Two wrongs make an amputee

Many people, even well-meaning, thoughtful, and intelligent liberal people, have a major issue with affirmative action policies. In fact, folks from all over the ideological map struggle to understand any program or policy that allows for race to be taken into account. Whether they be housing, hiring, promoting, legal, whatever. People see what looks like textbook racism – looking at a person’s skin colour instead of hir credentials – and goggle at the seeming hypocrisy of it. Why is it okay to look at race to give certain people an advantage, but not the other way around? Two wrongs don’t make a right!

I get it. I really do. I can even sympathize a bit. I lay the blame for this confusion not at the feet of the individuals who lack understanding, but rather at a society that is terrified to discuss race for fear it will reopen old wounds. After a major victory in the 1960s, we began to get gun-shy about the topic of race. Beyond some superficial bromides about “colour blindness” and pulled quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., we have become entrenched in the position that less is more when it comes to discussing these kinds of social issues.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the notorious “judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” line from King’s I Have a Dream speech thrown out in an attempt to deride affirmative action programs, as though Dr. King wasn’t an avid supporter of AA (he was), or that skin colour was the only thing he ever talked about. Part of the reason King’s Dream was called that is because it was not yet a reality. If I dream of being rich, acting like I’m already rich is going to screw me over pretty hard. Instead, I have to buckle down, put in the work, commit myself, and whore myself out to enough rich widows to make that dream a reality.

So in my ongoing quest to open up the dialogue and equip people with a more sophisticated understanding of race, and in line with my preferred method of pedagogy, I offer you an analogy. Suppose you had to make a decision about a cancerous tumour, or perhaps to separate this analogy from my job a bit, a limb with gangrene. Imagine that the disease was spreading, and you had to figure out the best course of action to take in order to address it.

Now obviously we could just leave the limb alone and let it all rot away. There are very few people who would choose that option, because it’s needlessly and insanely destructive and potentially fatal. Taking the ‘do nothing’ approach off the table, one course of action is to simply amputate at the site of the infection. Cut away all the dead/dying tissue and nothing else. This would be the most ‘fair’ way of going about it – remove the problem and leave the healthy tissue that hasn’t done anything wrong completely alone.

The problem with this option, as anyone who has even a superficial understanding of medicine [cough cough ME cough] knows, is that gangrene is a subtle problem that it notoriously difficult to remove surgically. The body has a problem, and short of a surgical instrument so precise that it rivals any technology that humanity has ever created, the rot will continue even after the surgery. Simply cutting away the obviously-diseased tissue is not a sufficient remedy.

Which leaves us with the only remaining option – cutting above the rot to ensure that the spread is halted. This involves removing some uninfected tissue, because it is impossible to know precisely which cells are at risk. It is perhaps a clumsier approach than ideal, but it is the best way to ensure that the problem stops before the problem becomes even worse. Now, if you were one of the healthy cells that was about to be amputated, I’m sure you’d find this a manifestly unjust course of action. After all, you don’t have gangrene – why are you being ‘punished’ for a problem that doesn’t affect you? This question, while seemingly reasonable, becomes obviously invalid when considered in this context. Time and again, we have people who are essentially standing up and decrying the amputation option, arguing that King’s dream was about leaving healthy cells alone, not cutting them off!

To step away from the analogy, when we recognize that society has a problem with racism, the need for (and virtue of) affirmative action-style programs becomes apparent. We can force ourselves to be blind to the issue except in egregious circumstances (i.e., ‘colour blind’ approaches), which will only result in the continuation of the status quo until it progresses to levels where we begin to see severe dysfunction without the need for intentional malice. Our other, smarter option is to take an active approach (i.e., from an anti-racist standpoint, which includes affirmative action) and recognize the need for intervention in order to save society as a whole.

Those who argue against affirmative action, or any race-conscious policy, on the grounds of ‘reverse racism’* are basically arguing that cutting people is wrong. And it is – I am not in favour of people being allowed to go around with knives and carving each other up. That would be bad. However, that argument is far removed from anything relevant to the issue. Racism isn’t wrong just because it’s wrong, racism is wrong because it has the effect of harming society (particularly the minority groups, but it handicaps us all, regardless of who we are). Failing to understand the problem in any kind of depth repeatedly puts us in the position of railing against “reverse surgery”.

