The Perspective on Affirmative Action

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Mario Tama
*Updated 2020
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. In fact, since the 1970s, the constitutionality and legality of affirmative action programs have continually been challenged and ten states have banned affirmative action programs. With racial tensions escalating today in America, 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 it is 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 people from minority backgrounds rather than  in the general population. In the context of higher education, this neither aids the disadvantaged towards whom affirmative action was intended, nor equally favors the applications of poor white applicants. To truly even the academic playing field, university 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 equally protected under affirmative action; in fact, some are actually negatively impacted because of it. A study from Princeton University found that, due to universities’ race-based acceptance policies, Asian-Americans are required to have higher SAT scores than other minority candidates, but they also need to outperform whites at an equivalent academic level to get accepted to schools. This has long been recognized as discrimination that favors other minority groups over Asian-Americans, which goes against the logic of what affirmative action is trying to do. With affirmative action, it can be argued that Asian-Americans are unduly discriminated against, despite what the courts decide in cases like the 2019 one against Harvard.


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. This is especially the case when whites and other groups feel like their own rights – or chances of admissions at top schools like Yale – are being violated.

Affirmative action counteracts racism


Counteracts implicit bias

Affirmative action counteracts internal bias. 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 alert us to our own biases and to keep them in check. Doing so thus helps us remain loyal to the values of tolerance that bind us.


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.

Today, in a show of loyalty to their respective groups, minorities throughout the US are stepping up to advocate for more opportunities for better representation. For instance, in California, repealing a long-held ban on affirmative action regarding race-based admissions to the state’s public universities is on the ballot in November 2020. A recent study asserts that this ban has hurt Black and Hispanic students’ odds of attending and finishing university – and therefore earning well after college.


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.


The 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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