Last month, Magazine Luiza, a Brazilian department store that specialises in selling electronics and home items, published a trainee call intended only for young and black candidates. According to Luiza Trajano, president of the administration council, this initiative could prove a better anti-discriminatory policy than other programmes adopted by the company in the past (they currently have 53% of blacks in its staff. But only 16% of them hold leadership positions). Luiza Trajano’s company seeks to ensure more diversity in top positions whilst, at the same time taking action against structural racism in Brazil. The company’s new trainee programme, however, has been the subject of judicial action and criticism from a part of the general population, who claim that it embodies an unfair policy that discriminates against white candidates.

These reactions constitute a well-known standard objection to anti-discriminatory policies (so-called the reverse discrimination objection). Proponents of this objection argue that Magazine Luiza’ initiative is, in attempting to tackle discrimination against black individuals, introducing a new form of discrimination against whites. Its core claim is formalised by Robert Fullinwider’s dilemma: ‘if we do not use preferential hiring, we permit discrimination to exist (premise 1). However, preferential hiring is also discrimination (premise 2). The dilemma is that whatever we do, we permit discrimination (conclusion)’ (my identification of the sentences, Fullinwider, 1980: 156; quoted by Lippert-Rasmussen, 2019:272).

This highlights the concern that an anti-discriminatory policy cannot eliminate or mitigate discrimination by enforcing the same kinds of measures the policy is supposed to tackle. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen argues that the first reading of Fullinwider’s dilemma may lead us to think that the preferential hiring of target-groups might discriminate against non-target groups. Yet, he says, we need to understand the rationale of the anti-discriminatory policy, and ask what is it a reply to? Besides, according to Lippert-Rasmussen, discrimination in premise 2 should be considered a ‘less serious instance of wrong’ than not doing anything to eliminate or mitigate discrimination in premise 1. In the sense that the cost of enacting an anti-discriminatory policy is less serious than the harm to which some groups are being routinely subjected in society without such a policy. Lippert-Rasmussen also points out that the way Fullinwider presents his dilemma indicates that ‘discrimination’ in premise 1 and premise 2 bear both the same meaning. However, premise 1 offers a wrongful kind of discrimination whereas premise 2 presents a ‘generic discrimination’.

As I see it, in order to fully reply to the reverse discrimination objection, we need to be able to clarify a context-depended argument on why a wrongful kind of discrimination constitutes an injustice, currently underdeveloped in Lippert-Rasmussen’s critique. Taking the case of Magazine Luiza mentioned earlier, young and black individuals are the target-group, those who are systematically excluded from opportunities in the Brazilian labour market because of arbitrary reasons based on negative prejudice related to their skin colour. For instance, black individuals are normally identified as criminal, lazy and incompetent. This is not only a situational condition but underlies a long-term and structural source of prejudice, which benefits whites and threatens the well-being of many black individuals. By long-term and structural source, I mean that our social norms and cultural attitudes are grounded in past slavery practices and on a violent legacy that puts black individuals in an inferior position.

At the very least, negative prejudices towards the black result from unequal social power relations. And, they are unjust as they directly interfere with an individual’s capacity to participate in society as full citizens (e.g. they are mistreated by police officers, they are underrepresented politically, and so on.) and indirectly render black individuals susceptible to socio-economic vulnerabilities (e.g. they have difficulty finding employment, receiving a decent wage, living in a well-organised neighbourhood, and so on.).

It seems plausible to adopt anti-discriminatory policies to help address existing inequalities of opportunities in the labour market. First, the rationale is attached to the normative recognition that wrong discrimination against the black population is an injustice, and our society should do something to mitigate or eliminate it. Second, ‘generic discrimination’ is not by its nature wrong, since it is not coupled with negative prejudice. Thus, an anti-discriminatory policy is a means for black individuals to access the labour market positions, rather than introduce negative prejudice towards whites.

I think we only advance in this understanding because we have contextualised the role that negative prejudices play in a discriminatory action, which reveals real-world unjust conditions. Otherwise, we struggle to identify what is wrong with Fullinwider’s dilemma and to acknowledge why an anti-discriminatory programme adopted by Magazine Luiza is a fair policy.

* I would like to thank Pedro Lippmann for helpful comments on my earlier draft.

Katarina Pitasse Fragoso

Katarina Pitasse Fragoso is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the São Paulo University (Brazil). Her researcher is attached to the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM/CEBRAP), and financed by the FAPESP-fund. Her work has concentrated on issues of relational inequalities, poverty and public policy.