Personal tools

Debate: Affirmative action

From Debatepedia

Revision as of 23:56, 4 December 2009; Brooks Lindsay (Talk | contribs)
(diff) ←Older revision | Current revision | Newer revision→ (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search

Is affirmative action good public policy?

Background and context

"Affirmative action" involves steps being taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—affirmative action generates intense controversy.
In the United States, affirmative action had its origin with president John F Kennedy's Executive Order 10925, which stated mandated, "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." Various changes to US law such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Revised Philadelphia plan have given minorities and women more opportunities than other races. Several Supreme Court cases (Griggs v. Duke Power Comp., Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) since then have also shown that affirmative action exists and has ruled against institutions which did not give preference when they were supposed to. And yet, other have interpreted things differently, as the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 advocates a "race-blind" approach in which "[n]o person…shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." While it makes a couple of exceptions for employer preferences on the basis of gender, religion, and national origin, it makes no exception for race in regard to the law being "color-blind". The debate that has followed in the United States and around the world has fallen along the lines of the subquestions listed below.

See Wikipedia's Affirmative Action article, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more background.


Justice: Does affirmative action justly compensate past wrongs?


  • Affirmative action justly compensates groups for past wrongs. It is important for injustices to be redressed. Slavery and institutionalized racism have not been redressed yet in America. In order for justice to be served, it is necessary for the main losers of racism in America (blacks) to be compensated for their loses. It is also appropriate that whites assume some burdens in enabling the redress of blacks, as they were the main perpetrators of the crime of slavery. Affirmative action achieves this all, sufficiently compensating blacks for past wrongs, achieving redress, and restoring justice.
  • Affirm action justly asks whites to sacrifice for common good: It is common in democracy for different citizens to take up unequal burdens to achieve certain social goods. Progressive taxes are a good example of this. Affirmative Action adopts the same notion of assigning certain unequal burdens to some currently privileged groups in order to achieve a greater level of equality.
  • Affirmative action only deprives whites of unearned opportunities. Michel Rosenfeld. "Affirmative Action and Justice: A Philosophical Inquiry." New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press. (1991): "affirmative action plan is precisely tailored to redress the losses in prospects of success [by blacks and women] attributable to racism and sexism, it only deprives innocent white males of the corresponding undeserved increases in their prospects of success…."


  • No group should benefit or be punished for ancestral wrongs. Given that most people in the current generations have never been harmed individually or unequally by government (in the sense of institutionalized racism, it is impossible to compensate them for harms that never occurred to them personally. Affirmative action wrongly attempts to perform such compensation.

Equal opportunity: Is Affirmative Action necessary to achieve equal opportunity?


  • Affirmative action is only way to level playing field There are many ways in which society is unequal today, and which cannot change without institutional help: 1. Past historical discrimination severely limited access to educational opportunities and job experiences. 2. Ostensible measures of "merit" may well be biased toward the same groups who are already empowered. 3. Regardless of overt principles, people in positions of power are likely to hire people they already know or people from similar backgrounds, or both. This means that racism may not change on its own, and requires an institutional approach such as affirmative action to level the playing field.
  • Anomaly of "poor white Appalachian" less important than broad racism. Opponents of Affirmative Action argue that it is unfair to the "poor white male from Appalachia" to give the wealthy black neurosurgeon's son an advantage in school admittance. Yet, the problem with this idea is that ignores the fact that there are for more poor blacks as a result of institutional racism. This relative disadvantage of blacks is what drives the need for affirmative action. As Charles R. Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda write in their 1997 book "We Won't Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action": "All the talk about class, the endless citings of the ‘poor white male from Appalachia,’ cannot avoid the reality of race and gender privilege."
  • Going to top universities is more important than good grades. The basic argument here is that, in order to advance higher in life, the stamp of a top university is more important than the performance of a student in that university. Therefore, it is more important for a minority student to attend a top university even if it means that they will be nearer the bottom of their class.
  • Predominantly black schools offer fewer AP classes. An 'A" grade in an AP class is counted as a 4.5 by some universities, making it possible for a student who takes all AP classes and gets all A's to get a 4.5. Yet, predominantly black schools offer far fewer AP classes, making it harder for exceptional black students to compete against the grades that exceptional white and Asian students are able to muster.


  • Affirmative action is descrimination by another name. Affirmative action descriminates against non-minorities in order to compensate non-minorities. This is institutional discrimination.
  • Laws should be "race-blind" to counter discrimination: Because Affirmative Action descriminates against non-minorities, it is wrong and should be replaced by "race blind" laws that give no consideration at all to race, background, religion, or any other factors other than merit.
  • Affirmative action does more harm than good to minorities. Asian and Jewish Americans are an example of this, where they have been victims of institutional racism (and continue to be victims of forms of racism and prejudice), but whom are harmed by affirmative action since it benefits largely black and Hispanic populations. This disproportionate effect is perverse and counter-productive considering that the intent of affirmative action is to eliminate discrimination.
  • Affirm action wrongly considers race over econ/edu factors Economic or educational disadvantages do not necessarily correlate to those of a particular racial/ethnic status. There are many examples of wealthy well educated black youths that have experienced every society advantage there is. There are also examples of white youths that have lived in economic and educational squaller. If it is economic and educational disadvantages that are the problem, why not focus in affirmative action on these criteria instead of race and ethnicity.
  • Affirm action mismatches bad students with difficult classes. By admitting minority students who are less qualified than their peers into more rigorous programs wherein they cannot keep up. UCLA School of Law professor Richard Sander wrote several papers on this occurring in both the law schools themselves and in law firms.[1]
  • Affirm action lowers value of degrees earned by minorities: Affirmative action creates an impression or a concern that black individuals that earn a particular degree, do so with the help of affirmative action, rather than by their own merits. This diminishes the value that job-seekers and society place on these degrees, relative to ones earned by non-minorities who did not have the help of Affirmative Action.

