Affirmative action is a contentious political and cultural issue within the United States, especially as it pertains to education and college admissions. The purpose of the present sample essay is to discuss the history and effects of affirmative action on education within the nation.
The essay will have four main parts. The first part will outline the basic concept of affirmative action itself.The second part will develop an overview of the history of the implementation of the concept, especially with regard to education. The third part will describe relevant data and information regarding the effects of affirmation action on education. Finally, the essay will reflect on the present state of the debate regarding this controversial policy issue.
Concept of affirmative action
To start with, the rationale for affirmative action was perhaps most clearly articulated by President Johnson (qtd. in Leadership Conference) in 1965:
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair” (paragraph 1).
The idea is that minority racial/ethnic populations within the United States, and especially the Black population, have been systematically discriminated against as a result of the explicit and implicit racism that has historically permeated American culture. Affirmative action is an effort to remedy this history by providing persons hailing from minority populations with a competitive advantage within the institutions of society. This can include, for example, establishing quotas for specific minority populations within the college admissions process.
It is worth observing that affirmative action is something more than simple non-discrimination. According to executive orders issues by Kennedy and then Johnson, there exists a positive obligation to ensure that all applicants for a given position are granted equal opportunity, irrespective of their demographic backgrounds (UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity).
This can be interpreted to mean that when making hiring/admissions decisions, it is necessary to take into account the demographic factors that may handicap certain applicants for or against success from the start, and to take measures to counterbalance these handicaps. Paradoxically, then, to ensure that demographic factors are ignored when making decisions can lead to a situation in which demographic factors are given serious consideration when making those decisions.
This is the nature of affirmative action: the idea is that since demographic biases are so built into society to start with, it is necessary to take actions that in themselves may seem somewhat bigoted, in the absence of such a broader sociological context of inequality.
History of Affirmative Action in Education
Regarding the history of affirmative action in education within the United States, Frum has written the following:
“The United States launched its reparations program to African Americans in autumn of 1969. Originally known as ‘the Philadelphia plan,’ the program set quotas for black employment in construction trades. Over the next decades, such quotas would spread from industry to industry, and would expand into higher education and public contracting” (paragraph 1).
Historically, affirmative action can be understood as one of the effects of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During that time, renewed attention was called to racial issues within the nation, and a sociological perspective was applied to the problems at hand. The logic was that since Blacks (and others) had historically suffered from a negative handicap, a positive handicap was now needed in order to level the playing field.
This ethos gradually expanded into higher education, with the usual result that admissions quotas were established regarding how many persons must be admitted from any given demographic group in order to meet the criterion of demographic fairness. Over time, though, different schools have reacted to the mandate of affirmative action in different ways.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2003, for example, that the University of Michigan could modify its admissions standards with the intent of admitting a greater number of Black and Hispanic students into its law school.
After this decision (reached in the case Grutter v. Bollinger), the University of Texas announced that
“the school would be implementing race preferences to boost . . . diversity. Under the new policy, the proportion of the student body composed of Hispanics and African Americans rose to 25%” (Heriot, paragraph 1).
This has been the nature of affirmative action in its most direct form over the course of the last several decades.
Other schools, however, have resisted the mandate of affirmative action within the context of education. In particular, the University of California has interpreted the doctrine of affirmative action to mean literally that demographic factors should just not be considered when making admissions decisions, citing an amendment to the California Constitution passed in 1996 which reads:
“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting” (paragraph 7).
This can be understood as the narrow definition of affirmative action, as originally delineated by Kennedy: it simply means that discrimination on demographic grounds is an unacceptable practice. There is no implication here that “reverse discrimination” in order to counteract historical handicaps would be any more acceptable than the original discrimination was in the first place. There is thus considerable local variation in the implementation of affirmative action.
Effects of affirmative action on education
The most obvious effect of the implementation of affirmative action in education consists of the expansion of the proportion of minority persons who compose the student body of a given institution of education. Again, the explicit purpose of affirmative action is to given persons from minority demographic populations a competitive advantage during the admissions process, on the grounds that this would be necessary in order to make the playing field level. .
It is quite self-evident that the implementation of affirmative action, anywhere, would thus achieve the objective of increasing diversity within a given organization. No one contests this point. Nor is it contested that diversity is a valuable asset for an organization. What is often contested, however, is whether affirmative action is a fair and just way to achieve this objective, and whether the policy actually does good for the people it is supposed to help.
