Reverse Discrimination

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‘Discrimination’ is defined as distinguishing or treating people unfairly on the grounds of race, sex or age and thus, refers to treatment of certain individuals and/or groups based on prejudiced outlook and action.[1] Reverse discrimination refers to a policy of according favoured treatment to a group of persons unjustly discriminated against in the past because of some characteristic possessed by each member of the group, and corresponding unfavoured treatment to a group of persons no member of which possesses the characteristic.[2] In simple words, it refers to a type of discrimination wherein members of a majority or historically advantaged group are discriminated against based on their race, gender, age, or other characteristics.

Just like all forms of discrimination, reverse discrimination can take many forms. For example, reverse racism. If a South African white is to be refused service in a black-owned Johannesburg restaurant[3], it could be called reverse discrimination based on race. Other examples could include promoting a black female worker over a more qualified white male worker with the purpose of helping to eradicate sexual and/or racial inequalities or firing or demoting employees based on their race, gender or ethnicity. In India, consider the reservation system which provides certain fixed seats in educational institutions and employment opportunities to various minority groups including SCs, STs, OBCs, women and in certain cases religious minorities. In such a situation, a more meritorious general category male student belonging to a majority religion may find himself being discriminated against.

The idea behind this policy is that when a certain group of persons within a society are discriminated against and such discrimination is essentially tied to a pervasive social practise, the characteristic upon which the discrimination is based takes on a moral quality; consequently, it becomes the moral duty of the society to make reparation to that group.[4]

However, critics argue that as long as steps to correct the injustice are limited to assuring that the minority groups receive the same benefits and opportunities that other people do, it is acceptable and just. But, when individual members of the minority groups are given benefits at the expense of other communities, the values were brought into sharp conflict and the legality of such practises comes into question. ‘On one hand justice requires that groups that have previously suffered gross discrimination be given truly equal opportunity but on the other, justice precludes the assignment of benefits and burdens on the arbitrary basis of racial, ethnic, gender and characteristics.’[5]

This all takes us to the idea of justice. Distributive justice refers to the dissemination of benefits to all without depriving any individual or group of something it values. This ensures fairness and equity. However, the idea of redistributive justice is based on the idea that those who commit certain kinds of wrongful acts, morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment[6] i.e., it confers benefits on one group at the expense of others. Redistributive justice, then, leads to reverse discrimination.

It also brings us to a paradox, a never-ending cycle. It is quite possible, indeed probable, that not every person belonging to the discriminated group suffered, and that there are persons who neither caused, practiced, condoned, nor benefitted from such discrimination. Now, the justifiable reason is that the discriminated groups’ right to reparation was established by the initial discrimination, not as individuals, but as a class and the presence of that right involves reverse discrimination. In short, at the cost of the discriminatory group, the discriminated group must be compensated for. However, in applying this policy, whatever good is accomplished by compensating the members of the discriminated group for the past wrongdoings, it is vitiated by the corresponding denial of benefits to the discriminatory group. Where before the entire discriminated group was victimized for the benefit of individual discriminatory persons, now the entire discriminatory group has been substituted as a victim for the benefit of individual discriminated persons. Thus, while certain members are compensated for the wrongdoings done to them or other members of the discriminated group, the other group is unjustly discriminated against as a class.[7] This will result in a never-ending cycle of retribution and compensation.

Reverse discrimination can most widely be seen in the fields of employment and education and may actually be set into motion through the laws enacted to help and uplift the minority groups, such as affirmative action. The aim of affirmative action was to ensure fair representation for communities to whom such access had historically been denied in jobs and education. In modern times, though, this may potentially result in unequal treatment if, as a result of these affirmative action policies, some groups end up receiving preferential treatment. One such example is the quota system. If we strive to eradicate prejudice and compensate for past errors by quota structures, we substitute one injustice for another. We reject the fundamental equality of all people and undermine the proposition that each person should have the same opportunity to succeed and to be judged on his merits. We pit the group against the group and destroys the chance of harmonious interactions.[8] Quota system this in turn institutionalizes discrimination. When a court goes beyond redressing cases of past discrimination and maintaining non-discriminatory employment in the future, the reason for action becomes more uncertain. A more comprehensive solution tends to be indefensible unless the kinds of justifications provided in defences of reverse discrimination by organizations which have not been historically discriminated against are accepted.[9]

  2. Nunn, William A. “Reverse Discrimination.” Analysis, vol. 34, no. 5, 1974, pp. 151–154. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
  4. Paul W. Taylor ('Reverse Discrimination and Compensatory Justice', ANALYSIS 3 3.6, pp. 177-18z.
  5. Kent Greenawalt, The Unresolved Problems of Reverse Discrimination, 67 CALIF. L. REV. 87 (1979).
  7. Nunn, William A. “Reverse Discrimination.” Analysis, vol. 34, no. 5, 1974, pp. 151–154. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
  8. Teicher, Morton. “Reverse Discrimination.” Social Work, vol. 17, no. 6, 1972, pp. 3–4. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
  9. Kent Greenawalt, The Unresolved Problems of Reverse Discrimination, 67 CALIF. L. REV. 87 (1979).