Ignorant Versus Enlightened Ways of Fighting Discrimination: The Martin Luther King Perspective

April 2003

I hate discrimination in all its forms. Whenever an individual is judged not in terms of her or his performance or character, but in terms of some group to which the person belongs, discrimination has occurred and it needs to be fought. But it needs to be fought in an enlightened way, rather than in a biased or ignorant way. The ignorant way of fighting discrimination is to propose social engineering schemes where hiring is biased to favor some group, in order to correct what is perceived as past discrimination and injustice. So, for example, it is advocated in this sort of "affirmative action" policy, that because there are 51% women in the population and only 25% women in a particular university department, the hiring should be biased in favor of women until the 51% "goal" is reached.

That may sound reasonable, but consider another, earlier form of such "affirmative action" that was applied to my father in the twenties. He had just graduated from a Hungarian high school and wanted to go to university. At that time, 95% of Hungarians were Christian, and 5% were Jews. But there were only 85% Christian Hungarians in the University, and 15% Jews. That is, in the current lingo, Christians were under represented, and Jews were over represented in these privileged places. Moreover, it could be argued with some justification that Jewish children were unjustly favored in terms of background. Their parents tended to stress education more, there were more books in Jewish homes, and the tradition of study was stronger in Jewish Hungarian than in Christian Hungarian homes. So, the Government applied social engineering, and brought in a numerus clausus law, an early version of affirmative action, according to which one needed higher high school marks to get into University if one was a Jew. And my father's marks were high enough to get in for a Christian, but not high enough for a Jew, so he never went to University.

We may note the parallels, in principle, between these "affirmative action" policies of the present and of the past. The present policy favors women, while the numerus clausus policy favored Christian Hungarians. But what an enlightened approach to discrimination recognizes is that both forms of so called "affirmative action" are wrong. So too are forms of discrimination that favor certain races in hiring wrong. Martin Luther King recognized this, I think, when he called for a "color blind" society. By this he did not mean that people would no longer be able to perceive race differences, but only that, as he put it, a person would be judged not by the color of his skin but by his character.

Now there is a form of affirmative action that does genuinely not discriminate. In situations where there is evidence of past and present discrimination, for example, university hiring procedures which, in fact, consider only male and/or white candidates, then not only does that discriminatory policy have to be fought, but it must be ensured that all qualified candidates are informed of the position, and that all qualified candidates are judged in terms of their merit in the competition for the position. That sort of "opening" of "closed" doors is an important way of fighting discrimination. And, as someone who has felt discrimination as a Jew in Nazi Hungary, a bourgeois in Communist Hungary, and as a Refugee or Bloody Refo in Democratic Australia, I am for the opening of all such closed doors. And I also recognize that sometimes some good detective work will need to be done to uncover some of these discriminatory practices, which have often been carried on without being explicitly stated.

But if you want to fight discrimination, there is one simple rule: do not discriminate. The social engineering policy that includes quotas or so called "hiring goals" is immoral and unfair, because it is discriminatory. The policy, in other words, is unprincipled. It was his consistent principles that gave Martin Luther King the high moral ground in his fight to eliminate racial discrimination. Social engineering which tries to correct past injustices by present discriminatory policies is unfair and unprincipled, and therefore odious.

In addition, however, this sort of social engineering is also ultimately impracticable. Take, for instance, the claims of persons of so called "mixed race", or partial descent, to be included in designated or "affirmed" hiring groups. How will the line be drawn in deciding eligibility among applicants who are not "full blooded" members of a visible minority and or a Native Canadian category? Will we have to contrive South African style formulae to classify people so as to avoid minute examination of each individual's parentage and descent? It may seem that this would be unnecessary under the employment equity procedures, but one can readily imagine that in a competitive job situation issues of this kind would arise. These decisions become arbitrary, and like all arbitrary decisions, lead to injustice.

In fact, let us reflect on the nature of the injustice and against whom it is perpetrated. The main victims are not the whole body of the proverbial power group, white able bodied males, but the sub group of the current generation of white able bodied males in their twenties. The goals of employment equity will mean that individuals in this particular cohort will have to suffer significantly higher unemployment rates than people in designated groups or those older people in non designated groups who already have jobs. In other words, this particular cohort is being forced to make all the sacrifices necessary to achieve "employment equity". Is that equitable?

It is for these moral as well as practical reasons that I oppose the current employment equity policies and those affirmative action policies that, in fact, involve discrimination. Let us strive, instead, for a fairsystem of evaluation, where, as Martin Luther King said, we judge only individuals in terms of merit and performance, and not according to their group identity. The enlightened fight against discrimination must eliminate it so that our social structures are genuinely just.