Affirmative Action & the Invisibility of White Privilege

4 Jun 2007 - 12:45

By Prof Leslie London

David Benatar's inaugural lecture critiquing affirmative action has been given wide coverage in the media and provoked a vigorous debate on the campus, as have the many replies to his polemic. I want to make two points about David Benatar's arguments that seem completely illogical to me.

Firstly, arguing that race is an imperfect marker for disadvantage is nothing innovative. Public health practitioners have been grappling with this problem for many years in trying to address the backlog of inequalities in health status in South Africa inherited from apartheid, looking at different ways to measure disadvantage, such as social class, for example. Yet in all these debates, two things emerge: 1) race remains, for all its problems, as sound a marker of social disadvantage as any other measure one might choose to adopt; and 2) even when controlling for social class and other measures of disadvantage, the impacts of race on health inequalities persists, indicating a 'residual' effect of race, thought to be mediated through the experience of racial discrimination.

Yet what David Benatar does in his argument is to dismiss race as having any validity for 'affirmative action.' He substitutes recognition that an indicator is imperfect (less than 100% congruence) with the assertion that it is completely unrelated to disadvantage (0% congruence). This allows him to argue that because 'minimally disadvantaged' black job applicants stand a better chance of getting a job offer, the entire system of affirmative action fails. Yet, the fact is that there are many 'more disadvantaged' black job applicants who do achieve appointments because of the employment equity measures put in place. If some 'minimally disadvantaged' black staff members are appointed, is that sufficient grounds for trashing a system that does achieve redress for a significant number of 'more disadvantaged?' I think not and I think to suggest as such is illogical.

Moreover, because he does this in the complete absence of suggesting any alternative markers that may have better congruence with the underlying construct of disadvantage, he effectively reverts to a version of affirmative action that is a powerful reinforcement of a status quo that is deeply inequitous and unfair. Simply ensuring a version of affirmative action that removes barriers to recruitment of black people, and which gives them a fair and unprejudiced interview is the logic of the free market, not a mechanism to redress inequality. The level playing field argument is the product of a free market-based philosophy, an ideology at the source of not only national injustice, but huge global injustice.

Secondly, there is a certain circuitousness about the substance of David Benatar's critique. By his logic, if you are an excellent candidate for a job, you can no longer be 'disadvantaged.' If you have achieved a good Masters or PhD degree, you can no longer be seen as disadvantaged and, race as a criterion in affirmative action, would, by his definition, fall away. This same, however, would apply to any measure of disadvantage - class, gender or disability, for example. So, his assault on the use of race in affirmative action is also an assault on any kind of affirmative action criterion, even though it is most insensitively focused on redress of racial inequality. Having served on umpteen numbers of selection committees in the University, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous black appointees who have overcome substantial disadvantage to achieve excellent academic records. Far from entrusting the education of students to "somebody who has an educational deficit", they have been appointed on the basis of excellent records. But that does not change the fact that they did have to deal with disadvantage in their careers in ways that people like myself or David Benatar did not.

Inasmuch as David Benatar is pointing out the limits to the use of race terminology, I agree that we do need more nuanced positions on redress of inequality and I think we do need more creative and discerning measures of capturing disadvantage, particularly in relation to student admissions, whose educational experience post-dates the worst of apartheid's systematic racial discrimination. However, to say that we need other measures is not to say that race no longer has cogency in South Africa. When I review CV's of applicants for senior positions at UCT, it is not an act of fate that the white applicants have generally accrued career experience (in the departments of their white mentors, through social networks, or by working overseas) that places them, at face value, far ahead of black applicants who have not had such opportunities. The question for selection is what can this person contribute to UCT? It is not an easy question to answer but David Benatar's very limited notion of what is justified 'affirmative action' makes no contribution to resolving this. Indeed, it helps to obscure the inequalities of power that underlie the social disparities targeted by employment equity strategies. In focusing on the limited scope of "equal opportunity affirmative action", power is only seen to operate at the level of the recruitment process, so is constrained only to the extent that active discrimination is precluded in the advertising and interview process. Yet the power inequalities that give rise to systematic educational and social disadvantage for black people that determine the absence of a 'pipeline' are invisible to such a process. It is here, particularly, that the benefits of whiteness in South Africa continue to perpetuate themselves well beyond apartheid. Rendered invisible, it is easy to argue, as David Benatar tries, that race no longer matters.

Then, of course, there is the argument that redress can only be ethically justified if the particular individual who is a beneficiary of an affirmative action is shown to have been disadvantaged, and that redress based on group membership is, on principle, fundamentally flawed. In other words, being black does not mean you were necessarily disadvantaged. There are a number of reasons why David Benatar is wrong on this. Firstly, as I have argued above, there can be no doubt that, despite 13 years of democracy, race still has very strong cogency in terms of determining social, educational and economic opportunity in South Africa today. Secondly, collective frames for structuring the distribution and re-distribution of social resources, are widely recognised as legitimate. For example, state pensions are given to all persons above a certain age, irrespective of their ability to continue working. A rural allowance is paid to medical practitioners in rural areas, irrespective of how isolated or disadvantaged the hospital is. Not all Jews who apply for Israeli citizenship share the same religious or political views about the state of Israel, but they are automatically granted citizenship on the basis of group identity. Nobody claims that these choices based on group membership are fundamentally unfair. Membership of 'group' is therefore widely used in society as a shorthand for making policy choices.

Thirdly, in weighing up questions of justice, the insistence on an individual beneficiary being identifiable as disadvantaged is a value choice, based upon a particular philosophical position, rather than a natural law. Alternative views about social justice could, for example, advance communitarian views of the social good. Philosophical perspectives from traditional societies in Africa place much greater weight on the relationships between people and within communities than do traditions drawn from 'Western' philosophy. Indeed, individualist notions of justice and rights, which have underpinned the US Administration's global foreign policy and economic dominance, are increasingly being challenged for their perpetuation of global inequalities. To argue, therefore, that a black person in South Africa should not be a beneficiary of 'affirmative action' unless, as an individual, they can demonstrate disadvantage, is a particular value choice. Outside of a criminal justice system, I think such values are inappropriate for addressing issues of social transformation in a country grappling with the legacy of a crime against humanity, as apartheid was.

To the extent that David Benatar's polemic has forced many people to confront a difficult issue, we should be thankful to him for raising the debate. But his conclusions are not supportable, even by the logic of his own arguments.

Professor Leslie London is the Portfolio Manager for Transformation and Equity in the Health Sciences Faculty.