12.2: Affirmative Action

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Affirmative action refers to the equitable treatment of minorities and women in employment and education. Affirmative action programs were begun in the 1960's to provide people of color and women access to jobs and education to make up for past discrimination. President John F. Kennedy was the first known official to use the term, when he signed an executive order in 1961 ordering federal contractors to “take affirmative action” in ensuring that applicants are hired and treated without regard to their race and national origin. Six years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson added sex, race and national origin as demographic categories for which affirmative action should be used. Johnson gave a very famous speech about it in 1965:

You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line, and then tell him that he's free to race against all the others and still justly believe that you have been completely fair (Le, 2001).

Although many affirmative action programs remain in effect today, court rulings, state legislation, and other efforts have limited their number and scope. Despite this curtailment, affirmative action continues to spark much controversy, with scholars, members of the public, and elected officials all holding strong views on the issue (Cohen & Sterba, 2003; Karr, 2008; Wise, 2005). One area in particular that has been a subject of much debate, is college admissions.

One of the major court rulings on affirmative action, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Allan Bakke was a 35 year old white man who had twice been rejected for admission into the medical school at the University of California, Davis. At the time he applied, UC Davis had a policy of reserving 16 seats in its entering class of 100 for qualified people of color to make up for their underrepresentation in the medical profession. Bakke’s college grades and scores on the Medical College Admission Test were higher than those of the people of color admitted to UC Davis either time Bakke applied. He sued for admission on the grounds that his rejection amounted to reverse racial discrimination on the basis of his being white (Stefoff, 2005).

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled 5–4 that Bakke must be admitted into the UC Davis medical school because he had been unfairly denied admission on the basis of his race. As part of its historic but complex decision, the Court thus rejected the use of strict racial quotas in admission as it declared that no applicant could be excluded based solely on the applicant’s race. At the same time, however, the Court also declared that race may be used as one of the several criteria that admissions committees consider when making their decisions. For example, if an institution desires racial diversity among its students, it may use race as an admissions criterion along with other factors such as grades and test scores.

The most recent debate over affirmative action came in 2014, when Students for Fair Admissions, representing a group of Asian-American students rejected by Harvard, filed a lawsuit against the University. The students challenged Harvard's admissions process, arguing that Harvard caps the number of spots available to Asian students and claiming that the only way to truly ensure that Asian Americans stand an equal chance in admissions is if race is completely removed from the process. In 2019 a federal judge ruled that Harvard could legally consider a person’s race in the application process to create a more diverse student body, thus upholding affirmative action. The case was appealed by Students for Fair Admissions, and is expected to go before the Supreme Court.

Opponents of affirmative action cite several reasons for opposing it. Affirmative action, they say, is reverse discrimination and, as such, is both illegal and immoral. Opponents of affirmative action argue that the people benefiting from affirmative action are less qualified than many of the whites with whom they compete for employment and college admissions. In addition, opponents say, affirmative action implies that the people benefiting from it need extra help and thus are indeed less qualified. This implication stigmatizes the groups benefiting from affirmative action.

In response proponents of affirmative action give several reasons for favoring it. Many say it is needed to make up not just for past discrimination and lack of opportunities for people of color but also for ongoing discrimination and lack of opportunity. For example, because of their social networks, whites are much better able than people of color to find out about and to get jobs (Reskin, 1998). If this is true, people of color are automatically at a disadvantage in the job market, and some form of affirmative action is needed to give them an equal chance at employment. Proponents also say that affirmative action helps add diversity to the workplace and to the campus. Many colleges, they note, give some preference to high school students who live in a distant state in order to add needed diversity to the student body; to “legacy” students—those with a parent who went to the same institution—to reinforce alumni loyalty and to motivate alumni to donate to the institution; and to athletes, musicians, and other applicants with certain specialized talents and skills. If all of these forms of preferential admission make sense, proponents say, it also makes sense to take students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds into account as admissions officers strive to have a diverse student body. Further, proponents argue that claims of reverse discrimination are emotion-based not fact-based.

Proponents add that affirmative action has indeed succeeded in expanding employment and educational opportunities for people of color, and that individuals benefiting from affirmative action have generally fared well in the workplace or on the campus. In this regard research finds that African American students graduating from selective U.S. colleges and universities after being admitted under affirmative action guidelines are slightly more likely than their white counterparts to obtain professional degrees and to become involved in civic affairs (Bowen & Bok, 1998).

As this brief discussion indicates, several reasons exist for and against affirmative action. A cautious view is that affirmative action may not be perfect but that some form of it is needed to make up for past and ongoing discrimination and lack of opportunity in the workplace and on the campus. Without the extra help that affirmative action programs give disadvantaged people of color, the discrimination and other difficulties they face are certain to continue. The timeline of U.S. Supreme Court decisions pertaining to affirmative action provides an understanding of how the Court has shaped affirmative action policy and practice - and will likely continue to do so in the future.