"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!"
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Affirmative action is intended to compensate for past and/or present bias, maltreatment or exploitation. Typically, however, this remedy is misapplied because policy makers fail to recognize numerous classes of victims.
What kinds of people are clear-cut victims of bias, but never included in affirmative action plans? Here is a sample:
The Physically Unattractive. Social psychology researchers have repeatedly documented the physical-attractiveness stereotype. Namely, the tendency to think that physically attractive people possess a greater number of positive traits such as: confidence, strength, assertiveness, candor, warmth, honesty, kindness, friendliness, sensitivity, poise and sociability.
Logically, then, physically unattractive people must be stereotyped as: more insecure, weaker, less assertive, more deceptive, meaner, more introverted, less sensitive, less poised and less sociable. Does that seem like a bias to you?
The Obese. Obesity is another, often overlooked, physical characteristic associated with discrimination and unfair treatment. Social psychological research on attitudes toward overweight people has shown they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive. Moreover, several studies have demonstrated that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals may contribute to discrimination in the work place. Why are the obese not included in affirmative action plans — particularly if obesity is less an achieved characteristic than an acquired one?
Short Statured Males. Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. Short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men. Moreover, short men experience discrimination in the workplace. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants, short men earn less on average than taller employees and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates.
Looks like a significant handicap to me. Why aren’t they entitled to affirmative action?
Some Other Factors. The various groups who experience discrimination are extensive. For instance, people with red hair color are stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" And negative stereotyping is also based on language and dialect. For example an African-American dialect or a Southern accent both trigger negative stereotypes accompanied by discrimination.
Negative stereotyping and discrimination victimize numerous classes of people. But what does all this have to do with affirmative action? The answer is, "everything." To avoid violating their own cardinal principle, affirmative action advocates must be prepared to apply compensatory measures to everyone victimized by prejudice? But this is not now the case. Currently, some people profit from affirmative action only because their particular group has sufficient muscle to be so qualified. Other groups are similarly disadvantaged, but their plight is completely ignored.
How About This? Here is an interesting way to put all of this together. Whom do you think would most likely land a well-paying executive position?
• An intelligent, well qualified, handsome, slim, tall African American male with cultivated speech, or
• An equally intelligent, well-qualified, but unattractive, obese, short Caucasian male with red hair and a thick Southern accent?
O.K., now which one of them is legally entitled to affirmative action?
Conclusion. The fact is there are many classes of people who are unfairly stereotyped and discriminated against. But it is practically impossible to grant them all compensatory treatment. What is more, since individuals differ, often very significantly, within groups, we risk injustice whenever, whether for good or ill, we shoe horn them into groups.
Admittedly, some individuals do deserve special consideration. Those who are physically and/or mentally handicapped are the clearest example. The limiting effects of things like brain trauma, cerebral palsy, blindness, and the like, can be so dramatic that it is perfectly reasonable to grant victims extraordinary considerations. Even here, though, individual differences matter.
I recall one of my college students who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy. This was before the Americans With Disabilities Act so he was not guaranteed any special accommodations. He was unable to print, much less write, so he asked to tape-record our classes. He also requested oral exams. I agreed. Nevertheless, I still required him to do all of the work at the same level of mastery as his classmates. To lower learning standards solely he was physically handicapped was unfair to them and to him.
He turned out to be one of my best students ever. He went on to law school and ultimately became my lawyer and friend. The individual differences that distinguished him, cerebral palsy notwithstanding, were that he was smart, hard working and courageous.
When all is said and done, there is only one fair, if far more complicated, course of action. Reject labels and rely on individual differences. This is far fairer than cramming people into carelessly considered categories then granting some special consideration while entirely overlooking others who merit the same special treatment.
For the original article, complete with references, see What's Fair? Equity in Educational Practice..
P.S. See also "Fair Share or Fair Play?"
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