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In its tumultuous forty year history, affirmative action has been both praised and attacked as an answer to racial inequality. The policy was introduced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as a method of redressing discrimination that persisted despite civil right efforts and constitutional guarantees. After the passage of Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, President Johnson shaped affirmative action through the passage of Executive Order 11246 in 1965. The executive order requires government contractors to "take affirmative action" toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment.
On college campuses nation wide, the debate over affirmative action policies started with the implementation of Title VII. Many viewed affirmative action programs as a tool that would not only expand the opportunities of minorities but also play a significant role in diversifying America’s colleges and universities. However, in the late 1970’s, despite its good intentions, flaws in the policy began to show up. Reverse discrimination became an issue, exemplified by the Regents of California vs. Bake case in 1978.
Allan Bakke, a white applicant, had been denied admission twice to the University of California Medical School at Davis, while less qualified minority students were being accepted. The medical school had separate admission policies for minority students and reserved and certain amount of spaces specifically for minorities. Bakke had felt that he had been discriminated against and maintained that his rejection violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment, so he took the University of California Regents to the Supreme Court of California. The Supreme Court ruled that while race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, the use of quotas as the medical school had set aside was not.
The most important affirmative action decisions since the Bakke decision were in the landmark 2003 cases involving University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs. Two cases, first tried in 2000 and 2001, were involved: Gratz v. Bollinger, which challenged the University of Michigan's undergraduate admission’s policy and Grutter v. Bollinger which challenged its law school admission’s policy. As Bakke had done before, both Gratz and Grutter challenged the constitutionality of the University’s admission policy, which they argued, was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the fourteenth amendment. The Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.
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While the Supreme Court did put certain limitations on how much of a factor race can play within the admission process, it essentially upheld the legality of affirmative action. Today, the majority of both private and public universities use race as a consideration when selecting their students. The justifications given for implementing affirmative action programs vary widely.
One of the most common of these justifications is that affirmative action programs amend the negative effects of past discrimination by providing equal chances and opportunities to minorities. Numerous research studies have proven that education continues to be “the most powerful vehicle for achievement.” As one public policy researcher stated, “Increasingly the dividing line between those who are moving ahead and those who are moving behind is the educational link. Those who get it have a chance. And those who don’t get it don’t have a chance” (“Redeeming the American Promise,”1995).Supporters of affirmative action argue that these programs ensure that all people receive the same opportunity for higher education. For a variety of socioeconomic reasons, minorities are often at a disadvantage when they enter into the application process. Affirmative action programs seek to “level the playing field” for all Americans and expand equal opportunity admissions for students who historically have been excluded.
Advocates of affirmative action policies also maintain that these policies advance racial and ethnic diversity and improve the education of all students. In the last forty years, largely due to the implementation of affirmative action programs, minority representation on college campuses has dramatically increased. In one of the most thorough studies of student outcomes, psychologist Patricia Gurin found “strong evidence that diversity in higher education settings yields important benefits for all students, including minorities.” Gurin analyzed data collected from over 9,000 students nationwide from nearly 200 colleges and universities. For students who reported greater classroom diversity and interactions with students from different backgrounds, Gurin found: increased scores on a critical thinking test, greater intellectual self confidence and engagement, and a higher level of motivation to understand the perspectives of others. Jerry Kang, a professor at University of California at Las Angeles, defends affirmative action stating that it “allows for social interaction in an otherwise [racially] segregated world, which in turn allows us to break down our misconceptions and prejudices.” Kang as well as other advocates argue that there is substantial value in diversity and without affirmative action programs this diversity is less likely to occur.
Another justification is that affirmative action decreases racial stereotypes. Defenders of affirmative action policies argue that these policies dilute outdated stereotypes by helping minorities achieve non-stereotypical positions or status. Kang also writes that , “seeing minorities in such esteemed educational positions, jars all of us, regardless of race, out of old habits of thought and expectation.”
One of the more common criticisms of affirmative action policies, which was debated in the Bakke, Grtuz, and Grutter cases, is that the use of racial preferences in the admissions process is unconstitutional. Opponents maintain that affirmative action policies are in direct violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The argument made is that affirmative action policies deny non-minorities equal treatment and are, therefore, unconstitutional.
Many opponents of affirmative action also feel that racial preferences in the admissions process are morally unjust and are essentially a solid example of reverse discrimination. Racial discrimination as defined in the Webster’s Dictionary is as follows: to make distinctions in treatment; to show partiality or prejudice due to one’s race. Affirmative action programs allow minorities with fewer qualifications than that of non-minorities gain entry into certain colleges and universities due to their race. Former Florida congressman, Charles Canady, described affirmative action as “dressed-up discrimination,” in a speech he delivered on the topic of racial equality. Canady declared that affirmative action programs, “deny opportunities to individuals solely because they are members of non preferred race, gender, or ethnic group.” He went on to state, “By locking deserving whites and Asians out of jobs and schools to make room for minorities with much weaker records, affirmative action exemplifies discrimination.” The basic argument is that affirmative action discriminates against the non- minority applicant.
Another argument against affirmative action is that it, in fact, harms minority students by putting them into schools that they are unprepared for. The effect of racial preferences at selective colleges guarantees that students are placed at least one level ahead of where they would have been competitive. Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, “Minority students, who were perfectly capable of excelling in good colleges, have been artificially turned into failures by being admitted into high pressure where only the most exemplary students can succeed.”
A final criticism is that racial preferences in college admissions lowers the academic quality of the college. By admitting students with fewer qualifications because they are minorities, the college or university is turning down more qualified students. It is only logical then to assume that this would lower the quality of the school.