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Affirmation Action: Is Meritocracy in Decline?

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Ethnic minorities, women, and religious minorities remain underrepresented in Western society. After decades of politicians, activists and pressure groups articulating equal opportunity for all, there remains a significant gap in the equitability of social minorities. Men and Caucasians dominate the top universities, the boards of the largest companies, as well as media and politics. Statistically, men are more likely to occupy the highest paying jobs, as well as being more socially represented in the majority of delegative bodies. In order to correct the historical legacy of minorities, who have been denied a seat at the table for many centuries, social change is being brought about. Discussions about the best way to do this are ongoing. 

Affirmative action, a concept which is currently prevailing debate in the US, is the active effort to improve employment, education, and other opportunities for members of groups that have been subject to discrimination, for example through quotas. Affirmative action policies have attracted significant policy interest worldwide. One of the main criticisms of these policies is that they undermine meritocratic principles, but there is very little evidence on the correlation between these policies and meritocracy, particularly in low and middle-income countries, whereby assumptions made about the integrity of this particular system are based on hypotheses rather than concrete facts. 

Americans are particularly polarized on the effects of affirmative action on college admissions. The core of this particular contention resides in the idea that positive discrimination – advocating someone by treating them differently in a positive way – as for example, with the quota of applicants in universities, only emphasises the foundational inequality in society. Providing a racial minority preferential treatment in scenarios where opportunities are merit-based only widens the inequality gap by exposing the bias that was previously camouflaged. Again, if affirmative action is focused on achieving a more meritocratic success field, rather than a leg-up attitude, it should not cause resentment and feelings of belittlement. 

On the one hand, people recognise that the United States has an deplorable history of racial discrimination that needs to be addressed. Others believe that students, as well as society as a whole,  learn more when colleges bring together people of diverse backgrounds. On the other hand, many are uncomfortable with the idea that the racial box an applicant checks has a significant impact on one’s chances of admission. Hypothetically, it is difficult to grasp the concept that racial preferences stigmatise beneficiaries, ignite resentment and encourage everyone to identify by race, including white people. As strenuous as it is to articulate this side of the argument, the narrative of unfair preferential treatment of wealthy African Americans or Latino applicants over lower-income white or Asian students persists.  

But how is change going to come about if we choose to cold-shoulder the disparity that endures in our community? As we have come to learn from the past, there are a plethora of advantages to having open discourse about issues that were previously considered taboo. First of all, affirmative action actually strengthens an institution’s claim to be meritocratic. The existing status quo currently favours certain people in communities. This is seen through people’s decision making, in particular, psychologically people tend to uphold a form of herd mentality, thereby decelerating change. The barriers that were erected against marginalised groups, such as not being able to vote, work in many professions or enter university, have contributed to the inequality that we see today. The philosophy predicating affirmative action policy should be one of restorative justice. 

The second argument is practicality. Affirmative action is not always necessary, or does not have to be the only way to achieve equal representation. However, it is the most efficient. Alternative strategies can take years or even decades to build institutions that legitimately reflect the societies they attend to. As seen in US politics today, even with an overabundance of candidates of all backgrounds, the underrepresentation of these minorities remains, and while it can be argued that the historical structure of the constitution allows for little social change, active efforts are to be made. The same applies to the UK, for example, through the All-women shortlists introduced in 1993, an affirmative action practice intended to increase the proportion of female Members of Parliament, allowing only women to stand in particular constituencies for a particular political party. Ironically, this policy was deemed illegal in 1997 under the Sex Discrimination act 1975, under the premise that men were being discriminated against when entering professions. Relating to affirmative policies, it is important to impose them now, as it is arbitrary to tell those who have already faced discrimination that they have to wait longer until they can eventually have an equal opportunity in the playing field. 

Affirmation policies are never perfect, but very few policies are. In the absence of an effective intervention that could produce effective results quickly, it would be absurd to dismiss Affirmative Action because it negates the idea of a meritocracy. These policies can instead enhance meritocracy by allowing equally qualified people from historically disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds to level the playing field.

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