group is white and male.

Because the set of criteria is the product of the dominant group, the dominant group finds it difficult if not impossible to understand that the criteria are not neutral and that it would not be fair to use those criteria to appoint individuals or distribute benefits. I suspect that is the reason why Professors Van Vuuren and Benatar cannot understand why applying such criteria are problematic and essentially deeply unfair.

When applying a set of criteria that reflects the values of the powerful and dominant group in an institution still dominated by that very group, those who do not fit in – blacks, women, homosexuals – will either not be allowed in or will be treated as second class colleagues.

This point is surely not very difficult to grasp and for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with continental philosophy of the last hundred years, it should be uncontroversial. But they do not have to take my word for it – they can merely ask any black person appointed to a senior position in an institution dominated by whites and she will confirm this view. Come to think of it, they could also ask any openly gay law professor at an institution dominated by heterosexual men.

The high point of Prof Van Vuuren’s argument (echoed by Gerrit Brand in a response to a previous post) is that corrective steps should not be based on a person’s race because this takes us back to apartheid racial classification. Why not use a person’s language or their poverty instead of race to determine affirmative action criteria?

At first blush, this seems like a good argument. Surely we all want to get to a point where we live in a society in which race is not all-important. However, I think this view is flawed because it does not take cognizance of the fact that black people are not targeted for affirmative action because they are all essentially the same. (The essence of apartheid was exactly to essentialise race and to equate race with destiny.)

No, black people’s skin colour is not why they are targeted for affirmative action. Instead, they are targeted because they have all experienced the hurt and ignominy of racial prejudice and oppression and all still experience it today. We live in a racist world and even when a black person speaks perfect English or earns 10 million Rand a year, the chances are that the waiter will give the wine list to the white person at the table.

To say that race should not be used in programmes to address past injustice is to deny black people their own (and continuing) experience of oppression. This denial of other’s experience only seems logical and fair if one considers one’s own experience as universal, something that is only possible if one is a confirmed member of the privileged and dominant group.

That some still see their own experience as universal is exactly why affirmative action based on race is essential to create a world that will be a little bit more fair and just.


Anonymous said...

White people should remember that they were the first group in this country to start with affirmative action. So strange that the same people who are now complaing remained dead quiet then. It makes me sick.

Herman Lategan

Michael Osborne said...

Interesting though it is, I suspect that the participants in this debate do not in fact differ very greatly. To test my claim, consider the following propositions:

1. Colour-coded affirmative action interventions are dangerous because they threaten to breed a "blacker-than-thou” mentality.

2. With regard to affirmative action, “promoting people beyond their level of competence is a disservice to those individuals, and society as a whole.”

I do not expect Pierre will disagree. (Both sentiments are attributed to Dr Ramphele.) If that is true, then what, in a practical sense, are we arguing about?

Africannabis said...

I never had anything to do with apartheid - or Zimbabwe.

I was born in the one and live in the other...

It can't all be my skin's fault, it's just wraps me up.

either way I'm a skilled IT professional & unemployed - but trying to make SA better...

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, I agree with the second proposition, of course. I am not sure I agree with the first one. But I think you make a good point. Most people conflate criticism of some forms of affirmative action with criticism of the principle of affirmative action. I do think that people use the nepotism and corruption associated with some affirmative action programmes and say: "well, you see we do not support aa."

But Benatar and others say we should not use race in any form to address past injustice. I disagree with that profoundly.

Pierre de Vos said...

Africannibis, I do not see aa as something associated with white guilt, but rather with fairness and justice. Without it our society also has very little chance of being stable and prosperous. At the same time I think it is difficult for any white person to say he or she did not benefit from apartheid. If one asks oneself whether one's parents would have been in exactly the same educational and financial position had they been born black, it would be difficult not to acknowledge some benefit flowing from one's whiteness. To feel guilty about it, is for me a waste of time though.

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, I labour (as should any good liberal), to see if we can narrow the differences in the great AA debate. If Benatar is indeed pushing absolute colour-blinded-ness -- not acknowledging the practical need at times to assign some weight to race -- then I would have to agree with you that his position is quite indefensible.

But I had thought Prof Benatar was making the more moderate point (which echoes the concerns articulated by Dr. Ramphele’s), that one must implement AA with caution. That is because (a) we ideally want to move away from any form of race-consciousness, and (b)given the realities of educational inequities in South Africa, assigning decisive weight to race could compromise standards.

When I went back and carefully re-read Benatar’s original piece, I noted that, although he does not state his position with great clarity, he does say he supports AA in the form of a “badly-needed corrective to unfairness, much of which is hidden rather than obvious.” He says later that the form of AA he opposes would advance people “merely” on the basis of race.

Would you agree that, on this interpretation of what Benatar say, the differences amongst all of you are not as great as they might first appear?


