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Arguments For and Against Affirmative Action

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Around 12% of all college students are African American. If the student body at your college is only 1% African American it’s likely that there is some discrimination at work. This isn’t always the case, but it’s the principle that affirmative action was built on.

Affirmative action is the practice of giving preference to racial minorities or women in hiring or admissions. Affirmative action came to be due to a desire to bring minorities into institutions and professions that had traditionally been dominated by white males. This was after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was an attempt to give minorities’ social and economic equality.

Racial quotas for public colleges were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Bakke v. California. Since then, public colleges seeking to increase diversity have used other types of affirmative action. Private institutions have more freedom in their admissions practices. Most find that other affirmative action policies are a better way of achieving diversity than quotas because they allow for more fairness and greater flexibility.

In the decades since Bakke, affirmative action has been an ethical rather than a legal issue. As long as admission decisions did not employ strict racial quotas, colleges could choose to accept whomever they wanted. This is changing. California’s proposition 209, passed in 1996 with 54% of the popular vote. Proposition 209 prohibits any use of racial preferences in government hiring and public school admissions. Other states are considering similar legislation.

Since affirmative action is an ethical issue, the real question is whether or not affirmative action increases fairness in the admissions process. Additionally, the question is raised on what role diversity plays in both the academic mission of a university and in the quality of life on campus.

Affirmative action in college admissions is more popular among liberals than conservatives. Some of the arguments in favor of affirmative action include:

  • Affirmative action allows for fair evaluation of candidates by making up for existing social inequalities. – The purpose of affirmative action is to increase the admissions rates of minorities that are under-represented in America’s colleges. This under-representation is due to various factors – students from families where few people have pursued higher education are less likely to excel in high school; children who come from communities where English is not regularly spoken face a large disadvantage in reading and writing; and students from school districts with lower funding tend to perform poorly on standardized tests.Affirmative action does not make it easy for students from a disadvantaged background to get into college; it merely makes up for some of their difficulties.
  • A diverse student body creates a better learning environment. – A great deal of learning in college comes from sources other than textbooks and professors. Students can learn a lot from one another, but only if the student body contains a wide range of backgrounds. Colleges go out of their way to make sure that their student bodies contain many different types of people so that each student brings something different to the community.
  • Affirmative action assures that members of all ethnic groups are present. Lowering standards for under-represented groups raises the quality of the student body. – Affirmative action lowers admission standards for certain minorities to counterbalance academic disadvantages faced by those groups. Individuals who benefit from affirmative action must achieve academic excellence relative to other people with similar backgrounds. Affirmative action creates a student body that has tremendous academic potential.

Some of the arguments against affirmative action include:

  • It is unfair to judge applicants on anything other than their merits. – There are numerous factors that a college should take into account when considering applicants – grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities. An applicant’s race is not a legitimate factor to take into consideration because it is outside of the student’s control. It is impossible for a college to consider every aspect of a student’s background when making decisions on whom to admit. Why focus on race when there are so many other things that differentiate students from one another?
  • Affirmative action does not lead to true diversity. – Diversity of opinion is important in an academic community, not racial diversity. Affirmative action provides an advantage to some people because of the color of their skin. This is not an attribute that is relevant to the academic mission of a college. Affirmative action gives preferential treatment based exclusively on race, which is a purely external characteristic.
  • Affirmative action does not help really disadvantaged groups. – In many cases, affirmative action does not achieve its goal of helping disadvantaged minority groups. What it does is perpetuates socioeconomic inequalities by making it easy for members of racial minorities from privileged backgrounds to get into prestigious colleges while not helping members of the lower classes.

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Mark almost 5 years ago Mark


EU, you argue in favor of affirmative action because of economic reasons. You are saying that it helps the poor contend with the rich. If that is the case, why does affirmative action favor minorities over white males? Wouldn't it make more sense to give preference to all students from a poor background? As it stands, a white male from the scenario you described in your post would not get preferential treatment, while a black or hispanic male would. How is that fair?

