Affirmative action is a set of policies aimed at improving the representation of women and minorities in education, business, employment and other sectors of society where these groups have traditionally been underrepresented or even completely excluded. Representation is improved by way of preferential selection.
For example, if students are normally selected on the basis of test scores, affirmative action will add other selection criteria such as race, gender, ethnicity, language, religion etc. Maybe in certain cases the initial selection criteria (e.g. test scores) are dumped altogether because it’s assumed that they reflect racial bias or because past discrimination makes it difficult for discriminated groups to achieve good test scores.
As you can see from this description, affirmative action policies are usually internal policies implemented by organizations or institutions (schools, businesses, representative bodies etc.) wishing to become more diverse and more representative of society at large, although they can also be imposed by the government. It’s common – but not necessary – for affirmative action policies to work with quotas, i.e. fixed percentages of selectees from historically disadvantaged groups.
Now, how should we evaluate affirmative action from the perspective of human rights? Some see affirmative action as a means to compensate for past human rights violations and past exclusion. A minority which has been discriminated in the past may still find it difficult today to achieve equality of opportunity today. Affirmative action is then intended to break a self-continuing pattern of exclusion. Combined with other policies such as reparations, welfare, anti-discrimination laws etc., affirmative action will hopefully achieve more equality. According to this view, affirmative action is necessary from a human rights perspective.
However, it’s equally possible to argue that affirmative action doesn’t help or even undermines human rights. An example of the way in which it may not help is given by its application in education. Those African-Americans who are most likely to profit from affirmative action in access to higher education institutions aren’t the most disadvantaged of their group. On the contrary, they are probably among those who already have sufficiently good educational credentials (a requirement to be eligible to higher education in the first place), and they are by definition not the least advantaged. Affirmative action doesn’t seem to serve equality.
The same setting provides another example of the way in which affirmative action fails to help or even harms the cause of human rights. White people who enter education are by definition relatively young and hence least likely to have contributed to past discrimination. Their exclusion from a university resulting from the preferential selection of African-Americans harms their right to equal treatment for no good reason. It looks like discrimination as a means to fight discrimination, racism as a means to fight racism. Affirmative action is then supposed to harm the rights of whites. It’s even possible that a poor white boy, who would profit a lot from acceptance by a highly ranked university, is excluded in order to benefit a rich black boy who will have a decent life even without any education. That seems perverse to many opponents of affirmative action who argue that all racial classifications should be abandoned and all selection policies should be color-blind.
There are a few possible counter-arguments against this position. It’s true that those who are excluded or not selected because of affirmative action programs probably aren’t individually responsible for the historical disadvantages imposed on the beneficiaries of those programs, and therefore shouldn’t “pay” for correcting those disadvantages. However, it may still be true that they benefit from continuing inequality. For example, if women are systematically excluded from some professions, men in general benefit from this exclusion, even if they haven’t excluded women themselves. (That’s an argument made by Mary Anne Warren among others). Also, if African-Americans have traditionally been excluded from higher quality educational institutions, it’s likely that the better test scores presented by whites and required to enter university do not simply represent higher ability. Discrimination has benefited and continues to benefit whites in terms of test scores, even those whites who are not in the least responsible for the substandard basic education received by blacks. Demanding that only test scores be used as a criterion for selection in universities is not the way to avoid discrimination (of whites) but the way to cement discrimination (of blacks).
Moreover, even if it’s true that some whites are unjustly discriminated against by affirmative action programs, one might argue that this is a small price to pay for correcting a much higher number of cases of anti-black discrimination. Although personally I’m weary of sacrificing the rights of some for the benefit of others.
Also, to the extent that it’s true that affirmative action means fighting discrimination with discrimination, we should realize that the two kinds of “discrimination” are not at all the same. The type of discrimination that affirmative action is supposed to correct is a discrimination motivated by racial animus and intended to stigmatize some people as “inferior”. If affirmative action is a kind of discrimination, it’s one that has other motives. Whites who are excluded from a university because of affirmative action programs aren’t excluded because we believe that whites are inferior or because we don’t like them. However, it’s probably cold comfort for whites to know that their discrimination is not motivated by hatred.
And finally, affirmative action can be defended on a number of other consequentialist grounds that have nothing to do with the possible compensation or correction of injustices. For instance, allowing more blacks in law school can bring about a justice system that is seen as more legitimate by black citizens. More blacks in the police force may result in police departments that are more legitimate, more acceptable and more authoritative to black people. More female CEOs or professors may inspire more young women to follow their lead or to be more successful generally. More blacks in medical school may result in better healthcare for communities that are currently not well served. Diversity in school may have some educational advantages: proximity to people from other races may reduce racism and may better prepare students for their future lives in a diverse society. In general, a society that is representative in all fields is much more legitimate in the eyes of all citizens. And, last but not least, diversity improves the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. So, if all of this or some of this is true, affirmative action can yield more overall respect for human rights.