American history has a legacy of oppression, exclusion, and marginalization of minority communities, especially the blacks, who for long have been on the periphery of the mainstream despite having stayed in America much longer than some of the white immigrants. In addition, blacks have also been victims of slavery in the past and legally sanctioned social exclusion and segregation, whose effects still linger even in the present. Kozol (1991) presents a harrowing account of the kind of living conditions that blacks have to endure in modern America in East St. Lois, Illinois. Kozol writes that the public utilities that white Americans take for granted like clean running water, regular collection of garbage, a working sewerage system and a habitable and safe living environment are sadly lacking in East St. Lois (1991, 8). The living conditions present in East St. Lois are not only akin to those commonly seen in third-world countries but may be considered as those present in 19th century America, when industrialization caused massive migration into towns leading to congestion and unsanitary living conditions.
Unfortunately, the population of East St. Lois, which lies in the American Bottoms flood plains, an area prone to flooding is almost exclusively black (Kozol, 1991, 9), while that of Illinois Bluffs, an area safe from flooding and desirable to live in, is also almost exclusively white and hostile to black entrants. Although the two areas are physically, culturally, and psychologically separated, ironically, the Bottoms and Bluffs are tragically linked, with the flooding afflicting the Bottoms being a consequence of runoff from the more affluent Bluffs, where residents are unwilling to contribute towards flood control downstream. The Illinois situation serves as a sad analogy to the problems prevalent in the larger American society, where the more affluent are unwilling to contribute more towards the amelioration of the living conditions of the less fortunate. The position of the black person in modern American society remains a scar to the collective conscience of the nation because, despite the contribution of the blacks to the growth and property seen in the country, the blacks are yet to benefit proportionately.
As a means of redressing some of these historical injustices meted on blacks, a number of initiatives have been launched to accelerate the inclusion and integration of blacks into mainstream America. One of the most celebrated measures introduced towards achieving this goal was affirmative action, where blacks and other racial minorities like Latinos could be given preferential treatment when universities made admissions to the more lucrative and top-tier courses like medicine and law (Bernstein, 1994, 1).
The dismantling of the segregation system, which initially banned black students from these courses in the first place, was a long, slow and painful process, characterized by litigation by black students who were victims of the system. In ruling that exclusion of black students from law school, or the creation of exclusive black law schools was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court paved the way for the eventual enactment of affirmative action policies currently used by many universities in admitting minority students. Although affirmative action was initially thought as a way of redressing the injustices against minorities, currently, there is a debate on whether such action is still needed after so many years, in addition to questioning not only the legality and justice, but also the fairness of the system in modern America.
Rawls (205) advances the idea that justice and fairness are intertwined concepts and that a just system founded on ideal principles and conditions is just. The pursuit of justice in any society is fundamental in ensuring that individual rights are not trampled by the state or that the majority does not use its might to oppress the minority because individual rights are held as sacrosanct and inviolable. The enactment of laws and policies is usually as a result of social negotiation between parties with vested interests, who may compromise on some of their needs for the common good. However, Rawls advances the argument that justice can be viewed through two different prisms, depending on the original position from which the negotiation for a just settlement is carried out (206). Justice can be viewed from the basic premises that all individuals are equal in society and hence equality is needed when assigning the basic rights and duties that are due to each individual in the system. If justice is viewed as a system for equal individuals in society, then any rational person in such a system cannot accept a policy “merely because it maximized the algebraic sum of advantages irrespective of its permanent effects on his own basic rights and interests” (Rawls 206).
Using this perspective of justice, affirmative action is patently unjust because it legitimizes the treatment of individuals differently, merely because of the color of their skin. Affirmative action, therefore, violates the basic right of an individual to be treated equally by the system because it places a premium on the innate and congenital differences between individuals to treat them preferentially. Therefore, such a system is unjust and unfair and must be dismantled irrespective of the efficiency or social good that it accomplishes. The rights of an individual should not be sacrificed at the altar of the supposed ‘greater public good’, considering that ‘greater good’ is a nebulous concept that means a different thing to different people. In a just society, the rights and liberties of an individual are secured and are not subject to political or social bargaining, and are to be enjoyed in an unfettered manner as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.
Just societies are based on meritocracy and individuals will have access to college and other opportunities in life depending on their ability, ensuring that individual merit is rewarded and encouraged over lowering of standards to accommodate minority individuals. Although the affirmative action has been in place for a considerable amount of people, it has not radically changed the place of blacks in the society considering that blacks that are able to exploit the opportunities offered by affirmative action tend to be from middle class backgrounds, and not the inner-city poor that the program was supposed to benefit. The program now seems to discriminate against white students who wish to join university, and there is a feeling that the system as it is a form of ‘reverse discrimination’ because qualified white students are denied the opportunity to join medical and law schools in preference to less qualified minority students (Dworkin, 293).
Affirmative action is inherently partial and there is need to determine whether the partiality of affirmative action, which violates the principle of equality of individuals, is defensible to rational people. In addressing the issue of partiality Pope (242) states that preferential treatment of people, especially the poor, is now a major issue in contemporary ethics. Affirmative action “connotes a priority scheme in which the claims of the poor have some kind of precedence over the claims of other people” (Pope, 243). The preferential treatment of minority raises an interesting question as to whether there is proper or improper partiality when it comes to dealing with people. The concept of partiality is associated with unjust favoritism and is generally viewed as undesirable in the conducting of public affairs, especially in admitting of students to college, where meritocracy should be the guiding principle. Cognitively, the decision-making process should be based on an analysis of objective parameters, while morally we are obliged to practice fairness and impartiality, something that is not possible when using affirmative action.
Although the ideal admission system should be just, fair and non-discriminatory, it is important to be cognizant that the decision-making process does not occur in a vacuum, but is subject to the social, legal and political pressures that are present in a society at a particular time. The American society is race conscious, a legacy “of a history of slavery, repression, and prejudice” against its minority communities, who remain in the periphery of society (Dworkin, 294). The American society cannot hope to sustain its prosperity in the long term if a considerable portion of the population is shunted to the periphery and treated as non-humans. Kozol states that communities like those of East St. Lois are not atypical but appear to be the norm for a majority of black communities across the country (20), with medical care absent or at best rudimentary.
Blacks form the biggest percentage of inmates in state penitentiaries despite being only around 14 percent of the population. Most children in black homes are born to single mothers, the fathers having been incarcerated or died early from substance abuse, and have limited educational opportunities with schools in black districts being understaffed and underequipped. These children are born into a disadvantageous position and have to struggle through their schooling compared to students in affluent neighborhoods who have better learning experiences.
Considering that conditions are stacked against them, it is unjust to assume that these children from disadvantaged backgrounds can compete evenly with more affluent white students because the principle of equality of persons on which the primacy of individual rights is premised is violated. Therefore, necessary to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have beaten the odds against them and shown academic promise are given a helping hand to help them get into college. Black students are not inherently stupid, but any talent they may possess, either academic or artistic is drowned by the sea of poverty that engulfs these students.
Young black students struggling to learn in poor learning environments are in need of role models to give them hope that with hard work and their innate talent, they can make it in life. Such role models can only be created through a deliberate effort to get more blacks into top-tier courses through affirmative action. Despite the relatively low entry points for black students, evidence suggests that they can competently “do the required work and almost all graduate and pass the bar exam”, implying that blacks can be as proficient as whites if given similar opportunities (Bernstein, 2). Therefore, affirmative action should not be scrapped but should be strengthened as a tool for increasing social harmony and cohesion and instilling hope in the large number of young blacks that education can indeed be a ladder for mobility.