EU about 6 years ago EU


Austin, you are misunderstanding the essentials of what affirmative action is. It's not a matter of choosing one race over another (this is coming for a white upper middle class college student.) It's taking into consideration factors that affect students' educational experience. For example, a hard working student whose family is poor so lives in a low income neighborhood must attend a high school that does not get good funding (since most people in that neighborhood are low income so their taxes aren't adequate to provide for a better education system). So unlike the school across town in a wealthier neighborhood that can afford to provide their students with ten AP classes and other honors programs that enrich their already advantaged students as well as inflate their gpa through AP classes, this school in the low income neighborhood can hardly provide their students with qualified teachers much less AP or honors programs. But this student has no other choice but to attend this school because he or she lives around the block and can't attend the nicer school because it's not in their district. But he or shee works hard, despite the conditions they live in. Despite having to work unusual hours while in school to help take care of their struggling family (which is a common obstacle fir poor students that are trying to excell). They are the top of their class. And have been able to maintain a 4.0 gpa despite the unusual challanges that many students in poverty face that middle class ones don't. Now this student has always dreamed of attending a good university in hopes of getting a quality education that they didnt have access to, and hopefully ending the cycle of poverty in their life. So the question that separates whether one agrees or disagrees with affirmative action is whether this student does or doesn't deserve the oportunity to get into a school with quality education. Most reasonable people say yes, because they worked really hard and excelled despite their circumstances. Now the problem is, how does this student even get the chance to compete against the students from across town who had access to all these programs that allowed them to have an inflated gpa of 5.0 and access to all these programs that gave them advantages. If we look at just credits, the hard working poor student does not get into that college. What affirmative action does is give this poor student that graduated top of their class the opportunity to attend college with people of less difficult backgrounds by acknowledging the other obstacles such as poor school without such programs as well as their challenge of having to work to help their family (and the challenges go on). Without affirmative action, this student would have no chance. But we all agree that they deserve this chance. Affirmative action helps students like these; those who are highly qualified but hsve highly disadvantaged backgrounds that they were born into. They were never on the playing field as wealthier students, yet they excelled where they were. Those students who did not take school seriously ARE not beneficiaries of affirmative action. Only those that excelled. Now why is affirmative action usually connected with race? Because the undeniable truth of the matter is that certain races happen to have different experiences that stem from the history of racism in this country. If we imagine the poor neighborhood this student came from, it's sad to say that there most likely would have a disproportionate number of Black or Latino families in comparison to White ones. Saying that race is not a factor completely undermines the many lost opportunities that "minority" groups have been denied historically and even today soley because of their race. And the consequtial effects of these are very evident in our society. Sadly, students of color that want to attend college tend to have stories that are similar to the poor student we spoke about. That is why race seems to be tied with affirmative action. What people tend to forget is that poor White students who have disadvantaged backgrounds also benefit from affirmative action. The poor student in this illustration is actually White. And they deserve to get access too. But since most stories such as these are carried by students whose conditions are as a result of racial discrimination their parents and grandparents faced that lead to their current circumstances, affirmative action seeks to undo the damage by giving this hard working student a chance to change their life. The idea you proposed that Whites somehow are paying the consequence for things their ancestors did is respectfully invalid. Affirmative action is America's attempt at undoing the damage that America caused as a result of events such as slavery, institutional racism (such as legal segregation in housing and schooling), and anti-immigration laws that have caused such deep and obvious inequality amongst a majority of people of color as well as immigrants and poor students. People who do not understand the need for affirmative action in order to make things fair are either racist so they don't care, or lack a true understanding of what affirmative action does. It does not discriminate against Whites or wealthy people, it simply gives ithers the chance to.compete with those who have been more privileged and favored in achieving the American dream. I hoped this was insightful and that you can now see why it only the right thing for America to do by allowing affirmative action in order to help qualified individuals attain the educational or work experience they would not have gotten otherwise.

austin over 6 years ago austin


actually that makes no sense at all kellie. just because our ancestors did all of the discriminating doesn't mean that we should have a disadvantage from minorities. (this is from a white persons view living in america). plus im half german half irish and im considered white? my grand parents moved here 80 years ago before all this discrimination went on. and i am at a disadvantage still because of something i/my ancestors alegidly had done.

Kellie Knoll almost 7 years ago Kellie Knoll


I disagree with this article because I personally feel that affirmative action does not discriminate against someone's race. In my opinion affirmative action is instead a way of making up for the past discrimination that minorities and african americans faced. Many people may believe that affirmative action excludes on race, but in real meaning it instead just gives opportunities to those who may need it.