Of course, this analogy assumes that affirmative action is akin to cutting off part of a limb. Where the analogy breaks down is that AA policies do not simply halt the progression of systemic racism – they can reverse the problem, giving us an opportunity to actually regrow the limb. This is not simply sacrificing a part to save the whole, this is taking a temporary loss and investing in ourselves – all of our selves – in order to actually improve society in the long term. There is also very little evidence to suggest that the ‘healthy’ cells (i.e., white people ‘cheated’ out of a job by an AA hire) exist in nearly the numbers that are claimed. If we are insistent on continuing to think of this in a medical context, we would perhaps be better served by thinking of AA as a skin graft or a marrow transplant rather than an amputation.

The problem is that race is a more complicated topic than can be adequately understood through selective mining of a few passages from one speech from one black leader in one context 50 years ago. It’s a conversation that needs to keep happening – not until the problem is “solved” (whatever that would look like), but until we are sufficiently fluent in the language of race to constructively and skillfully navigate the problems that will inevitably come up. Failing to achieve this doesn’t simply put us at the risk of cutting ourselves off at the knees, but of failing to solve the problem in time to save the rest of the leg.

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*This is an exceedingly stupid phrase. Racism is racism – there is no such thing as reverse, unless you wish to make the argument that racism from whites against other groups is the way racism is ‘supposed to work’.


  1. Anri says

    One could really make this analogy to almost all of medicine – cutting a trauma victim? Poking the immuno-compromised with needles? Poisoning someone with cancer? Introducing maggots into an open wound? Horrible!
    Yet, the outcome without intervention is so awful, all of this poking and cutting and poisioning and so forth is still better than the alternative.

    I have to have this discussion with people all the time, sadly. Policies like AA (and many other social justice policies) are sloppy, inexact, inelegant, at times demeaning, often unfair in detail, and sometimes deeply counterproductive. And at the same thime, they are worlds better then the situation they were put in place to recitfy.

  2. says

    Gangrene? This is begging to be a post about zombie control.

    More seriously, I think the reason that folk buy into the ‘colorblind’ thing is because general a failure to understand the idea of racism may be a legitimate feature of the end of racism.

    We have seen a few types of racism actually end in the U.S.. When I have had to explain U.S. history to people, racism against African-Americans generally causes people discomfort and/or anger. Racism against European immigrants generally causes confusion.

    I think there is something insightful and nuanced to be said about this, but I doubt my ability to parse it correctly.

  3. mynameischeese says

    I think the skin graft analogy is apt, just because it has a more positive connotation than the amputation analogy and is similar to the melting pot analogies enjoyed by Americans.

    I got a little bit of a shock the first time I saw conservative republicans getting teary-eyed over Martin Luther King Jr. I thought, “But aren’t they of the party that opposed King?” But then copped onto the fact that they are mostly appropriating King in an innappropriate way.

    Still, in my more optimistic moments, I start to think that maybe the fact that even conservatives need King is a sign of progress? Like they have now given up on trying to justify overt racism and moved on to trying to hide it? And now we just need to give them one more little nudge into the twenty-first century?

  4. Lautréamont says

    You know, being German, I’ve come to hate medical analogies on social issues. Human beings aren’t cells, after all.

    As for AA policies (which are more often about gender than about race over here) I find it hard to swallow that, as an individual, I’m getting “punished” for the problems that society, as a whole, has with racism/sexism/whatever. It’s not really my fault, after all.
    On the other hand, as a white male, I’m already privileged to begin with, and I’m willing to accept AA policies as an attempt to reinstate fairness (of competition over jobs and stuff) on the level of individuals.

    But that’s not at all the message I get out of your analogy.

  5. says

    It’s not really my fault, after all.

    Imagine if your father had stolen a fortune from someone and used it to build a huge estate, which he left to you. Years later, the children of the person who your father stole from said “hey, you’re living off of the money that you stole from us”. Would your response be “tough tits, that’s not my fault”? I doubt it. And if that WAS your response, something tells me the courts would step in and say “let’s find a way to make this fair for all parties concerned”.

