Affirmative Action: The Case for Unearthing Undervalued Talent

In 2013, the unemployment rate for black youth was 26.6%, nearly double the 13.5% rate for white youth in America. American women made 80 cents for every dollar that an American man made. In Canada, a university-educated Aboriginal worker makes 44% less than non-Aboriginal workers in the private sector. It is a shame, both from the perspectives of fairness and economic growth, that the talents of so many are underutilized and undervalued on the basis of a characteristic they are born with and correspondingly affected by.

The origins of these discrepancies in the labour market are varied. A partial reason for these discrepancies may be discrimination; for instance, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was instituted as a result of a lawsuit brought forward by Ledbetter, who was underpaid compared to male coworkers despite performing similar jobs and tasks. This example of discrimination in the labour market is indicative of broader issues in the market.

Perhaps more difficult to combat, ethnic minorities are disproportionately impoverished and start with a disadvantage early in life. In the United States, 38.2% of Black and 35% of Hispanic youth are impoverished in comparison to 12.4% of White youth. That certainly plays into lower educational attainment in later life, such as in Canada where only 31% of youth in the bottom income quartile attend post-secondary education in contrast to 50.2% in the highest income quartile. It is evident that income affects educational attainment on more than a correlational level. Research from The Economist indicates that the number of words a child hears in early life will affect their IQ and academic success in the future. Unsurprisingly, children from professional families hear 30 million more words at the age of 3 than children on welfare. This is a single example of the way in which wealth affects academic success.

Given these gross imbalances, it is imperative that the state implement affirmative action policies. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines affirmative action as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women.”

The South African Employment Equity Act is a good example of an affirmative action policy: it requires employers to consult with employees to remove barriers to employment, to set goals for reaching equal representation and taking steps to accomplish those goals, and removing pay discrepancies between racial groups. In this debate, I argue that such policies, including but not limited to quotas or preferential admission and employment for members of minority groups, should be implemented in multiple levels such as in university admissions and employment.

Before I begin, there is one critical piece of clarification. In no way is affirmative action meant to be a permanent policy – in fact, once any discrepancies in the labour market are eliminated, affirmative action policies will no longer be needed. Affirmative action laws are only required when negative stereotypes about minority groups lead to discrimination or the generational effects of poverty lead to less opportunities in early life. In the absence of those disadvantages, affirmative action policies are no longer necessary.

To start with, it is key to understand the benefits of affirmative action to members of minority groups. First and foremost, affirmative action provides material resources. Increased access to top universities vastly increases lifetime earnings. A report done by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce indicates that the median earnings for someone holding a professional degree is $3,648,000 – a whopping 279% higher than the median earnings of $1,304,000 for someone with just a high school diploma. The opportunity to obtain employment and advance more easily in a career is evidently an economic benefit for minority groups. Apart from the intrinsic benefit of possessing more wealth, this increased income is critical to combating poverty, better allowing parents to use their money on their children and improve educational outcomes for their children in the future. Furthermore, increased wealth enhances the political capital that members of minority groups have through increasing their ability to fund political candidates or causes, allowing for better policy outcomes to be achieved for them broadly.

Second, affirmative action policies increase exposure for minority groups and allow them to fight stereotypes which lead to discrimination and mistreatment. The contact hypothesis suggests that if members of different group have equal status, have intergroup cooperation, share common goals, and have a degree of social or institutional support, then the perceptions that each group has of one another are improved. Interacting within schools or workplaces where people commonly interact with one another and share common goals to achieve mutual success is an opportune moment for contact to occur. Empirically, affirmative action policies have been successful at reducing stigma in the past. In 1993, when India chose to adopt gender quotas in village governments, exposure for almost ten years led to the elimination of negative bias in men’s perceptions of women and the erasure of the gender gap in educational outcomes. Undermining those stereotypes aids in promoting better interaction between different ethnic groups in the economic sector and broad social relationships.

Of course, these policies often come at the expense of the employment of members of majority groups. There are two reasons why that is justifiable.

First, members of minority groups have been subjected to injustice for generations. The ripple effects of discrimination continue to affect them, putting them in the disproportionately impoverished position that I have already briefly outlined. Moreover, these disadvantages often accumulate due to direct government action such as with residential schools in Canada, Apartheid in South Africa, and slavery in the United States. On a principled basis, the state should prioritize minority groups based on both historical injustices and poor modern living conditions.

Moreover, because of those historical disadvantages, applicants who may have as strong or better performance than members of economically dominant groups or have the potential to achieve similar performances often lack qualifications or credentials afforded through the education system. Given that fact, it is plausible that many of these applicants are not unqualified or less-deserving than applicants from economically dominant groups of people despite a lack of credentials in comparison.

Second, in the long run, affirmative action policies are likely to garner stronger economic growth than in the absence of such policies. McKinsey and Company has found that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians” and that those “in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely.” Correspondingly, “companies in the bottom quartile both for gender and for ethnicity and race are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than the average companies in the data set.” McKinsey suggests that diversity allows for companies to better attract top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision-making. Companies with better diversity also tend to have lower employee turn-over, likely because employees from diverse backgrounds feel more comfortable in the workplace. On an economic level, affirmative action also makes sense.

There is a crisis in the vast majority of the developed world with respect to fostering diverse workforces. It is clear that governments around the world should take a more active role and implement affirmative action policies based on both a moral imperative and long-term economic growth.


Jason Xiao

Works Cited

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