Race is clearly an ongoing issue within the United States: the nation was founded with the institution of slavery, and the issue has not left it since. However, several important concepts related to racism are often confused with each other, due to the fact that the differences between them (while very important) are relatively subtle. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to compare and contrast the specific concepts of racism, discrimination, and affirmative action.
In order to do this, the essay will begin with a clear definition of each of these concepts. Once this has been established, the essay will then proceed to clearly state how these three concepts are similar to but at the same time significantly different from each other.
Understanding the concept of racism
Properly speaking, the concept of racism always refers to treating a given person badly as a result of his/her racial/ethnic background. Essentially, racism consists of the belief that a given human being is not as fully or equally a “person” as another human being, due solely to his racial/ethnic descent or heritage. Within the United States, racism has unfortunately been a major aspect of the very foundations of the national society.
Slavery, for example, was crucial to the economy of the nation up until the Civil War; and slavery was explicitly based on the ideological belief that Black people were metaphysically inferior to White people and thus deserved to be owned by White people, in much the same sense that one owns dumb animals (Horton). This kind of explicit racism has generally become culturally unacceptable within the modern United States, except among certain fringe groups (such as the Ku Klux Klan) in the Deep South. Nevertheless, it is a disturbing component of the general American heritage.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that racism can still exist within a society, even in the event that there is no person within the society who holds racist values per se. For example, Sanchez has indicated that the recent police brutality events such as the one at Ferguson are emotionally charged precisely because they are embedded within a broader context of not personal but rather societal or structural racism.
The entire structure of American society may be such that Blacks have never been able to achieve the status of full citizens among others within the nation. Likewise, Richardson and Norris have pointed out that irrespective of whatever gains have been made at the level of personal beliefs, Blacks and Hispanics continue to experience proportionally inadequate access to the national healthcare system.
Racism may thus be a matter of personal beliefs and sentiments. But it can also have to do with the general structure of a society as such: society may be implicitly structured in such a way that certain groups do not have the same degree of access to social resources as other groups.
Concept of racial discrimination
In general, discrimination simply refers to giving special treatment to a given person or object as a result of his/its special intrinsic properties. Within the context under consideration here, though, discrimination has exclusively negative connotations: it means barring or restricting a given person from opportunities as a result of their demographic properties.
For example, it would be discrimination of an employer were to reject the application of a highly qualified Black potential employee simply because of the fact that the latter was Black. Such discrimination has been deemed unlawful within the United States by the Civil Rights Acts that were passed in the 1960s; and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has delineated several different demographic categories along which discrimination is unlawful, including age, disability, race, religion, and gender.
All American laws against discrimination ultimately have their basis in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution ensures all citizens of the nation equal protection under the law. That is, it ensures that as far as the law is concerned, a given person must be treated first and foremost as a citizen, and not as the representative of one demographic category or another. In principle, for example, it should not matter whether an applicant for a job is a Black or a White, or a man or a woman; the only thing that should matter is the simple question of who is in fact most qualified to do the job.
Anti-discrimination laws essentially mandate that this kind of impartiality is a legal requirement within the United States, and not just a matter of personal preference. Freedom from discrimination, at least at the societal or professional level, is seen as a fundamental right of every American citizen, independent from what any given person’s personal preference may or may not be.
What is affirmative action?
Turning to affirmative action now, the main idea here is: certain demographic groups should be granted a competitive advantage (or positive handicap) within society, due to the fact that they have sociologically suffered a negative handicap for a very long time (Leadership Conference). For example, it can be suggested that the Black population, as such, has been consistently placed at a disadvantage over the course of American history, as a result both of the institution of slavery that was once foundational to the nation and the failures of the Reconstruction era to truly address concerns pertaining to race within the nation.
If this premise is accepted, then the conclusion must also be accepted that there is a structural racism built into the very fabric of modern American society, and that policy initiatives would be needed in order to counteract this structural racism and produce a level playing field. Affirmative action is the general name for such policy initiatives.
Affirmative action is a very difficult subject precisely because depending on one’s sociological perspective, it could be seen as either as a remedy against structural discrimination, or as a form of virulent discrimination in its own right. Clegg, for example, has provocatively suggested that “affirmative discrimination” would be a good synonym for affirmative action. The logic here is simple enough. Discrimination consists of treating someone in a (negatively) special way simply as a result of his demographic background.
