Whatever the original, presumably high-minded intent of affirmative action (AA), the program has long since morphed into a weapon of class warfare. It neither benefits the underprivileged, as it claims, nor does it address the legacy of historical inequality for which it was ostensibly invented. Nor does it reduce the unfair advantages of the nation’s social and economic elite, as it promised. On the contrary, it protects elites at the expense of everyone else, including some of society’s most vulnerable. And while failing to do what its promoters said it would do, it poisons civil society by fostering a battle among interest groups for the generosity of those with real privilege.
Affirmative action from its beginnings has asserted that it benefits society in two ways: First it claims to assist people who, because of past prejudice, sometimes in law sometimes not, remain underprivileged. Second, it claims to promote greater equality by providing that benefit at the expense of those in society who have enjoyed great privilege for decades, even longer. It does neither. To see why, it helps to examine the reality of each of these claims and see how AA actually operates.
Because the program identifies its beneficiaries through racial and ethic criteria rather than need, it invites the elite in each favored group to compete for the benefits. Those respective elites naturally have all the advantages in such a competition. They, after all, have gone to better schools and developed superior social and intellectual skills than the truly needy of their group, the ghetto youth struggling in a dysfunctional public school, for example, or the child of an Hispanic farm laborer going to an understaffed, under equipped rural high school. So the program mostly benefits those within favored groups who need the help least, allowing them to join the nation’s already existing privileged elite and leaving the truly needy where they were. Of course, such inequities have always existed, but AA, by fitting into old social patterns, can hardly claim, as it does, to benefit the mass of underprivileged people, even within the favored groups. The very occasional story about how the program lifted someone from a truly disadvantaged background underscores how seldom the AA does this.
While giving a leg up to those within the favored groups who least need it, the program does little to blunt the extreme privilege of the old, established, largely white elite. The nation’s best schools and universities continue to give preference to legacies and major donors. And the graduates of these institutions, with a large plurality, if not majority of legacies, continue to move into the ranks of those destined for power and prestige in industry, finance, government, and non-profits. If the university credential does not suffice to ensure their careers, family connections usually do the rest. In other words, even in the face of AA, the sons and daughters of those in power benefit from that power to move into those positions that penetrate the privileges of their class. Rather than resisting this cycle of privilege begetting privilege, as the program claims it would, it is the less privileged strivers from non-favored groups who affirmative action pushes aside to make way make way for the elite of the favored groups.
Seen in the light, it is easy to understand how the program poisons relations in society. The majority of those within the favored groups, those who are truly underprivileged, see little benefit. They may rejoice to see the success of those who look like them or who have similar surnames, but mostly they justifiably see all the hoopla about helping the underprivileged as so much political smoke. Meanwhile, those in non-favored groups must see great inequity in the whole scheme. They might understand if it benefitted people in dire need. But as it is, the program insists that the Chinese or South Asian immigrant, who did not know English when he or she arrived, and others like them step aside for the already well-positioned members of favored groups.
To be sure, life is not fair and luck has always played a big role in individual successes, especially accidents of birth. But affirmative action is not just another example in the uneven fortunes of life. It is a government-sponsored program. Its inequalities are primed to create bitterness between the favored, one might say privileged groups, and everyone else, except, of course, the old established elite that is untroubled by the program. Not only does such a pattern sow the seeds of hostility but it also diverts effort, within favored and non-favored groups, from individual improvement to lobbying the authorities for group privileges. Society as a whole faces more tension than otherwise while all have reason to harbor greater cynicism about the authorities. Meanwhile, the old established elite not only maintains its position but also gets to choose winners and losers, no doubt making sure that the most threatening from beneath suffer the greatest disadvantages.