    I don’t know what being German has to do with medical analogies, but I’ll keep that in mind in the future. No analogy is perfect.

  6. Lautréamont says

    Oh, the “being German” thing was just a well-disguised case of Godwin’s Law 🙂 Nazi (and Stalinist, for that matter) propaganda made heavy use of “amputation” metaphors to justify measures which were pretty much the opposite of what you and I would support.

    Your other example about my dad is way more convincing, but then again, it is about privilege on the level of individual beings and not about society as a whole.

  7. says

    I’ve never understood the objection to affirmative action. Although races are artificially drawn borders, it doesn’t change the fact that people’s perception of race influences their behavior. How can we possibly change those perceptions without actively considering race in decisions ourselves?

    Honestly, it seems many forms of racism have simply been defined out of existence these days. If you don’t have incontrovertible evidence, then surely it can’t be racism. Unfortunately, human behavior has many subtleties that you won’t trivially obtain obvious proof for, even if the cause of the behavior is actually quite simple.

    The part that baffles me is how people will deny the presence of racism even when confronted with economic statistics that clearly show it. Whether you look at average net wealth, social mobility, breakdown by profession, home ownership, or a dozen other factors it’s very clear there’s something going on here. These kinds of gaps don’t just form overnight. Pretending they don’t exist by chanting “la la la colorblind” with your hands over your ears is essentially admitting you care about the problem in the slightest.

  8. Lautréamont says

    (Don’t be too confident about the courts, though. We still have whole nation-wide mall chains founded upon stores stolen from their Jewish owners in the Nazi era.)

  9. Cheryl says

    I think the problem lies in separating people into races at all. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one race: the human race. Until we start teaching that, and accepting that, there’s no hope for racial equality.

  10. says

    Oh jeez… this old chestnut.

    Cheryl, I suggest you go FAQ yourself. This is an incredibly tiresome and easily-refuted bromide of “post-racial” philosophy. You do not fix a problem by pretending it isn’t there.

  11. Cheryl says

    I’m not pretending it isn’t there. But while ever we keep telling each other and the world that people are different because of their colour, it’s never going to change.

    I’m not against AA. It’s necessary and will continue to be until it’s not. I would simply like to see the time come when it’s not necessary. Teaching that colour is irrelevant is the only way to help bring that about. That’s not going to happen while people insist on separating themselves into colour groups. And in that sense I’m talking about ALL people.

    So, no need to get all ‘FAQ yourself’ with me at all.

  12. says

    But colour isn’t irrelevant. What you’re proposing is to teach people that ignoring these differences is a path toward eliminating them. It’s not – it has the opposite effect. Teaching that colour is irrelevant only serves the status quo, which is a society in which race affects our actions but we don’t talk about it so we don’t notice (“we” referring to the majority group – people who are victims of racism definitely notice it). People don’t “insist on separating themselves” into anything – it is not a conscious process of outgroup hatred.

    All of these are topics that I discuss in detail in the posts linked in the FAQ, which is why I suggested you go there and read.

  13. Cheryl says

    But colour should be irrelevant, shouldn’t it? To me, skin colour is no more important than hair colour. It doesn’t tell me anything about a person other than that’s the colour of their skin. My skin colour doesn’t make me any more special than anyone else of a different skin colour. If everyone thought that way there’d be no issues. It’s not about ignoring the problem, it’s about teaching people to see things differently so that the problem no longer exists.

    It’s a case of getting rid of the ‘us and them’ mentality that humans always develop. Sadly the only time that tends to happen is when another group that the first two groups can both fear and dislike comes along. I’m seeing it in England now: white racist groups like the EDL accept black people because of the Muslim threat. Now it’s not a race issue, it’s a religious issue, or so they say. So maybe the only way that humans can come together and treat each other equally is if aliens invade?

    All I’m saying is that it’s never going to change unless we change our perception of skin colour.

  14. says

    You’re talking about biological difference, and treating that as the only kind of difference worth talking about. And your assertion that if everyone was just blind to skin colour, there would be no more racism has been repeatedly, over and over and over and over again, shown not to be true. I know you wish it was true, but it’s not. There is no practical difference between what you’re proposing and ignoring the problem. I understand what you’re trying to say – I used to say much the same thing – but it is not effective.

