Positive Discrimination

Equal opportunities policies are usually called “positive discrimination” by the people opposed to them, a subtle reversal of meaning which legitimises criticism.

It sets up the most common argument against these policies, that goes along the lines “It shouldn’t matter what a person’s background or identity is, the job should go to the person best qualified to do it”, with the suggestion that “diverse” candidates are substandard and only get certain jobs because patronising white men took pity on them and “discriminated” in order to give them jobs they’re not properly qualified for. But the phrase “positive discrimination” is inaccurate, as is the argument it supports. The argument is wrong in theory and practice. The theory relies on a false assumption, and in practice we have real evidence to contradict it.

The rationale for the argument only works if there are ways of accurately judging candidates, but suitability for a job is very often an extremely subjective thing. Similarly suitable candidates may have very different sets of qualifications and experiences, or even very similar ones, and there’s no formula for deciding who might do what role best. And candidates are graded finally through interviews – which are tests of social compatibility, not objectively measurable factors such as qualifications or previous jobs.

In practice, it’s well documented through research that CVs submitted with white European names get significantly more positive responses from employers than identical CVs submitted with names from other cultures. But we can see this with our own eyes just by observing the real world: the most obvious evidence against the idea that “the best candidate should get the job” as a reason not to implement equal opportunities policy, is the fact that so many top roles are filled by white men. Unless you are an out-and-out white supremacist who believes that white people are inherently better, then you have to acknowledge that something’s going on.

White men are being given better opportunities from primary school, through higher education and early careers, and these opportunities are cumulative – they add up to have an increasingly greater effect on both CVs and social networking. The truth is that positive discrimination already exists, for white men, and this is why calling measures to reduce it aren’t “positive discrimination”. They’re measures to reduce positive descrimination for white men: they are policies that are about giving other people opportunities. Opportunities which should be equal to the opportunities white men have.

And the thing is, even if tools such as “minority” quotas are imperfect – at least they’re something. What’s worse than using imperfect tools, is doing nothing at all. Using imperfect tools is inevitable, because human social relationships are complex, messy, even contradictory and nothing in our social world will ever be perfect. Accept that the tools will be imperfect, recognise the imperfections of your tools and continually work to balance those against the effectiveness of the tools in the purpose they’re being used for, but if you want to work against the structures of discrimination that exist – and which are unfair, unjust, unethical, shitty – you have to use imperfect tools.


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