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Debate: Affirmative action

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Is Affirmative Action education legislation in the United States a good idea?


Background and Context of Debate:

Compensation: Is affirmative action justified as compensation for past wrongs to a group?


Affirmative action helps compensate groups for past wrongs such as institutional racism and level the playing field: If past wrongs have a legacy that live on today in the form of continued disadvantages, affirmative action helps alter those obstacles and correct past wrongs. Because disadvantages often perpetuate themselves in a vicious cycle, affirmative action helps give the disadvantaged traction to fight off their disadvantages and end the cyclical legacy of past wrongs. Once the playing field is leveled, than the need for affirmative action no longer exists.

Affirmative action is the only way to level the playing field now:

  • Past historical discrimination severely limited access to educational opportunities and job experiences.[1]
  • Ostensible measures of "merit" may well be biased toward the same groups who are already empowered.[2]
  • Regardless of overt principles, people in positions of power are likely to hire people they already know or people from similar backgrounds, or both.[3]

Affirmative Action actually enables the selection of highly qualified candidates that only appear less qualified due to their systemic exclusion: Affirmative Action actually ensures that, on average, the best candidate is selected precisely because affirmative action systematically includes individuals from groups that are otherwise systematically excluded. That is, since individuals in such groups are — in the absence of affirmative action — systematically excluded, and since the groups are composed of individuals that are otherwise equal to others, such groups have a higher proportion of qualified candidates precisely because they are normally excluded. Therefore selecting candidates from the excluded groups yields, on average, a greater number of qualified individuals. Accordingly, the increased mathematical probability of generally selecting more qualified candidates from the groups targeted for affirmative action will decline as candidates are recruited from the targeted groups.


Argument:Many groups that have been victims of institutional racism are actually harmed by affirmative action instead of compensated: 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. It is also defeats the notion of compensation for past injustices, as only some groups are compensated, while others are subject to further injury. This makes the desired effect arbitrary in practice.

Using affirmative action to remove discrimination is counterproductive because it requires the very discrimination it is seeking to eliminate: It promotes prejudice by increasing the resentment of those who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action from those who have been adversely affected by the policy. Therefore, it simply shifts the prejudice from one group to another, which does not resolve the problem of racism.

Economic or educational disadvantage is what's important, not race: 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.

An ethnic group today should not be blamed and held accountable for the wrongs of their ancestors: Affirmative action opponents also typically argue that those who suffer on account of affirmative action (ie. those who don't get the job or who don't get admitted to a particular university) should not be held accountable for crimes they did not commit; in other words, that most people of the present were not a part of the system that oppressed such minorities.

The rights of one group should not be sacrificed to benefit the rights of another groups: The opponents argue, since all people have equal rights, no individual's rights should be sacrificed to compensate for another person's rights being taken away.

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Affirmative action results in less qualified and effective candidates filling positions, resulting in lower economic productivity for companies and a nation:

Affirmative action may damage the ethos of those that are more qualified, yet lose out to affirmative action candidates: For example, one may be very qualified for a certain job, but may be turned down in favor of a person who is less qualified but is targeted for affirmative action in that certain job. If occurring on a grand scale, the country will lose speed in its advances. Each of those individuals turned down will be repressed and their example might dampen the spirits of those like them, just as it had done to past social groups.

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Notable opponents include Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute, who has promoted and won a series of ballot initiatives in the states of California (California Proposition 209 (1996)), Washington (1998 - I-200), and Michigan (the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative - MCRI, or Proposal 2, 2006). California's initiative was co-authored by academics Tom Wood and Glynn Custred in the mid-1990s and was taken up by Connerly after he was appointed in 1994 by Governor Pete Wilson to the University of California Board of Regents. Each of the ballot initiatives have won, and Connerly plans what he calls a "Super-Tuesday" of five additional states in 2008.

Notable academics such as Professor Carl Cohen of the University of Michigan, who was a supporter of Michigan's Proposal 2, has argued that the term "affirmative action" should be defined differently than "race preference," and that while socio-economically based or anti-discrimination types of affirmative action are permissible, those that give preference to individuals solely based on their race or gender should not be permitted. Cohen also helped find evidence in 1996 through the Freedom of Information Act that lead to the cases filed by Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter against the University of Michigan for its undergraduate and law admissions policy - cases which were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2003.


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