Affirmative action debate deserves real discussion

In the wake of Arizona's passage of Proposition 107, which bans affirmative action programs, voices around the country that both attack and defend the practice have begun to spin their same old talking points.

Those who wish to eliminate affirmative action practices typically try to invoke a form of "reverse racism." There is also usually an appeal to unfairness on the level of distribution of justice. Under this line of reasoning, affirmative action represents a form of "punishment" for a generation of people who "had no part in setting up the unfair social system;" the unfairness of the system is always thought of as deriving from sins committed by people of the past, not the present day community.

In response, defenders of affirmative action will sometimes try to meet these objections head-on, saying that such reciprocal justice is exactly what the practice intends and that such justice is appropriate for the sin. This is, of course, a feeble counter-argument. It emerges because defenders are tricked into responding to a misguided objection, and rather than point out the nuances that nullify the validity of such an objection, they simply attack it directly. The ensuing debate almost always results in people talking past one another.

The counter thesis should run thus: affirmative action is not a punishment at all. It does not function as a negative enforcer of justice by taking things away any more than capitalism is a form of punishment because sellers take buyers' money to make profit in a world of finite money resources. It is a positive check mechanism within a system that is – not was – unjustly constructed. As such, unless someone proposes a better, alternative practice that would balance racial inequities, affirmative action must remain in effect until the system is sufficiently corrected.

The fact remains that our generation is not the same one that passed countless laws between the founding of Britain's first colonies in America and at least the 1970s that legally and deliberately constructed a system in which minorities were placed at a disadvantage in the areas of employment and education – two of the cornerstones of social mobility.

Having said that, the system does exist. Whether or not we built it this way, a problem exists and the effects of past legal – not to mention illegal though tolerated acts of domestic terrorism – mechanisms of discrimination are still pervasive today.

I am building off a principle of ethical and epistemic responsibility. Since we are rational beings capable of imagining a system which is more perfectly constructed than this one, and since we are full moral agents who can be expected to do the right thing when we know what that is, we are obligated to work towards that imagined system. Just because one did not set up the system does not excuse one from being responsible for the perpetuation of that system, especially if one recognizes the flaws in the system. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

"But we haven't done nothing," voices cry out in response. "We've moved beyond slavery, granted all races and sexes suffrage, legally prohibited discrimination in the workplace based on race, sex, ethnicity, etc. What else is there to do?"

In spite of these admirable steps, blacks and Hispanics are still disproportionately represented in the prison system. There is still not equality in educational resources across school districts located in dramatically different socioeconomic status neighborhoods. There are still people in this country who cannot marry their partner of choice. As of 2009, there were still only 25 Fortune 1000 companies with female CEOs. We have work to do. Affirmative action is a mechanism for helping us start to do some of this necessary work.

I support the continuation of affirmative action, but I'd be lying if I told you I knew how long we needed to keep it going. What exactly do I mean by "until the system is sufficiently corrected?" I'm not so sure. And that's the point. To pretend that affirmative action is an easy-to-solve issue is a gross misevaluation of the debate. This is hard stuff, not the kind of question you can answer with canned arguments.