Gerrit Brand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerrit Brand said...

Pierre, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that affirmative action does not count blackness as such as a criterion for suitability for a job; rather it is the experience of oppression shared by all black people that counts as a qualification.

This is an interesting argument for race based affirmative action, but I don't find it convincing, for a number of reasons:

1) I can understand that a person's experience of oppression can render her or him better equipped to fill certain positions, but to simply assume that this applies in every case seems to me questionable. It depends on the person in question - how he or she dealt with the oppression etc.

To take a different example: Someone who has lost a loved one may, because of that experience, be better equipped than he or she would otherwise have been to do, say, counselling. But that remains to be seen in every case. Some people may even turn out to be less well equipped to do the job after such an experience.

2) Even in those cases where a person's experience of oppression has rendered her or him better equipped to do a certain job, it does not follow that the person in question is, on the whole, necessarily the best candidate for the position. After all, many criteria should be taken into account when decisions to appoint are made. Someone else who lacks this particular bit of experience may be better equipped in other respects, and taken together her or his complete set of skills may be better than mine.

3) "The experience of oppression" is not a standard issue product, identical across the board. Not all black people have experienced the same degree or type of oppression. Who suffered oppression the most intensely: a former bantustan leader, black, who collaborated with the apartheid regime, actively oppressed other blacks and is wealthy and privileged to this day thanks to it; or a white anti-apartheid fighter who spent several years in prison and was tortured and afterwards financially ruined because of it. These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the point. And when a person who happens to be relatively dark skinned arrives here from the USA or Jamaica, does that person's experience of oppression also equip her or him?

4) If people's experience of oppression really did equip them to do certain jobs better (which may well be the case sometimes), in the same way that, say, having lived many years or having worked overseas, or having suffered serious illness, may also equip people for certain tasks, then why not simply take that fact into account when considering candidates for a position? Why should this fact be considered via the person's colour, so to speak? Why count the sheep's legs and divide it by four, when it would be much simpler simply to count the sheep? (After all, apart from the convoluted roundabout route, it may trun out that some of the sheep have only three or even two legs.)

My conclusion: To the degree that the experience of oppression may qualify someone for a particular job, that qualification can be considered together with other skills that are deemed relevant, so that the principle remains: select the best candidate, regardless of the different candidates' race.

Pierre de Vos said...

Gerrit, you misunderstood my argument. I am not saying that a person's experience of oppression will make her better equipped for a job. My argument is that substantive equality requires corrective measures that should be based on an understanding of the collective experience of oppression and discrimination of black people in South Africa. I am saying we refer to race in AA cases because those who are black have all experienced (and continue to experience) discrimination. To create a more fair society we have to take cognisance of that.

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, I hope that you are correct and that Prof Benatar and myself are not far removed in our views. I think that we do have a fundamental ideological difference. His impulse is for a system where race neutrality is the ideal, while I think a discourse of race neutrality is really white domination in disguise. Its support for the status quo. I am not saying that Prof Benatar wants the status quo to continue and do not argue that he is a bad person for making his arguments. I am saying that his arguments will most likely not address racial injustice. I do think though that we would both agree that quotas or appointments only based on race is unconscionable. So there, at least, is some common ground!

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, Professors Benatar and Steven Friedman had a rather bitter debate on 567 this morning.

I did not hear much of it, but I was listening when Benatar challenged Friedman with the following question, as to which I would like to hear your response. How, in the event of a dispute as to a person’s “race” for purposes of entitlement to AA would a determination be made as to which group someone actually belonged? Suppose, for example, someone deemed by the employer (whether a university or a government department), to be a “coloured” was rejected in favour someone deemed “black.” Suppose the “coloured” argued that he too was, in fact, “black.” Friedman did not seem to have an answer to this question; I believe he said something about an “informal” classification system being used. I did not think that was a very satisfactory response.

It would be, to say the least, problematic for the employer to report to the old apartheid-style Population Registration Act “pencil in the hair” test. A less embarrassing solution would be to base the decision on how the person was in fact classified under the old order. But suppose the applicant claimed that she had been wrongly classified as a “coloured.” Would one then have determine whether the classification was “objectively” wrong – by resorting the nasty Population Registration Act methods?

I suppose one might resort to calling for evidence as to whether the applicant was, irrespective of her formal classification, disadvantaged under the old order. The problem then is that the very reason one applies affirmative action using “racial” – rather than, say, class categories – is because, generally speaking, race generally serves as a very good marker of whether the applicant was previously disadvantaged. In practice it would be terrible cumbersome to have to compare past disadvantage in each and every application. Race, it is assumed, serves as somewhat reliable proxy for prior disadvantaged.

Does anyone know how this vexing issue is handled in places like Brazil, India and Malaysia, where it must have arisen at some point?