Posted 4/17/00

"The Aim of Affirmative Action", by Sarah Stroud (McGill University)
Social Theory and Practice, Fall1999, vol. 25 no. 3, pp. 385-408.

Reviewed by Michael J. Cholbi (Brooklyn College/CUNY)

s-drop.gif - 1.3 Karah Stroud has recently proposed a novel justifying aim for affirmative action We should extend preferential treatment in employment to certain groups in order to eliminate the "unwarranted attitudes that impede rational deliberation about career choices and aspirations and thereby keep people from achieving their full potential." (386) Members of certain groups may believe that particular occupations are neither available to nor appropriate for such groups. Such persons make decisions about their employment options not based on their individual goals or talents, but on the basis of their membership in a group and the mistaken belief that certain employment options can be ruled out "simply on the grounds of group membership." (389) Affirmative action should aim to remove these "unwarranted self-imposed limitations on career aspirations" and "expand people's sense of what is possible for them, so that they can subject the full range of options to the kind of individualized scrutiny that is appropriate to career decisions and goals." (387) The aim of affirmative action, according to Stroud, is thus to alter individuals' deliberation about their employment options. Too often individuals approach their career choices with 'blinkers' that limit, in their own minds at least, their viable options. This narrowing of horizons is intrinsically bad, Stroud claims, as it makes these individuals' choice less rational, and instrumentally bad, since narrowed horizons are likely to lead to reduced occupational satisfaction.

How might affirmative action expand the options that enter into individuals' deliberation about their career choices? Stroud proposes that by extending preferential treatment to certain groups and increasing their representation within the occupations to which they are normally barred by deliberative blinkers, we change the "facts on the ground" so as to alter people's sense of what is possible. (390) We remove the imaginative limits to career choices by defying the very suppositions that ground those limits. If African-Americans tend to believe that law enforcement is not a career choice to which they can reasonably aspire, we may counteract this belief by instituting affirmative action to African-Americans in police hiring. Stroud is careful to note that her argument is not the familiar "role model argument" for affirmative action; her view does not require that those whose deliberative options are broadened emulate those who benefit from preferential treatment, nor does it even require actual contact between the immediate beneficiaries (those hired) and the ultimate beneficiaries, those "future individuals whose attitudes will be positively affected by preferential treatment now." (389)

There is much to admire in Stroud's proposal. Discussions of affirmative action very often emphasize the economic or political barriers to equal opportunity at the expense of the psychological barriers. Stroud's proposal draws attention to one of the most intransigent obstacles to equal opportunity. Even if economic or political opportunity for minority persons and women is achieved, powerful spiritual and psychic barriers to equal opportunity may remain. As writers such as Laurence Thomas and Michele Moody-Adams have noted, one of the more perverse effects of racism is that racist attitudes are frequently internalized by racial minorities, thereby diminishing their self-respect and sense of worth. Equal opportunity in the formal sense is far less useful if the blinkering phenomenon Stroud discusses keeps certain persons from enjoying equal opportunity. Stroud's proposal therefore acknowledges a significant barrier to equal opportunity while avoiding the troubling questions about rights, compensation, etc., that backward-looking justifications invite.

Nonetheless, I contend that her justification of affirmative action is vulnerable to two objections.

The first concerns the beneficiaries of affirmative action. Stroud's account focuses on children and the young, who are in a position to have their deliberative horizons extended. These are the ultimate beneficiaries, as opposed to what we might call the immediate beneficiaries, those hired via preferential policies. Stroud unfortunately neglects to consider how the immediate beneficiaries would be treated under such a scheme. I wish to suggest that even though the immediate beneficiaries would benefit from preferential treatment, might consent to such treatment, and might welcome their role in altering the deliberative horizons of their fellow group members, it is wrong to treat them as Stroud's proposal recommends. The immediate beneficiaries are not treated as mere means, as Kantianism would disallow, but their status as group members is. Suppose that a presidential nominee selects an African-American running mate, not as an electoral strategy, but in order to broadcast the message that African-Americans can aspire to the highest levels of public office. Even if the running mate is aware of this justification and agrees with it, his status as an African-American is exploited. He may well be otherwise qualified to be vice-president, in which case he is not being exploited qua rational being, but he is being exploited qua African-American. Exploitation is compatible with an individual benefiting rather than suffering and with his consenting. Stroud's proposal would exploit the immediate beneficiaries by using them as a tool to advance the interests of the ultimate beneficiaries. Moreover, on some analyses of racism, exploitation of one's group status is a paradigm case of racist conduct.

A second objection relates to Stroud's condition that in order for a group to be a suitable beneficiary for affirmative action, it must be such that if its members were to receive preferential treatment, this fact would be visible to other members of the group so that their deliberative options would be widened accordingly. Yet in order for Stroud's proposal to be maximally effective in removing individuals' blinkers, this publicity would have to have a limit. For if the ultimate beneficiaries were to know the rationale for the immediate beneficiaries receiving preferential treatment, the aim Stroud advocates may well be undermined. The ultimate beneficiaries might receive not the message Stroud hopes - that all occupations are available to them - but another message- that in order to work in certain professions, group members must receive preferential treatment. And should the ultimate beneficiaries be meritocratically inclined, this may discourage rather than encourage their sense of the possible with respect to occupational options. Thus, for maximal effectiveness, Stroud's proposal would have to conceal its justification from its ultimate beneficiaries, and such concealment does not respect the ultimate beneficiaries as equal citizens. This is a surprisingly illiberal conclusion to draw from an argument dependent on the liberal value of equal opportunity.

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