The Affirmative Action Debate Moves South

By Ana Margarita González*


South African President Jacob Zuma recently called for a more “intense implementation of affirmative action policies” in his country in response to his political opposition´s criticism of his Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. The Act seeks to distribute wealth across a broader spectrum of black South African society. Yet, there are still large numbers of black South Africans who are not employed in the formal economy and even larger numbers living in poverty. President Zuma’s call to strengthen affirmative action policies contrasts the direction the debate over these policies has taken in the United States, where race-based affirmative action is increasingly disfavored by politicians. (As a general concept, affirmative action is supported by the majority of Americans.)

While the South African government looks to intensify their affirmative action efforts, in the United States people are still waiting to see how far the courts are going to limit these policies. The final outcome of Fisher v. Texas, a case about if or how how race can be used as a factor in college admissions processes, will shape the design of future race-based affirmative action policies in American higher education. (The Supreme Court heard the case, but then sent it back to the lower Appelate Courts for them to make the final decision.) Race as a factors in admissions has been challenged in other states like Michigan and California, where opponents of affirmative action policies have sought to end this practice.

While the case moved its way through the American courts, The Economist published a series of articles questioning the legitimacy of racially-based affirmative action policies in countries like India, South Africa, Malaysia, Brazil and the United States. Most of the critiques in the articles had already been raised in various public debates, especially in the United States. But some of the inconsistencies in these critiques, specifically those related to the Global South, have yet to be fully explored.

To start with, the articles argue that racial disparities are not large enough to justify policies that favor only racial minorites.  Yet, numerous studies continue to show significant differences between afro-descendants, Latinos and whites when it comes to salaries and access to higher education in countries like the United States and Brazil.  A telling example of these inequalities is the salary difference between women of color and white women in the United States: African-American and Latina women earn 66 and 52 cents respectively for each dollar earned by a white woman working at a similar job. The consequences of dealing with racial discrimination over numerous generations, combined with the modern-day forms of racism and bias, are evident in the  disproportionatly high levels of poverty amongst racial minorities. In addition to encouraging broad based social programs that address poverty, affirmative action policies that focus specifically onthe realities of these racial minorities become a legitimate means of dealing with these social disparities.

Another disputable argument against affirmative action found in The Economist articles is that they end up favoring only the elite within racial minorities. The authors argue that only those minorities who have the most and the best academic creditionals are likely to be admitted to the best universities, leaving most minorities without access, thus defeating one of the purposes of the policy.  But this risk can be reduced by combining class and race in the design of affirmative action policies, like Brazil has done with their policies. In August of last year, the Brazilian government approved a law that requires all federal universities to reserve 25 percent of their spots for Afro-descendent and indigenous students who come from poor families and public schools. 

A third argument, found in a different article from The Economist, is that in countries like South Africa people have taken advantage of the policies and the wrong people have been selected as beneficiaries. However, the fact that ocassionally happens should not be an argument against instituting these policies to address racial inequality. A better argument is that institutions should include the proper means of regulating and montitoring the selection process in the design of their programs to lessen the risk that people will take advantage. Again, the Brazilian experience provides insightful lessons on this point: public and private universities with racial quotas have adopted mechanisms to verify the identiy of their beneficiares through committees composed of community organizations and public officials to avoid having people who are not afro-descendent or indigenous benefiting from the cuotas.

Finally, empirical studies about the long-term effects of race-based college admisions, like those carried out by professors William Bowen and Derek Bown , demonstrate the positive impact that race-based policies have on higher education. In addition to helping reduce racial inequality and encouraging the redistribution of resources to reach the poorest amongst us, affirmative action policies help build diverse societies better able to move beyond historic and modern-day racism.

The critiques of affirmative action that academics and news outlets like The Economist offer show how difficult it is for society to change the status quo of inequality, where goods and opportunties are only available to certain groups. The resistence to change, the desire to maintain things as they are, is not an argument against affirmative action, but rather an incentive to find better implementation mechanisms and refine the design of these policies.

The Global South, countries like South Africa and Brazil, must become the standard-bearers of this debate which has stalled in the North. The vast racial inequality that exists today in the South should never be viewed as accetable by any society. The Global South, with their large minority populations, can ill-afford to wait for a better example from the North. Instead we should continue to think creatively about how to design the best affirmative action policy that will resolve racial inequality in our communities.


* Ana Margarita González is a researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)