In many cases when I talk about how I think, I find it useful to abstract the messy real sources of inspiration into a pure dialogue with my friend Matt. In this case, Matt and I were talking about entrance requirements into college and the practice of "reverse discrimination" and affirmative action.

Much of the discourse on affirmative action has taken place in the US court system. The 1978 CA v. Bakke case encouraged the benefits of diversity in the classroom (akin to a modern John Stuart Mill dream). Many speak of a certain "critical mass." A lot more attention was given recently in the Grutter v. Bollinger case, when the US Supreme Court dissent (I refer directly to Chief Justice Rehnquist's dissent) spoke of the inadequate progress towards achieving critical mass and the unconstitutionality of such action. In 2006, Michigan voted for the so-called Proposal 2, eliminating some forms of affirmative action. But last week, a federal court struck this down. I wonder if there is a lot being written about the negative effects of affirmative action outside of news, courtrooms, and sensationalist periodicals.

There are many arguments for or against affirmative action, and I want to emphasize that I am not debating affirmative action in this question. Matt and I were wondering whether or not there are any contemporary philosophers that have written about the potential negative effects of reverse discrimination already.

For more references on the path of affirmative action, I recommend reading the initial executive order starting it within the States and this timeline.

  • have added 'ethics' and 'sociology' tags
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:23
  • @Joseph: I agree, I think. Especially sociology. Ethics too, hmm? Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:25
  • Have added 'philosophy-of-race' tag as well. I think this is a valid use of the 'ethics' tag, though maybe we should try to get 'reference-request' in there too. I have also attempted to reformulate the title as a question, please feel free to rollback or improve further.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 17:23
  • Isn't all debate on the women's quota (recently in Germany) germane as well?
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 19:42

1 Answer 1


Sure, those philosophers exist. But they're not nearly as trendy as you might have imagined. The philosophical arguments made against affirmative action now are exactly the same ones that were made by theorists long before race-conscious theories ever existed. It's the writings of anyone who ever encouraged blind justice and universal social equality, from strict deontologists like Immanuel Kant to liberal political philosophers like John Rawls.

One could do worse than to start by thinking through Rawls's Veil of Ignorance, wherein one imagines that she is forced to decide the fate and organization of her future society without knowing the specific role in that society which she will be assigned to play. In other words, no one knows their place in society, their class position, their social status, or their assets and abilities ahead of time. They might be placed into the society as a poor black female, a rich white male, or anything in between. The idea is that one would choose the most just society for all members, rather than be tainted by a bias for one's own current social group. This is nothing particularly revolutionary, considering that liberal theorists since the Enlightenment have argued in favor of universal equality, justice as fairness to all, and the equal (re-)distribution of wealth.

In fact, it is the notion of "affirmative action" that is relatively new, and not just because philosophers have stereotypically been rich white men that didn't care about the oppressed minority groups. Philosophically and legally, the affirmative action system has its roots in critical legal studies (CLS), and more specifically, the branch of CLS that deals with race—critical race theory (CRT). The primary authors here are probably Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado, and I think Mari Matsuda deserves specific mention as a particularly lucid and readable theorist in this tradition. Her book (with Charles Lawrence), We Won't Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action, is probably one of the landmark texts tying CRT with affirmative action.

Critical race theory has two primary objectives. First is a critical genealogy of the way in which power struggles across racial boundaries have been borne out over time, and more specifically, the role that the law and legal system have played in that process. Second is a sustained effort to transform the current system (both legally and socially) into one that is capable of true racial emancipation and a sustainable ability to resist entrenched oppressive hierarchies. The Wikipedia article is a fine introduction to the other themes at work in CRT (see the section entitled "Key theoretical elements), but the real landmark of CRT, the pivotal point of disagreement between it and traditional liberalism as discussed above, is the rejection of color-blindness. In summary, CRT is a race-conscious theory that looks specifically at the dynamics of racial power and their effects on the law, rather than pretending that law is racially-neutral as liberalism has done for years. CRT theorists have argued that abstract, rights-based remedies don't work, as they fail to change the oppressive hierarchies of subordination and dominance that have been for so long entrenched into the legal system. As hard as we pretend that the system is color-blind, the results indicate clearly that it is not. (There's a lot of other critical theory hoopla mixed in, of course, like intersectionality, strategic essentialism, and a strong emphasis on personal narratives, but none of this is particularly germane to the issue that is addressed in the question.)

Essentially, though, it all boils down to how one feels that equality should be measured. There are two primary camps here. The first argues that equality should be assessed in terms of one's opportunities; this is commonly referred to as the equality of opportunity. The argument here is that everyone should be equally capable of achieving the same ends, that there should be no systemic barriers (social, legal, cultural, economic, or otherwise) that stand in the way of the success of any individual or group. The other primary theory of equality is commonly referred to as the equality of outcomes (or results), in which the argument is made that true equality is only achieved when everyone in the society ends up in truly equal positions after all the decisions have been made and everything has shaken out. This gives prejudices and discrimination a chance to rear their ugly head, intervening in what appeared on the surface to be a completely fair and equitable system. Which type of equality that you consider most important to maximize generally determines which types of social programs you favor.

  • I was hoping for anyone speaking of the negative effects of such behavior, rather than the necessity of being fair (Rawl's justice style). Can you reach further in your bag of tricks? Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:02
  • 1
    @mixedmath: In my opinion, most of the negative effects of such behavior would be discussed in legal literature and would be concerned chiefly with empirical examples, rather than something you'd find in philosophy. There is obviously some overlap, but I tend to think of philosophy as being much more theoretical. The only person that really comes to mind is Dinesh D'Souza, a contemporary critic of Critical Race Theory. He's quite an unusual theorist, as a conservative evangelical Christian, but he does specifically challenge affirmative action. Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 6:22
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    Basically, he blames the "cultural left" for everything... including 9/11. The book Illiberal Education is probably the primary place to find his rants against affirmative action. He talks specifically about the role that race (and sex) play on college campuses, and argues that they're "structurally racist" in the way that their administrators have imposed their own political ideals on the admissions system, classroom curriculum, and other facets of education. Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 6:24
  • I disagree that it boils down to this. Many proponents of a.a. argue not via the outcomes but say they are creating opportunity (to be hired for example) and tearing down systematic barriers. I think it boils down to a non-philosophical practical/political/sociological/psychological question about how to best change society. I think proponents of outcome equality are the odd ones out.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 19:44

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