    There are people who study this issue and spend a lot of time getting to the bottom of what works and what doesn’t. I’m telling you what they would tell you if you asked one of them. Changing our understanding of what race means is certainly a worthwhile goal, but it is not the only goal, and saying “let’s just treat everyone the same” does not move us toward even that. Neither does insisting that we don’t see race, or that societally-entrenched ideas of racism (that go back hundreds of years, if not thousands) can be overthrown simply by insisting that we don’t care about them.

  15. carlie says

    Cheryl, that’s exactly the point he was making in the post. You are the person looking away from the gangrenous leg and saying “No, I don’t see any problems there”.

  16. says

    We get to change our perception after we have changed history for future generations. It might be a necessary step, but if it is, it is certainly the last one. You can’t change the perception that a group of people is uneducated when we keep putting that group into the worst schools.

    It is also possible that changing perceptions will be a natural consequence of fixing social problems. Either way, changing perceptions is not something that we get to start with.

  17. Numenaster says

    Following on with responses to Cheryl,

    You’ve correctly identified that people will seize on all sorts of reasons to divide themselves into groups, including ones that have no basis in biology. Even if the aliens DO invade, we are unlikely to ever change this. But it’s a noble goal, so let’s take that as the ideal end state.

    We’re a long way from that state now. We divide ourselves into groups based on all kinds of characteristics. And changing the way humans think of themselves in groups is a lot of heavy lifting. Is there a way we can reduce injustice in the meantime, while we’re working toward the end state? Why yes, there is. We can create policies and attitudes that make it harder to actually practice discrimination.

    As a bonus, changing people’s behavior can have the effect of changing their thinking. If people aren’t permitted to act in a discriminatory way, many of them start believing that you shouldn’t think that way either. So policies like AA can actually move the world toward the ideal end state after all.

    And that’s how you achieve a world where color isn’t important–by first creating a world where you must behave as though it isn’t, and checking closely to make sure that this ideal behavior is being practiced. That requires paying attention to color for a while yet.

  18. says

    One thing that can be tried is changing ways of hiring so that color or gender cannot be considered.
    I’ve heard there has been a big change in who get hired by orchestras
    since they started doing auditions of potential hires behind screens.
    I’ve also worked as a contractor where oftentimes all we had was a phone interview. The first time your employers saw you was your first day on the job.

  19. Daniel Schealler says

    When people complain that they were cut out of getting a job because of affirmative action how do they know that it was affirmative action that caused them to be rejected?

    If the recruitment department/agent is doing their job, then more people will apply for a given role than there are seats to be filled. So numbers of people will be turned away.

    I wonder – if you are turned away because you just didn’t make the cut, wouldn’t it be an easy dodge of cognitive dissonance to tell yourself that it wasn’t because you were less qualified than the other guy. No. It just had to be damn affirmative action.

    Which brings me back to the original point. How do the people who fail to get a job due to (allegedly) affirmative action claim to know this?

    I don’t mean to be coy – maybe there is an actual way they know this of which I’m ignorant. Is it a common policy to include this kind of information in the ‘we regret to inform you’ letter or something like that?

  20. says

    I discuss one of the problems with attempted color-blindness in my post here.

    If Crommunist objects to me directing you there he is welcome to remove this comment but I think you might find it helpful.

  21. left0ver1under says

    This is a “screwed if you do, screwed if you don’t” issue (because things can’t be “damned”).

    Those in higher positions tend to be pale and male because of past bigotry and chauvinism, though sometimes through present as well. If there is no affirmative action, the inequality won’t be corrected fast enough, if at all (especially when those with power actively try to prevent correction). If there is affirmative action, there is the risk of unqualified people in decision making positions.

    And no, that’s not to infer that those discriminated against are unqualified because of their skin. By unqualified I mean a lack experience and education, which is usually attributable to a lack of opportunities, not a lack of brains. In decades past, high school education was often enough to reach the highest echelons of employment in busiess and many other fields. The demand for degrees in something like journalism is less a demand for skill than an exclusion of the poor.

    If unqualified people are promoted, you have to ask why they are unqualified, and it’s usually because disparity in school budgets and wealth of their families. In the US, taxes stay local (as opposed to being redistributed on a per student basis in Canada), so those who come from wealth get better opportunities, and those who don’t never have access to the resources.

