Affirmative Action: A Failure to Address Systemic Issues

It is certainly true that some minority groups have endured abuse and discrimination in the past, which was placed them in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions today. These people have often arrived in these situations through no fault of their own, and they deserve help to improve their quality of life. It is also true that racism and negative discrimination persists in hiring processes for many firms today. This is unfair, and people discriminated against in this manner deserve better.

However, affirmative action policies that favor job applicants from disadvantaged minority groups are the wrong policy lever to address this inequity: they far more likely to hurt the people they are intended to help. Instead of legislating affirmative action, policy makers need to address the systemic problems that cause these minority groups to be economically and socially disadvantaged. Extra funding should be diverted to improving public schools in low-income areas. Financial aid and scholarships should be made available to ensure qualified applicants can attend university. And in the workplace, additional effort should be made to enforce employment discrimination laws that already exist. Ushering minorities into positions a majority member of equivalent ability level would not have qualified for, however, cannot be the answer.

A first problem with affirmative action is that it results in the placement of workers from minority groups to positions for which they are under-qualified. The problem is not that workers from these groups are “incapable of learning the necessary skills,” or that they are “inherently worse workers.” Rather, it’s that they simply haven’t had the time to accumulate a knowledge base that is equivalent to their co-workers in the workplace. These results in a two-tiered system where majority members tend to outperform minority workers, leaving minority workers disheartened and discouraged. The problem worsens when one realizes that with affirmative action, the quantity of majority members hired at a firm decreases. Hence the bar for competence of majority workers rises, and only exceptionally skilled majority workers are hired. This means that the performance gap between majority and minority workers further increases. For members of the minority ushered in through affirmative action, the narrative that they cannot succeed is confirmed. This often results in worse outcomes for the minorities affirmative action is intended to help, as has been statistically demonstrated both in the workplace and in higher education.

In addition, ushering under-qualified individuals from minority backgrounds into the workplace runs the risk of degrading the experience of minority members who did actually accede to their positions on merit. When a minority group member lands a job out of merit, where affirmative action exists they are likely to be grouped with other workers from their minority: other workers in the firm will assume all these workers got in thanks to affirmative action; they all don’t deserve to be here. This is degrading for skilled minority workers, and can prevent them from progressing to higher positions which they truly may deserve.

Finally, affirmative action policies rick inciting backlash from qualified members of the majority who lose their jobs to a less qualified minority member. When enough majority members gain this resent, it can seep into workplaces and interview rooms to harm minority groups. For example, majority workers within a firm might sympathize with their qualified co-ethnics who were passed over for jobs, and treat the minority workers who are employed in their place poorly as a result.  In addition, when some firms begin practicing affirmative action policies, other firms that do not have these policies become even less likely to hire minorities. In their view minorities already have an “easy-in” at affirmative action-practicing firms, and hence don’t need to be hired at their firm. If anything, they should hire more of the qualified and passed-over majority to compensate.

Education, enforcing equal hiring practice and skills-training processes are all important steps to end the systemic causes of minority disadvantage in the workplace. But affirmative action fails to address the root cause of this inequality, and as a result it will likely hurt the people it purports to help.


Lloyd Lyall

Works Cited

Morin, Richard and Sharon Warden. “Americans Vent Anger at Affirmative Action.” The Washington Post. (24 Mar. 1995). Accessed online 14 June 2016 at

Sander, Richard and Stuart Taylor Jr. “The Painful Truth about Affirmative Action.” The Atlantic. (2 Oct. 2012) Accessed online 14 June 2016 at

Thomas. “Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy.” Politics & Prosperity. (19 Jan. 2005) Accessed online 14 June 2016 at

Picture titled, "law school exit", taken by .mary on October 15, 2006, obtained through Creative Commons