“There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.” Thomas Jefferson’s words remain as relevant and provocative now as it was back in the 18th century when he articulated them. In view of how individuals from disadvantaged groups often unjustly face a higher risk of social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination than the general population, there have been widened calls for preferential treatment targeted at disadvantaged groups. I would argue that interventions designed to redress these disadvantages or to remedy the ill effects experienced by disenfranchised groups are justified on the grounds of social justice as the disadvantaged faced by certain social groups might not be attributable to individual qualities but are due to systemic factors that perpetuate inequality. Furthermore, preferential treatment aimed at elevating disadvantaged people might be key to preserving social stability and to averting broad public discontent with the status quo and therefore should be implemented. However, we must also be careful not to over-reach in our approach as this might sometimes lead to resentment from the other groups in society and preferential treatment might even be counterproductive by not helping disadvantaged groups in the long term.

It is sometimes asserted that preferential treatment should not be extended to disadvantaged groups as their predicaments might be the outcome of individual irresponsibility and indolence. Yet, we must recognize that often there are systemic causes of disadvantage that disadvantaged individuals are unable to independently tackle and hence require preferential treatment to rectify the situation. Faced with an institutionalised system of privilege stacked against them, some groups encounter prejudice simply because of their gender, ethnicity or religious backgrounds and not fundamentally due to their innate individual qualities. Disadvantages that stem from such extraneous factors are unfairly laden upon these communities.  As an example, Wells Fargo forced about 30,000 Black and Hispanic borrowers into subprime mortgages between 2004 and 2009, while providing prime loans to White borrowers that had similar credit profiles. The racial minorities were unfairly subject to higher interest rates and borrowing fees, bearing additional costs that stemmed from racial discrimination. Furthermore, disadvantage is consistently reproduced unless active intervention is introduced to break the vicious cycle of poverty. A study by Michigan State University found that students living in low-income neighbourhoods received less academic support than their wealthier counterparts. Such differences account for up to 37% of the differences in math scores, demonstrating that social class and wealth have a tangible impact on students’ academic outcomes. Without additional academic support or resources catered to low-income students, the gulf in academic attainment will continue to persist. This has a direct impact on disadvantaged groups and for the broader society as well. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the U.S. economy loses $329 billion annually from the foregone income of 1.2 million high school drop-outs. Evidently, preferential treatment might be a much-needed recourse for the unjust disadvantages that are afflicted on the systematically disenfranchised, and on the grounds of social justice, preferential treatment is thus justifiable. 

Additionally, preferential treatment for disadvantaged groups is needed within society  as many systemic privileges are often institutionalised and are challenging to eradicate without active intervention.As disadvantage and privilege are constantly perpetuated, the demographic composition of elite educational institutions and in prestigious occupations might be naturally skewed towards upper-class and predominantly male, majority-based backgrounds. The use of affirmative action strategies might thus be the solution to promote greater diversity in such settings. Affirmative action generally refers to positive discrimination designed to improve the representation of women and minorities, and directly employs preferential selection on the grounds of race, gender or ethnicity. Affirmative action strategies are widely used in corporate recruitment as diversity is a goal that corporate executives actively aspire towards. An illustration of this is how more than 1,600 CEOs have endorsed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion Pledge, a commitment to account for demographic backgrounds in hiring practices and to artificially enhance the employment chances of certain disadvantaged individuals. For a specific example, executives at State Street Global Advisors will be required to obtain permission to hire white men as the company aims to increase the number of minority staff in senior echelons of the company by three-folds within the next few years. Such hiring practices are not purely driven by a social justice imperative but are built upon practical considerations to maximise profits. Diversity purportedly drives profitability by preventing the creation of echo chambers and allows for the exchange of a wider array of perspectives. A diverse workforce can capably create new products that successfully captures a wider target audience and even address the needs of niche target groups. In the context of higher education, Ivy League universities have also defended their affirmative action policies as a key mechanism to ensuring student body diversity, with Harvard University calling upon the US Supreme Court to not enforce a requirement that admissions need to be colour-blind, protecting the use of affirmative action that had been crucial in ensuring minority representation in a prestigious academic institution like Harvard. Given that diversity is a goal that society is collectively committed towards, preferential treatment in the form of affirmative action is an important lever that should be continued to be utilised to improve the chances of breaking into domains that are traditionally the behest of the privileged.