    In the end, undoing a wrong is less damaging than the risk of putting someone incapable of doing the job. Given the opportunity, most people are smart enough to learn on the job and grow into the position. Considering how many “educated” people are total screwups (e.g. George Bu**sh**, Carly Fiorina, Bernie Madoff), it’s not that great a risk.

    I’d worry more about enthusiasm and effort. A person with drive is more likely to work hard and learn the ropes.

  22. papango says

    I think it is more to do with the cognative dissounce you mentioned. Getting rejected hurts and getting rejected for a person you don’t consider an equal hurts more, much better to think it was because of discrimination and not because they were the better person for the job.

    I’m a career civil servant (although not in America) and I’ve never recived or sent a letter to a failed candidate that mentioned the department’s equal opportunity employment policy.

  23. tort says

    The way I always explain it is that colour-blindness only works if there has been no discrimination prior to your decision. If a person has been discriminated against previously there is a bias in your data and what affirmative action is designed to do is to take into account that bias and to create a fair playing field not to advantage whichever group we are talking about.

    There is a really good example from my local area, in 1988 BHP had to lay off a large amount of workers at one of it’s steel works so they implemented a policy that looked fair; they would fire the most recent people hired (last on, first off). However what that didn’t take into account was the fact that in previous years women workers were put on a waiting list for jobs whereas men were given a job immediately. So women had to wait a year or more before they could start their job and then the men who had been working during that time were less likely to be fired because they had been working longer. The firing policy though non-discriminatory on it’s face is clearly discriminatory in the wider context. They were eventually court ordered to use the date women were put on the waiting list for their last on first off policy.

  24. says

    A great post, Crommunist. My own opinion on AA has changed over the last year or so, in part thanks to your blog (and not just this post). My past objections to AA were mostly concerned with the prima facie unfairness of it that you mention in your post. I came from a pretty poor family (single mother, on welfare for most of my upbringing), and I remember being a bit miffed at the fact that a native friend of mine had her tuition covered by the government, whereas I had to rely on student loans.

    Now I support AA to the extent that there’s really nothing else out there right now, and its detrimental effects are probably negligible. I wonder whether a more general attempt at ending systemic poverty and inequality on both individual and community levels wouldn’t be more effective overall, but considering there’s not much political support for any such program – and the problems of underlying discrimination would still be present – the point is moot.

  25. irieagogo says

    I think the reason privileged folks are against Affirmative Action is because it is perhaps considered the first step on the slippery slope toward..reparations!

    And the general consensus about that is, “No fuckin way!”

    Except that it doesn’t get expressed exactly like that. Subtext is all in this kind of example.

  26. says

    Another point to consider, concerning AA, is that a lot of discrimination is unconscious. A predominately straight, white, male board may select predominantly straight, white, males as new members without even realizing they’re doing it.

    AA combats this

  27. says

    I sincerely doubt that anxiety about reparations (“reparation anxiety”?) has anything to do with it. Unless there is some secret, powerful cabal that I’m unaware of, nobody serious talks about reparations or expects them to happen ever.

  28. dianne says

    While I agree that the probability of the US ever paying reparations to the descendents of ex-slaves or people killed in lynchings or survivors of its genocides is probably too low to measure, that doesn’t mean that no one in the US feels fear of reparations. People in the US have an exaggerated fear of anything that might remotely possibly occur that could ever raise their taxes by even the tiniest amount. Except more first strike foreign wars, of course. So a politician in deepest Alabama who tells people, “Vote for me or you’ll be paying reparations to everyone with a grudge against normal god fearing Americans” might win on the non-issue.

  29. says

    Well yes, and there are people who believe that the Confederacy will rise again, and that their arsenal of guns in their bunker is how they’re going to prepare for the inevitable government takeover. Reparations is not a mainstream argument against AA, as far as I know.

  30. dianne says

    I’m not entirely sure what a mainstream argument against AA is, since they all end up sounding kind of off to me. I guess the one you’re arguing against, i.e. the “but shouldn’t we just be colorblind” is the mainstream argument. It sounds good and not racist if you don’t look at it in a historical context, so people who believe themselves to not be racist* like it.