But this is exactly what affirmative action proposes to do. All else being equal, under affirmative action, a Black person will be given a competitive advantage over a White person—which is the same as saying that the White person will be discriminated against relative to the Black person. In principle, then, the people who oppose affirmative action generally do so on the grounds that it is in fact a form of discrimination, and that such a practice is thus unacceptable within the United States.
Everything hinges here on how one perceive the baseline situation. According to the doctrine of affirmative action, the baseline situation within society is already discriminatory at the structural level; therefore, affirmative action would be not a form of discrimination in its own right but rather an antidote against the discrimination that already exists. However, the extent to which structural discrimination exists is a contested point.
And moreover, even in the event that it is acknowledged to exist, there is controversy over whether it would really be appropriate to enhance and/or diminish the life prospects of individual persons in order to address a problem that in reality would exist only at the level of entire populations. If one believes that the structural problem is very serious and that affirmative action does in fact address it in a meaningful way, then it follows that affirmative action is policy strategy for ending discrimination within the United States. On the other hand, if one disagrees with either of those premises, then affirmative action could only look like its own form of discrimination.
On the basis of the delineation of concepts conducted above, three main points can be made. Firstly, racism is essentially one specific form of discrimination. Discrimination consists of treating a person negatively because of demographic factors; and racism consists of treating someone badly specifically because of the demographic factor of race/ethnicity. Discrimination can thus be conceptualized as a big circle, and racism can be conceptualized as a littler circle within that big circle. All racism is discrimination, but not all discrimination is racism.
This is because discrimination can occur along various demographic axes not related to race/ethnicity, as has been clearly expressed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sexism, for example, would be another littler circle within the big circle of discrimination. This is not the same thing as racism, although both racism and sexism are forms of discrimination.
Secondly, affirmative action is essentially meant to combat racism in particular and discrimination in general within American society. Again, racism can exist at both the personal and the structural levels. The idea of affirmative action is that racism does in fact exist at the structural level, and that policy level solutions are thus both appropriate and necessary for addressing the problem. This can include, for example, establishing quotas for minority persons in universities and corporation.
This means that even if (for example) a White male were to have better objective credentials than a Black female for a given position, the Black female would be granted the position due to the fact that her demographic background bestows upon her a sociological handicap that ought to give her a positive handicap against her rival. At the level of individual persons, this seems obviously discriminatory and unjust. The point of affirmative action, though, is that the playing field itself is already discriminatory and unjust and that efforts must thus be taken to address this matter.
Thirdly, the point can be made that in general, most modern Americans oppose both racism and discrimination. That is, only extremist fringe groups really suggest nowadays that these phenomena are good things; most people tend to believe that these are archaic feelings that should be overcome by rational and modern persons. Again, though, this is why affirmative action is truly such a contention issue. Let it be granted that everyone opposes discrimination.
The question that emerges, then, is: is affirmative action a form of discrimination? The answer to this question would depend entirely on the breadth and validity of one’s sociological perspective. The vast majority of people in the upcoming generation, for example, oppose affirmative action, on the grounds that every individual person should be treated just the same as every other individual person (Clegg). This obviously just conclusion, however, ignores structural factors and biases that may intrinsically grant a competitive advantage to certain persons over other persons.
Depending on how seriously one takes the reality and/or nature of these structural factors, one will conclude that affirmative action is either a way of combatting discrimination, or a form of discrimination in itself. One way or the other, though, most modern Americans are agreed on the point that discrimination (and racism) are in fact bad things.
Key findings on race and affirmative action
In summary, this essay has conducted a comparative analysis of the concept of racism, discrimination, and affirmative action. A key conclusion that has emerged here is that most modern Americans probably oppose both racism and discrimination, on simple moral grounds. However, this still leaves affirmative action a highly problematic subject within the nation. This is for the simple fact that it is ambiguous whether affirmative action is an antidote against discrimination, or whether it is a form of discrimination itself. Following the principle of anti-discrimination itself, then, radically different conclusions are possible regarding this matter.
Clegg, Roger. “Affirmative Discrimination in Higher Education.” National Review. 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
Horton, James Oliver. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.
Leadership Conference. “Affirmative Action.” 2015. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
Richardson, L. D., and M. Norris. “Access to Health and Health Care: How Race and Ethnicity Matter.” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 77 (2010): 166-177. Print.
Sanchez, Ray. “Why Ferguson Touched a Raw, National Nerve.” CNN 29 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. .
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Discrimination by Type.” n.d. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
United States. “Constitution of the United States.” The Avalon Project. 1789. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .