National Post

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The true colours of hiring quotas

George Jonas
National Post

This paper reported on Monday that the federal government has spent $30-million on a program called "Embracing Change." Beginning in March, the plan will set a quota of 20% for visible minorities in hiring and promotion for Canada's civil service. This will be in addition to other set-asides for native people and women.

The government's word isn't "quota," of course. It's "target." Even their supporters sense there's something wrong with quotas, so they prefer to use other names for them. (One can quickly see, by the way, if there's anything wrong with something because the people who propose it will call it something else.)

In any event, the news reminded me of a startling suggestion a university professor made on an NBC newscast seven years ago. The professor said discriminating against individuals on the basis of race and sex should be made a felony.

It wasn't enough, the professor suggested, to impose fines or administrative penalties against people or institutions that discriminate on the basis of race or sex. Anyone who engages in such discriminatory practices should be sent to jail.

What was so startling about the professor's proposal? Only that, as he made it abundantly clear, he meant to include all forms of discrimination based on race or sex, including discrimination against white males. In particular, he meant to include the policy known as affirmative action.

One other thing about the professor, while not exactly startling, was noteworthy all the same. I tuned in late to the newscast and didn't catch his name, but the professor was black.

This black scholar in 1995 was not the first African-American to question the practice of affirmative action. He wasn't the first to point out that discrimination is discrimination, whether it's aimed against whites or blacks.

He wasn't the first to say that race- or gender-based exclusion is odious, whatever its purpose. African-Americans making similar points have included the scholar Thomas Sowell, the radio host Ken Hamblin, and former U.S. assistant secretary of state Alan Keyes, among others. Some, such as Elizabeth Wright, editor of Issues & Views, have been both black and female. Over the years critics of affirmative action have included many of its supposed beneficiaries, from women to visible minorities.

However, the professor on NBC went a step further. He expressed genuine moral indignation about affirmative action. He saw a distinct parallel in it to white supremacy.

The professor argued that just as historic discrimination against blacks resulted in the social revolution of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, we can expect our current practice of discrimination against whites to result in an equally justifiable social revolution at some future date.

It wasn't surprising to see a black professor oppose affirmative action, by the way. No more surprising than to see white professors oppose white supremacy decades ago. Or males supporting female suffrage around the turn of the 20th century, or women opposing discrimination against men around the turn of the 21st century. People can have a sense of equity regardless of race or gender.

Still, I couldn't help feeling some nostalgia as I was watching the NBC newscast in 1995. As a classical liberal -- "19th century liberal," as some people call it -- I naturally supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As an old-fashioned liberal, I naturally supported the early efforts of the feminists.

In those days the ostensible aim of both movements was to end discrimination and achieve individual equality for all regardless of race or sex. The call was for "colour-blind" equality, not for colour- or gender-conscious "empowerment." Unfortunately, those liberal days had waned almost as quickly as they had dawned.

I wrote my first article opposing affirmative action 25 years ago, in 1977. I remember the date because the second session of Canada's 30th Parliament passed Bill C-25 on June 2nd of that year. It was the first piece of legislation in this country that called for "special programs" designed to eliminate past discrimination by "improving opportunities" for certain groups.

"While it is possible to equalize opportunities for all," I wrote in the Canadian Lawyer, "it is impossible to increase them for one group without decreasing them for another. This, of course, is as obvious as it is offensive, and it has to be masked by some linguistic device. Hence affirmative action."

Since that 1977 piece I've written dozens of pieces about the ethical and practical pitfalls of affirmative action. I'm not going to repeat any of the arguments here; only note that it was comforting to hear the same points raised by a black professor on NBC almost a generation later. Canada's federal government still doesn't get it, I suppose, but that's only par for the course.

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