Discrimination has a bad name, in part because what we typically mean by the word “discrimination” is more like “unjustified discrimination” or “discrimination on morally-irrelevant grounds.” But discrimination per se—even discrimination based on normally-irrelevant characteristics like race or disability—is not always bad. In a very few cases, discrimination is rooted in bona fide job requirements. The classic example is that it’s OK to discriminate against the visually impaired if you’re hiring pilots; having good eye-sight is a bona fide requirement for being a pilot. Being white, on the other hand, is not.
For a recent controversy over reverse discrimination—or rather, over a failure to engage in such discrimination—see this case from Halifax, Nova Scotia, as reported in the Chronicle Herald‘s “Africville trust hiring prompts some anger: Choosing white minister ‘insulting’“:
Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation.
“I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist.
“Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.”
The trust was set up to establish a memorial to Africville, a major African-Nova Scotian community destroyed on the orders of Halifax officials in the 1960s.
The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position….
So-called “reverse discrimination” is challenging, ethically. Preferential hiring of individuals from historically-disadvantaged groups can be a ham-fisted way to right past wrongs. But in at least some cases—particularly cases involving high-profile positions—the symbolic significance of the job in question has to at least be considered. (A very similar controversy arose a couple of years ago, when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind hired its first non-blind CEO.)
The first thing to note about the Halifax/Africville case is that it’s not primarily a black-vs-white dispute. It’s clear that those who oppose the hire don’t speak for Halifax’s entire black community. The Board of Directors of the Africville Trust is the body that did the hiring, and although detailed information about the composition of the Board is hard to find, the article cited above does say that the Board “includes six representatives of the Africville [i.e., black] community.” That doesn’t change the fundamental ethical questions at stake, but it does sweep away any thought that this is just an us-vs-them debate.
It’s also worth pointing out a legal worry, here. Hiring based on race is generally wrong, and typically illegal. It’s not clear to me (a non-lawyer) that excluding non-blacks from consideration for a job like this would even be legal. Do the critics of this hire simply think that the job posting should have said “Whites Need Not Apply?” Likely not. But a subtler position is logically open to them, anyway, namely a position that says something like “if in doubt, give the job to the black candidate” (based perhaps on a presumption of greater personal understanding of the issues at stake). But again, I don’t know whether that would be legal. (Does anyone reading this know?) And surely no on really wants to settle, as one activist quoted in the story suggests, for a candidate who is merely “fully qualified.” After all, there might well be a number of “fully qualified” candidates, and so you’re still going to need to make a decision. And if the job is important, then we likely want it filled not just by someone qualified, but by the most qualified person.
But on the other hand, critics of this decision do have a point, and that has to do with the symbolic value that would attach to putting a black person in charge of the Africville Trust. It’s not hard to see that selecting a black man or woman for this kind of leadership role would send a certain kind of message, and maybe give black kids in Halifax another positive role-model, one more non-white individual occupying a position of prestige and influence.
All in all, I’m not sure what to think about this one. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this: if you think a case like this has a clear and simple answer, you’re probably not thinking about it hard enough.