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In recent years, affirmative action has posed difficult problems not only for courts and legislatures but also for individuals who puzzle over what is just. The claims made both by the proponents of programs that establish preferences on the basis of race and by their staunch opponents have an intuitive appeal. The slave society that preceded the Civil War and the Jim Crow era that endured for a century afterward are a shameful legacy for a nation that seeks to define itself in terms of justice and freedom. The proportionate underrepresentation of black people in positions of power and privilege may plausibly be traced to this legacy, giving moral force to the claim that unique arrangements must be made to redress this imbalance. But the intuitive case against special preferences for blacks is also powerful. Demanding unequal treatment in the name of equality has an Orwellian cast to it, and those whites whose opportunities are diminished by affirmative action have typically played no role in creating the social conditions that arguably justify it.


CC BY NC. Copyright 1984 The University of Chicago. Originally published as Lempert, Richard O. "The Force of Irony: On the Morality of Affirmative Action and United Steelworkers v. Weber." Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political and Legal Philosophy 95 (1984): 86-89. DOI: