Is Affirmative Action a Racist Policy?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Mario Tama
Affirmative action originally came about in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  This was meant to eliminate race and gender discrimination from education and the workplace, yet many see affirmative action as a policy contributing to reverse-racism. With racial tensions escalating today, the affirmative action debate has been sparked anew. Does affirmative action protect the disadvantaged, or is it a veiled conduit for other kinds of discrimination?
Here are three reasons why affirmative action is racist, and three reasons why not.


Affirmative action is reverse-racist


Makes the wrong assumptions

Affirmative action favors non-whites on the faulty assumption that every white person is well-off, and every person of color is poor. Empirical findings from the Hoover Institution support the claim that this policy around the world actually helps upper- and middle-class students from minority backgrounds rather than the less fortunate. This neither aids the disadvantaged towards whom affirmative action was intended, nor equally favors the applications of poor white applicants. To truly even the playing field, admissions preferences should be given on the basis of disadvantage – not on the basis of race.


Not all minorities are protected

Not all minorities are protected under affirmative action; in fact, some are actually negatively impacted from of it. A study from Princeton University found that, due to universities’ racially based acceptance policies, Asians have an automatic disadvantage in comparison to other students that is equivalent to a loss of 50 SAT points. Not only are Asians required to have higher scores than other minority candidates, but they also need to outperform whites at an equivalent academic level to get accepted to schools. This undermines the efficacy of the SAT as a tool by which to evaluate candidates for acceptance. It also goes against the logic of what affirmative action is trying to do. Additionally, unlike whites, Asians haven’t been past victimizers of blacks and Hispanics, and so the compensation-for-past-abuses argument is null and void. With affirmative action, Asians are unduly discriminated against.


Insulting to the disadvantaged

While affirmative action was intended to help those with a history of suffering prejudice, racial discrimination isn’t properly rectified when favoring one group (minorities) over another (whites). In fact, biased selection policies may fuel resentment and stigmatization towards minorities from those who believe they hold position in the workplace or university due to policy rather than merit. Theories that there is a correlation between intelligence and skin color have been debunked, rendering affirmative action programs more of an insult to underprivileged groups than an asset.



Affirmative action counteracts racism


Counteracts implicit bias

Affirmative action counteracts internal bias, by forcing administrators to examine their own implicit prejudice and consider the achievements and qualifications of students they might have otherwise neglected to look at. While an uncomfortable truth about the human condition, there’s evidence that the majority of people have biases that lie below conscious awareness. These stereotypes are said to have been developed as a way to lessen the cognitive “work” we have to do when meeting new people, and often extend to race. For example, studies measuring reaction time have found that people of all races associate black faces with bad concepts more quickly than they do white faces and bad concepts. Affirmative action, therefore, provides a way to keep these biases in check.


Ensures diversity

Since affirmative action was instituted, the number of minority applications to university has starkly increased. Conversely, banning the policy from universities hurts black and Hispanic enrollment by a decrease of over 20%. Studies have shown that changing from race-based admissions to socioeconomic status-based admissions yield a sharp decline of black representation in top-tier law schools. In addition to balancing racial inequality, affirmative action provides a more diverse – and therefore, intellectually stimulating – classroom, enhancing the university experience for all. Keeping college classrooms diverse is a win-win for students of all walks of life, irrelevant of race.


Compensates for privilege

Life is a marathon, but minority runners often start the race from further back than do whites. The fact is that people are not born onto even playing fields, and race often widens the divide between competitors. Affirmative action is a kind of compensatory justice, by making up for America’s history of racial discrimination and giving minorities a leg up. This was President Johnson’s thinking when he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, allowing African Americans to exercise their right to vote. As he stated: “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…’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” This policy helps give minorities the necessary boost to bring them to the starting line where privileged people already stand.


Bottom line: Affirmative action gives minorities a better chance of moving up in the world and enhances institutional environments, yet it may come at the expense of other equally deserving people. How has the policy impacted you?

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