Tuesday, November 30, 2004


On Affirmative Action

For almost half a century affirmative action has been a very contentious issue in politics. It has led to bitter debates that go to the heart of society and its organization. Most of these debates have been in the United States. Affirmative action is the process of giving preferential consideration to people who have been discriminated against, usually minority groups and women, in hiring and admissions practices. It exists to distribute access to jobs and education to minorities; especially in areas that have usually been dominated by one group of society. The essential premise behind the practice is that minorities will never be properly represented the workforce and academia unless a real effort is made to reverse the trends that have caused the current unbalance, regardless of whether or not the discriminatory policies have been eradicated. The history of affirmative action is full of hotly contested initiatives for proponents and opponents of the policy and controversial decisions made by the Supreme Court and other high courts. The debate usually exposes deep ideological differences that are often irreconciliable. Both the proponents and opponents have very strong arguments. This paper will explore those arguments, compare and contrast them and show that affirmative action is neccessary to ensuring social justice in North America.

Affirmative action policies date back to 1961 begining with President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 that stated federal contractors should take "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Kennedy had been elected on a platform emphasizing civil rights during the heart of the civil rights movement. Kennedy also created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination by employees whether or not they have government contracts. The rationale for affirmative action was best summed up a year later, when President Lyndon Johnson said in a speech: "You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still believe that you have been completely fair." The U.S Supreme Court made it's first decision on affirmative action in 1978 in the Bakke vs University of California case. It supported the principle of affirmative action, as practiced by the University of California but ruled against the use of quota's in admission processes. A year later, the Supreme Court made another decision in the AFL-CIO vs Weber case allowing the use of affirmative action to counter the inbalance created by past discrimination in the workforce. During the 1980's the Supreme Court made three more decisions on affirmative action, two of them in support of it. The biggest challenges and changes occured during the 90's. President Bill Clinton explicitly supported affirmative action in 1995 and encouraged a policy of "mend it, don't end it". After decades of pro-affirmative action policies being pursued by the government there was a sudden shift in attitude. In 1995, the Equal Opportunity Act was introduced to Congress. It proposed an end to the affirmative action laws regarding government contractor's hiring practices. During that same year, the University of California banned affirmative action and a year later the state of California passed proposition 209 effectively abolishing affirmative action programs statewide. The latter part of the 1990's saw many efforts to end affirmative action and many of those efforts succeeded in many states. As recently as 2002, the administration of George W. Bush challenged the University of Michigan's Law School admittance policy of affirmative action as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court heard the case and made a decision on it in 2003 reaffirming affirmative action policies used by universities in admissions processes.

Opponents of affirmative action insist that the policy does not promote diversity and equality but actually does the opposite. If the policy is meant to remedy disadvantage then it should be based on disadvantage rather than race. As well, in special circumstances the program usually doesn't recognize the difference between for example, an underqualified middle or upper class African American student and a qualified working class Asian student. That is because Asians are disproportionately over-represented in institutions of higher education. The main problem is that racism cannot be undone by more racism. Race-conscious policies betray the color-blind society we strive for and create tensions that actually worsen the problem of discrimination. Universities should admit students based strictly on merit, including not only grades and scores but achievements in athletics, extracurricular activites, community involvement and other areas. Admission should be based on this view of merit and not race, which is not an achievement but a trait. As well, affirmative action creates a dillema for those who benefit from it. Louis P. Pojman, professor of Philosophy at the United States Military Academy, presents a common occurance in his essay, "The Case Against Affirmative Action". He states that he
"cannot help wondering on seeing a Black or woman in a position or honor, "Is she in this position because she merits it or because of Affirmative Action?" Where Affirmative Action is the policy, the "figment of pigment" creates a stigma of undeservedness, whether or not it is deserved." This circumstance neither benefits the principle of affirmative action, nor does it equate to tolerance and equality in general. Further, Pojman contends that the premise of increasing diversity is flawed. Rather Pojman contends that "Diversity for diversity's sake is moral promiscuity, since it obfuscates rational distinctions." Affirmative action has many flaws and goes against the essentials of civil rights, say the opponents, because it uses the methods and practices that the civil rights movement aimed to abolish and did.