Meritocracy: Is it OK that Affirmative Action contradicts notions of meritocracy?


  • Affirmative action makes race only a small "plus" for candidates. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Affirmative Action". October 10th, 2007: "racial or ethnic background, at Harvard, might be deemed a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file, yet it does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.…This kind of program treats each applicant as an individual in the admissions process. The applicant who loses out on the last available seat to another candidate receiving a “plus” on the basis of ethnic background will not have been foreclosed from all consideration for that seat simply because he was not the right color or had the wrong surname. It would mean only that his combined qualifications…did not outweigh those of the other applicant. His qualifications would have been weighed fairly and competitively, and he would have had no basis to complain of unequal treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment."


  • Affirmative action contradicts the notion of meritocracy. In a meritocracy, equal opportunity is essential. Every individual must have the equal opportunity to demonstrate their merit, and gain reward on the basis of that merit. Yet, Affirmative Action creates race as a factor in providing individuals with rewards. Instead of earning a reward such as a certain high paying job through merit, Affirmative Action opens the potential that race will be the determining factor for that reward being assigned to an individual. It makes unequal access to opportunities, violating both the notion of equal opportunity and meritocracy.
  • Affirmative action promotes mediocrity by undermining meritocracy. Racial profiling promotes mediocrity by violating the fundamental rule espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior----That people be judged on the basis of their character and not the color of their skin. In societal terms, a person's character is measured by how moral they are and how valuable your skills are to providing goods and services to your fellow countrymen. Departure from emphasis on character is a much larger and more fundamental concern than racist policies promulgated by a racist southern democrat which were done to get and retain votes at the expense of stifling the rising tide of black entrepreneurship in 1960s which was the real source of leverage in the Civil Rights campaign.
  • Affirm action fills key jobs with less productive individuals. Affirmative action results in less qualified and effective candidates filling positions, resulting in lower economic productivity for companies and a nation.
  • Affirmative action damages ethos of more qualified non-minorities. Affirmative action damages the ethos and confidence of non-minority individuals who work hard to try and achieve in the world. It risks causing them to work with less passion and vigor, as they might as "what's the point, somebody else who is not working as hard will probably get the job?"

Diversity: Is diversity in all areas of society a valuable social good?


  • Greater ethnic representation at all social levels is beneficial. Proportional diversity in all levels of society is very important in establishing a health society, as it entails greater interaction and communication between these groups, and thus greater understanding and reduced conflict. It also enables the sharing of interesting cultural customs. Understanding different perspectives reduces the potential for misunderstanding, racism, and conflict among groups.
  • Diversity improves group decision-making. Stephen Cranston. "The argument for diversity." Financial Mail. December 4, 2009: "in the US, experiments by Scott Page of the University of Michigan found that a diverse group was better at solving complex problems than experts. The reason is that people with similar qualifications or professional training often think alike. Adding people with different skills, backgrounds and life experiences tended to improve the group's performance. And there is no doubt that the monocultural management at Anglo and Barlows was no longer appropriate in the 1990s and beyond."
  • Diversity is supplimentary to goal of fairness. While diversity is a good goal, it should be understood as secondary to the more important goal of helping blacks and minorities gain footing in an environment that continues to carry the legacy of instutitional racism. Therefore, while the diversity argument adds to the case for affirmative action, it should be understood as only part of the bigger case.
  • Schools have right to improve diversity in ways of their choosing "Affirmative Action." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. April 1, 2009: "Diversity is many things—so many things, in fact, that institutions will think it worthwhile to concentrate on some diversity factors rather than others. One college may emphasize admitting foreign students; another may make its mission to educate poor students; a third may specialize in getting science students who have shown unusual promise in high school. If colleges have a legally protected interest in choosing a diverse student body, why don't they have a legally protected interest in deciding which part of the diversity spectrum to single out for special attention? If they can single out a part of the spectrum, why can't they use a simple device like set-asides to effect their purpose?"


  • Minority schools disprove perceived value of diversity. In order for a diverse learning environment to be seen as important or necessary, minority schools (homogeneous) must be demonstrated as a bad idea. Yet, they are a widely considered a good idea, as the engender a comfortable and supportive learning environment.
  • Cultural exchange does not require diversity in workplace. When most people use the word diversity, they are usually misusing the term and actually are referring to the strength of the concept of unity and of cultural exchange. But, this can be achieved by other means than affirmative action.

Pro/con sources:



Affirmative Action is racism"

Videos pro and con.


  • Tim Wise on Intelligence Squared, November 18, 2007:[3]


  • American History X
  • "Affirmative Action: Separate But Equal". (Michigan University). Posted on YouTube May 21, 2007.[4]

See also

External links


"Ward Connerly on Fox News School Segregation". Posted on YouTube on July 5, 2007.[5]

Problem with the site? 

Tweet a bug on bugtwits