Affirmative Action: The U.S. Experience in Comparative Perspective

Daniel Sabbagh in Daedelus:

Contested as it is today, affirmative action originally emerged as a strategy for conflict management in deeply divided societies. The important exceptions are Brazil and India; in the latter, “reservations” for lower caste members in government office and higher education and the extension of benefits to a broader group of recipients have, in fact, triggered some violent resistance by urban upper caste youth in northern states. In most cases, however, countries that believed themselves to be on the brink of civil war, or that had experienced at least some serious unrest, set up affirmative action policies to alleviate an empirically substantiated risk of mass violence. Affirmative action, then, has been understood in part as a last-resort device meant to deal with or prevent a major crisis in which the preservation of the social compact was or would have been at stake. As Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa's Constitutional Court explains, countries that introduce affirmative action “do so not to meet widely proclaimed human rights standards but, sadly, because the social and economic costs of change are outweighed by the social and economic costs of policing the status quo. Put bluntIy, affirmative action has frequently come about as a rushed and forced response to what have been called race riots.”

The United States is a case in point. Sociologist John David Skrentny has shown that direct affirmative action programs were the somewhat paradoxical outcome of a reversal in law and policy that took place in a remarkably short time frame: the second half of the 1960s. Indeed, not only did Congress fail to provide such programs with a constitutional foundation, in contrast with the pattern observed in India, Malaysia, and South Africa; it also had enacted a statute, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that seemed to preclude their coming into existence…The factor most directly accounting for this dramatic policy innovation was the bureaucratic rationalization of antidiscrimination law enforcement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc). This development, in turn, was made possible by a highly unstable political atmosphere. Between 1964 and 1968, an unprecedented wave of race riots afflicted American cities, resulting in several hundred deaths.