On the other hand, the proponents of affirmative action argue that it is the best way to correct the history of racism and discrimination. The main reason to advocate affirmative action is that systemic discrimination does exist.
Recognizing that most of the inequalities in the workplace were caused by systemic discrimination, Canada's Royal Commission on Equality in employment created a systemic response to it and called it "Employment Equity". The purpose of Employment Equity, like affirmative action, is to "eliminate employment barriers for the four designated groups identified in the Employment Equity Act: women, persons with disabilities, Aboriginal people, and members of visible minorities; remedy past discrimination in employment opportunities and prevent future barriers; improve access and distribution throughout all occupations and at all levels for members of the four designated groups; foster a climate of equity in the organization." This is clearly a noble cause justified by the presence of systemic discrimination and other social and cultural barriers preventing minorities from advancement in society. Furthermore, affirmative action is only a method used to meet societal obligations on diversity and equality. For example, many medical schools in the United States have adopted affirmative action policies to promote diversity in the health-care system because of the many benefits that presents. For example, S. E. Lakhan discusses the benefits of diversity in the field of medical research: The American research agenda is primarily promoted and investigated by individuals who feel and see the problems they wish to solve. Diversifying the medical (MD) and doctoral (PhD) student pool will only broaden the research foundation of our country, especially areas of public health, biosocial, and medical concerns. Such a workforce will be equipped with the tools necessary to combat the various ailments our country faces, including racial discrimination. As well, studies indicate that minority patients are less likely to "take the doctors orders" than their white counterparts because of language and cultural barriers. (Lackhan) The social benefits of affirmative action greatly outweigh any disadvantages and problems caused by it and it is essential to meeting societal obligations on equality.

Both sides make legitamate claims, but we must look at the realities rather than the ideals that we have today. In an ideal world, all people have equal opportunity to education, employment and many other things. In an ideal world, systemic discrimination would not exist. The reality is that not all people have equal opportunity and systemic discrimination does exist. Because of previous segregation, society is faced with the issue of inner city public school systems and housing and welfare programs. It is an example of systemic discrimination when an inner city school, attended mostly by minority students, recieves less funding and produces graduates who are far behind their suburban and affluent counterparts who had access to well funded public schools that provided the proper education. Opponents of affirmative action call for merit based admissions procedures, without acknowledging that the individual that the program is geared toward cannot concievably gain the same level of merit as his or her counterpart. Some of the more realistic opponents argue that merit should not be based on SAT scores and grades but achievement in other fields including athletics, music, community programs and other various extracurricular activities. A minority, inner-city student faces the same obstacles in trying to achieve a high score on the SAT as he or she would trying to achieve merit in an extracurricular activity. Some of the inner-city schools are so under funded that they cannot provide athletics programs, community involvement programs, and other "after school" or extracurricular activities. Some of the opponents of affirmative action refuse to acknowledge the social reality. The case for absolute merit qualifications has been shown to be flawed as many minority students who benefited from the affirmative actions policies in law and med school admissions excelled once they were in the program. The reason why they were less qualified than their counterparts was because they did not have the opportunity to qualify. Idealy, affirmative action is unnecessary because all people have the same opportunities not only to gain access to all institituions, but also have the same opportunity to qualify to gain access to those institutions. Unfortunately, reality is much different. There exists a glass ceiling; just because we cannot see it, does not mean its non existent. Affirmative action is a tool for shattering this glass cieling. It is a means, not an ends; a means to achieving social justice and equality.

I hate the one word response...but I'm allowed to do it.
I have known a person who has had a bad experience with affirmative action. After listeing to this person's story I was a bit leaned against affirmative action. Your article has been very informative and it provided some logical views on the issue of affirmative action.
But I must say that, much work still needs to be done in improving the attitudes that people in affirmative action often tend to recieve. For universities specifically, it might be logical to have a special program dedicated to narrow the inherent (as you explained) lapse of academic /extracurricular achievement that the recipients of affirmative action have, so that coming out of those programs they can compete at the same level as those who haven't been accepted on the basis of affirmative action.
I will await your response.
The problem is not that the lack of extracurrical activities take away from the students ability to perform. The problem is that universities often have involvement in extracurricular activities as a prerequisite or a condition to application. Therefore, if a student has no access to these activities he/she is automatically ineligable to be accepted.

A possible solution to this problem is taking the requirement of extracurricular activities out of the application process. Unfortunately, this causes many other problems and is only one small piece of the entire debate as a whole.
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