We should compensate specific individuals for specific wrongs.

Myth: We should compensate specific individuals for specific wrongs, not entire groups.

Fact: Entire groups bear the stigma and harm, and groups are easier to compensate.


Group compensation can be justified on the following grounds: it may be the most economically efficient way to compensate mass injustice; the entire group suffers the stigma; and, in certain circumstances, the entire group suffers the discrimination. Compensating modern ancestors for past injustices is justified on the grounds that they are still suffering from the crimes of history. That is because poverty is intergenerational, and so is personal development and improvement. Furthermore, prejudice and discrimination did not disappear with the abolishment of its more legal forms; they continue today.


Critics of affirmative action claim that if society must pay damages for past wrongs, it should pay them to the specific individuals who were harmed, not their entire group. If we awarded damages to groups, then those who might not have suffered from the injustice will be getting something for nothing. This is unfair to those citizens who would pay the costs of these damages. And it works the other way around, too; not all members of the dominant society have been guilty of discrimination, and making them pay is unfair. Only the specific individuals who have been found guilty should pay.

Some take this philosophy a step further, claiming that present-day individuals are not entitled to compensation for injustices committed against their ancestors. Compensation for slavery should be awarded to those who lived under slavery -- but, of course, such persons are no longer alive, so the damages can no longer be awarded. If we did award these sort of damages, then virtually anyone could produce a claim for damages based on historical injustice. Protestants and Jews could sue Catholics, for example, for the Spanish Inquisition. A statute of limitations is needed to prevent overloading the courts with these potentially endless claims.

Reasons for group compensation

Liberals respond with the following reasons for group compensation:

1. Economic efficiency. Group compensation may be the most efficient way to correct mass injustice. For example, suppose the government intentionally detonated a nuclear bomb in Dallas, Texas. Over 90 percent of the surviving population in the outlying areas develops radiation sickness, and half of them will die premature deaths. In the ensuing scandal, the government agrees to pay the surviving victims. However, 10 percent of the survivors (probably in the outermost regions) neither fall sick, nor have to move, nor see their businesses fail, despite being exposed to potentially dangerous radiation fallout. In this case, it would be far simpler and cheaper just to compensate the entire group, because it would cost even more money, time and effort to investigate, medically examine and determine conclusive proof of harm for each surviving victim.

Furthermore, the 10 percent may not have suffered obvious harm, but they will most likely suffer later harm (for example, reduced life spans) that might be difficult to distinguish from other causes. However, it is doubtful that this 10 percent could be exposed to a nuclear bomb blast and suffer no damage, even later down the road. Compensation to the entire group, whatever their level of obvious damage, is therefore reasonable.

2. The group suffers the stigma. Blacks suffer discrimination, stigma and prejudice simply because they belong to that group; the same is true of women. Members of these groups have to overcome these disadvantages just to get an equal start. Thus, if members suffer disadvantages simply by belonging to a group, then the group itself should be compensated.

An example best highlights this principle. Suppose a sexist employer denies an executive position to a qualified woman just because she is a woman. This action affects far more women than just the one who was denied a job. Other women were denied a role model that would have helped break the stereotype, encouraged them to pursue jobs in that field, and reduced more barriers to obtaining those jobs. So discrimination against even one person contributes harm to the group; hence, the group should be compensated.

Notice that the flip-side of this argument is also true: white men benefit from positive stereotypes, even if they are not prejudiced against other groups and have not personally discriminated against them. Hence all members of the dominant culture should contribute to the compensation.

3. The group suffers discrimination. For over a hundred years after slavery, blacks suffered legal segregation and discrimination under Jim Crow laws. These laws were explicitly aimed at an entire group. Because everyone in the group was harmed, the entire group should be compensated. Again, the converse is also true: whites received explicit positive discrimination as a group. Hence the entire group should compensate.

Compensating for historical injustice

Many critics of affirmative action concede that America committed injustices to entire groups in the past, but do not see why we should award compensation for them today, so long after these injustices have been eradicated.

First we should note that blatant, official discrimination was not eradicated all that long ago. The Civil Rights movement and the women's movement both occurred in the 1960s, a little more than a generation ago. It is unreasonable to assume that discrimination can be declared illegal one day and that an entire group will rebound to equality the next. Many factors work to keep the group suppressed. These are:

1. The poverty trap. Generally, poverty does not give a person the tools to escape it. The two primary methods of "bootstrapping" -- starting a business and attending college -- require a significant amount of money in the first place. We all know this Catch-22 in its more common form: the young adult who needs credit to secure his first loan. People mired in poverty can hardly afford to buy the essentials of living, let alone save a large portion of their paychecks. Even if they could somehow hoard enough to make these attempts, they would find themselves competing against well-funded companies, families, and venture capitalists -- who already have every advantage.

College loans and grants were devised to help alleviate this problem, but not even full participation in all the major programs covers the costs of college. In the 1993-94 school year, total average loans and grants fell $1,194 short of paying the costs of attending a public college. (1) Furthermore, college crowds out the time that most people normally reserve for work. Not surprisingly, most students tend to be starving students. If a student's family is rich, that increases the likelihood of surviving to graduation. Unfortunately, this means that the poor have much weaker bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

For these reasons, poverty tends to be intergenerational. Slavery and Jim Crow laws kept blacks trapped at the bottom of society until very recently. As late as 1959, the black poverty rate was 55 percent. Today, thanks to affirmative action, this has been reduced to about 31 percent. But to expect this population to rise out of poverty overnight is to misunderstand the limitations of poverty.

2. Improvements are intergenerational. Unfortunately, changes often occur most easily between generations than within them. The current computer revolution is a perfect example of how intergenerational change works. Although people of all ages have a good reason to learn computers, it is largely a phenomenon of the young. They are the ones who have adapted most quickly to computers, and use them most widely and proficiently. This points up a rather sad and unfortunate fact: that, as people age, they tend to become set in their ways. Their belief systems, habits, talents, education, values, goals and self-esteem all become more and more fixed over the years. We see this phenomenon in immigrant families as well: adults may remain stuck in the ways of the "Old World," but their children will become rapidly Americanized.

The same holds true for poverty. Suppose you could remove an entire family from poverty, placing them in a middle class neighborhood with all the income and opportunities available to most families. The formerly poor adults might not change much, but their children would be profoundly affected. And that's because they are still in their critical developmental years.

This is yet another reason why full equality does not occur overnight. It will take generations to raise children who are as qualified and competitive as the rest of society.

3. Prejudices linger. Legal discrimination existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years only because it reflected the deep prejudices of the dominant culture. Obviously, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 did not end this deep-seated racial hatred and stereotyping in a day. Minorities struggling to gain equality and better-paying jobs have had to fight a head wind of continuing racism and resentment.

For all the above reasons, present-day minorities and women are still suffering from the discriminations of the past. They therefore deserve compensation for these injustices. The situation is analogous to the above mentioned nuclear bomb blast. The immediate survivors are not the only victims. The children they raise will suffer the effects of radiation poisoning too, and, as victims, deserve compensation as well.

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1. In the 1993-94 school year, it cost a state resident an average of $8,562 to attend a public university, and $17,846 to attend a private one. (This includes just the basics: tuition, fees, room, board, books and transportation.) Here are the average payments of the major student assistance programs:

Pell Grant     $1,418
SEO Grant         730
Perkins Loan    1,261
Work-Study      1,000
Stafford Loan   2,959
Total           7,368

So even full participation in these programs fails to cover the costs of attending a public college by $1,194.

College costs: The College Board, New York, NY, Annual Survey of Colleges, 1993. Average payments of student assistance programs: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, unpublished data. Figures are estimates for 1993.