Besides, there are also pragmatic reasons for preferential treatment as such interventions might be crucial in the preservation of the delicate social fabric. As explored above, disadvantaged groups constantly grapple with a host of obstacles they face in life, leading to mounting emotional stress and growing discontentment with life, which can have a spill-over effect to society unless active intervention in the form of preferential treatment is put in place. In Singapore, the model of pragmatic meritocracy espouses equality of opportunity for all, allowing those with the ability to flourish but simultaneously creating natural losers that are left downtrodden from such a competitive, cut-throat environment. The early years of rapid economic growth was akin to a rising tide that lifted all boats as growth translated to improved well-being across all sections of society. However, social inequality has worsened over time and those trapped in poverty are increasingly finding themselves swimming against the current in a futile attempt to pursue upward social mobility. Nathan Peng, a researcher at Singapore Management University, pointed out that the extent of national pride increased in wealth and social class, suggesting that systemic inequality corrodes national identity. To prevent disillusionment and jadedness amongst the less affluent sections of society, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam advocates for an “escalator model” where society must progress as a whole. It is therefore clear that the bottom echelons of society should thus be given additional support in the form of preferential treatment to ensure that upward social mobility is not an unrealised dream.

Yet, notwithstanding the above arguments, critics of affirmative action claim that such interventions create a host of unintended consequences that leaves everyone worse off. The argument is that preferential treatment that is explicitly conferred onto certain sections of society would naturally trigger feelings of resentment and indignance, creating a rift between the recipients of preferential treatment and those who are unfortunately excluded from it. The ‘bumiputra’ policy introduced by the Malaysian government in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots enshrines the privileged status of the Malay majority in Malaysia, and attempts to placate growing discontent amongst the Malay majority manifested in explicit policies to safeguard the socioeconomic status of the Malay “natives” that had been deemed economically disadvantaged. However, over the years, the preferential treatment that is selectively bestowed upon the Malay community has contributed to the persistent perception amongst minority races in Malaysia that the ‘bumiputra’ policy relegates non-Malays to the unenviable status as “second-class citizens”. The introduction of preferential treatment policies might thus exacerbate resentment between the majority and minority groups in society, creating increasingly salient differences between the insiders and outsiders. Nonetheless, such inadvertent consequences might be the outcome of ill-informed implementation that unfortunately casts the spotlight on institutionalised, state-endorsed discrimination. Espousing the narrative that preferential treatment had been meaningfully employed to tackle systemic disadvantages might allow those excluded from such policies to understand the mostly benign intentions of these policies.

Unfortunately, we must also recognize that affirmative action might not benefit those on the receiving end as well due to the inability of disadvantaged groups to adapt to new settings that are suddenly thrust upon them. Renowned sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack studied the experiences of disadvantaged students in elite higher education institutions and found that disadvantaged students are often unable to adapt to the foreign environment they were thrusted into and are likely to feel alienated. Additionally, affirmative action might merely reinforce the stigma against minorities and affect the self-esteem of minority groups that deem their acceptance into prestigious occupations or schools as an outcome of an unfair leg-up they had received. It is thus understandable that such sentiments will inevitably emerge. For instance, the average black student accepted into the University of Texas through the racial-preference program is placed at the 52nd percentile, compared to her white counterparts who typically have SAT scores in the 89th percentile. Given the apparent disparity in standardised test scores, it might thus be possible that disadvantaged students are plunged into an academic setting that they might struggle to flourish in. The single-minded fixation with pursuing diversity and minority representation thus inadvertently harm those we claim to be helping through preferential treatment. Therefore, it is important to understand that increasing representation is not the be-all-and-end-all. Preferential treatment extending into accompanying policies that support students or workers with assimilating into a foreign environment is equally important and should not be neglected. Thus, the solution to the perceived problems with preferential treatment might be to improve the design and delivery of such intervention attempts, and we should not aim to do away completely with preferential treatment but strive to complement this with other strategies that aim to bring about both diversity and inclusivity.

In the final analysis, preferential treatment is understandably controversial given that it implies conferring advantage selectively to some and not all. As examined, feelings of resentment by those excluded from preferential treatment and the inadvertent side effects faced by the disadvantaged can be averted by improving the implementation of preferential treatment. Given that preferential treatment can be used to address systemic causes of inequality and to improve representation and diversity,it is a valuable tool that we should not be averse to using. When carefully harnessed, preferential treatment can quell disaffection from disadvantaged communities and can be crucially important in fostering societal harmony.