    *Sorry, but I don’t know of any societies currently in existence that you can grow up in and not be racist at all. So we’re all racist on some level. Yeah, life sucks, doesn’t it.

  31. Super Dan Dan says

    I live in rural Maine(oldest, whitest state in the nation woohoo), so the mainstream arguments here are generally more overtly racist than in America as a whole(at least I hope). Any time AA comes up it is solely framed as negative,called reverse racism, and compared to reparations. Also, anytime ANY non-white racial issue is brought up it means the ‘race card’ has been played, i.e the sole black guy in a city complains about being harassed by cops, therefore he played the race card and his arguments are invalid.

  32. says

    Really. That’s fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone aside from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who have never met a conspiracy hypothesis they didn’t like, invoke reparations for any purpose.

  33. Super Dan Dan says

    As a side note on conspiracy theories, I know a couple people here who are hoarding food and ammo for when Obama makes the signal for “The Blacks” to rise up and violently take over the U.S. And the people who were around when this was announced didn’t even act like this was at all strange or terrible.

    I seriously can’t wait to finish my degree and get the hell out of here.

    Note to Canada, you can have Maine back now.

  34. says

    You know who else was a big espouser of that idea? Charles Manson. He called it “Helter Skelter”, and he was trying to preemptively start a race war that he was sure white folks could win. While I’m sure they wouldn’t believe me (obviously I’m part of the conspiracy, right?) there is no signal to await. President Obama hasn’t done much to improve the chances of African Americans actually winning any kind of war over white Americans. Their hegemony is safe for the foreseeable future.

  35. Matthew says

    The thing that people who opposed affirmative action fail to understand is the degree to which history has crippled the average african american household. I don’t have the evidence at hand but i feel confident enough to say that it is around a 7 fold difference in net worth. This means that the average black family in the united states has a massive disadvantage when compared to their white counterparts. What affirmative action does is take that factor into account, and basically says “ok if this kid(black) had the same advantages as this kid(white) how would they compare?” So in effect it isn’t reverse racism it is saying to the white kid hey if that kid had had the opportunities you did he would have gotten in anyway so suck it up you should have worked harder.

  36. Tex says

    IDK about elsewhere, but here in the south, a LOT of people think that black people earn the statistical disparities through laziness and stupidity. Unfortunately there are a lot of people down here that seem to aspire to live up to the worst of the stereotypes about them (that applies to pretty much every category of people down here BTW) and at least in Shreveport, La, those people are pretty visible. It also doesnt help that most people living down here seem to never leave the state so they dont really see much else.

  37. Tex says

    The problem is its hard to do this as names can often be a give away to what race a person is. There was a recent study that I couldn’t find quickly to properly cite, but similar to part of this one where researchers looked at the application stage and with nearly identical applications but ethnic names (examples Im making up: Jose Martinez, Shaniqua Loyns, and Joe Jimbob) Joe Jimbob would be the applicant the hiring company was most likely to interview in the majority of the cases fallowed by Jose, then in a distant third Shaniqua.

  38. says

    Here’s what I think, there are ingrained biases we all have that come from what we see around us. When, over and over, we see white, middle aged men in positions of power, we make a subtle connection between the two, even if we logically know this is totally false. This is why that old riddle about the man and son who get in an accident continues to stump some people. The next part says that the doctor says “I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son.” The answer, of course, is that the doctor is the child’s mothers. These days, both parents could be fathers, of course, but that’s complicating the issue.

    Anyway, this internal bias unfairly limits who gets a given position in a way that is unconscious. Affirmative action is a tool to balance that bias until it (hopefully) disappears.

    The goal is to get to a point where affirmative action isn’t needed. When more people of color are equally represented throughout all levels of business and politics, then there won’t be this unconscious assumption that the middle aged white guy is inherently more qualified for a position than someone with equal or better credentials who isn’t a middle aged white guy.

    And of course, this holds true for gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc, as well.

    It’s like offering the newer golfer a handicap when playing against a more advanced player. This isn’t meant to punish the advance player, it’s meant to account for a discrepancy between the two. In this case it’s a privilege handicap, not an ability handicap.

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