This essay is about the ethical propriety and practical efficacy of a range of policy undertakings which, in the last twenty years, has come to be referred to as “affirmative action.” These policies have been contentious and problematic, and a variety of arguments have been advanced in their support. Here I try to close a gap, as I see it, in this “literature of justification” which has grown up around the practice of preferential treatment. My principal argument along these lines is offered in the next section. I then consider how some forms of argument in support of preferential treatment, distinctly different from that offered here, not only fail to justify the practice but, even worse, work to undermine the basis for cooperation among different ethnic groups in the American democracy. Finally, I observe that as a practical matter the use of group preference can, under circumstances detailed in the sequel, produce results far different from the egalitarian objectives which most often motivate their adoption.
It may seem fatuous in the extreme to raise as a serious matter, in the contemporary United States, the question “Why should we care about group inequality?” Is not the historical and moral imperative of such concern self-evident? Must not those who value the pursuit of justice be intensely concerned about economic disparities among groups of persons? The most obvious answer to the title question would seem, then, to be: “We should care because such inequality is the external manifestation of the oppression of individuals on the basis of their group identity.”