On theory, for example, points toward a “mismatch” that affirmative action produces between academic credentials on the one hand and professional expectations on the other. As Heriot has written:
“one consequence of widespread race-preferential policies is that minority students tend to enroll in colleges and universities where their entering academic credentials put them toward the bottom of the class” (paragraph 7).
This is based on the simple fact that whereas affirmative action focuses on population-level considerations, actual academic achievement remains an eminently personal affair. Under affirmative action, a given student may be more likely to be admitted to a given university if he comes from a minority demographic background; but it does not therefore follow that that student will also be more likely to perform at a higher level because of that background.
Rather, a student with (for example) a low SAT score will usually perform academically at the level implied by that score, irrespective of his specific demographic background.
The more general concern is that affirmative action will create new injustices that are as pernicious as the ones that it was meant to address. For example, under affirmative action, it is plausible that a rich Hispanic student may be granted preferential treatment over a poor White student during the college admissions process, even though individually considered, the latter student would be relatively disadvantaged one.
Likewise, there is a risk that colleges will, in at least some cases, accept less qualified individuals while rejecting more qualified ones, with the result of a degradation in the quality of the American educational system as a whole. Again, this is based on the fundamental discrepancy between the individual nature of academic achievement, versus the population-level nature of affirmative action policies. Attempting to address the broader sociological problem in this way will almost certainly produce at least a certain number of specific unjust situations at the level of individual persons.
If this problem becomes too severe, then the policy would both lose moral legitimacy and pragmatically undermine the quality of education within the nation.
Current state of the debate over affirmative action on education
At the present time, it would seem that public opinion has turned significantly against the practice of affirmative action, even among those who would consider themselves liberal and vehemently opposed to racism. As Clegg has pointed out:
“A survey conducted last April by MTV of ‘millennials’ aged 14 to 24 found that 90 percent ‘believed that everyone should be treated the same regardless of race’—and so, unsurprisingly, 88 percent opposed affirmative action” (paragraph 2).
In a way, this indicates that the sociological dimension has more or less dropped out of consciousness for this generation. The only moral justification for affirmative action would be the suggestion that it is meant as reparations for the past. Without this broader awareness, affirmative action would clearly become a kind of racism itself. The emerging generation seems to lack that awareness and thus believes, both naively and idealistically, that all people should be treated the same, irrespective of demographic background.
Moreover, the issue of affirmative action in education may come before the Supreme Court in the relatively near future. As Lewin and Pérez-Peña have indicated,
“the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider a challenge to affirmative action at the University of Texas at Austin has universities around the country fearing that they will be forced to abandon what remains of race-based admission preferences” (paragraph 1).
Legally speaking, the main point is preferential treatment of the kind embodied in affirmative action policies may be unconstitutional, as it violates provisions regarding equal protection under the law that can be found in the Constitution of the United States. Again, considered strictly at the individual level or within the present tense, affirmative action is undeniably a kind of racism.
The only way it would not be racism would be if it is in fact counteracting an already existing (and somewhat invisible) racism. If this were not the case, then taking demographic factors into account during the college admissions process would quite simply be unjust.
In summary, the present essay has considered the history and effects of affirmative action within education in the United States. An important conclusion that has emerged here is that although affirmative action was initially meant as reparations against historical injustice, there is a growing perception that the policy itself is a form of injustice in the present.
This is partly because of a loss of awareness regarding the historical considerations that gave rise to affirmative action, and in part because of the simple and quintessentially American belief in a kind of rugged individualism. The upshot is that affirmative action should perhaps expect to run into some serious moral and legal difficulties over the coming times.
Clegg, Roger. “Affirmative Discrimination in Higher Education.” National Review. 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
Frum, David. “The Impossibility of Reparations.” Atlantic. 3 Jun. 2014. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. reparations/372041/>.
Heriot, Gail. “The Sad Irony of Affirmative Action.” National Affairs. Winter 2013. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
Leadership Conference. “Affirmative Action.” 2015. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
Lewin, Tamar, and Richard Pérez-Peña. “Colleges Brace for Supreme Court Review of Race- Based Admissions.” New York Times. 30 Jun. 2015. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. admissions.html>.
UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. “A Brief History of Affirmative Action.” 23 Jun. 2015. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .
United States. “Constitution of the United States.” The Avalon Project. 1789. Web. 24 Jul. 2015. .