Issue Report: Affirmative action

Is affirmative action good public policy?

“Affirmative action” involves steps being taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—affirmative action generates intense controversy. In the United States, affirmative action had its origin with president John F Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, which mandated “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Various changes to US law such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Revised Philadelphia plan have given minorities and women some additional support as compared to other races. In addition, several Supreme Court cases (Griggs v. Duke Power Comp., Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) reaffirmed affirmative action and ruled against institutions which did not give preference when they were supposed to. Opponents have interpreted things differently, pointing out that the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 advocates a “race-blind” approach in which “[n]o person…shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The intense debate that has occurred in recent decades in the United States and around the world has fallen along the lines of the subquestions listed below.
See Wikipedia’s Affirmative Action article, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more background.

Equal opportunity: Is Affirmative Action necessary to achieve equal opportunity?

Affirmative action is only way to level playing field

There are many ways in which society is unequal today, and which cannot change without institutional help: 1. Past historical discrimination severely limited access to educational opportunities and job experiences. 2. Ostensible measures of “merit” may well be biased toward the same groups who are already empowered. 3. Regardless of overt principles, people in positions of power are likely to hire people they already know or people from similar backgrounds, or both. This means that racism may not change on its own, and requires an institutional approach such as affirmative action to level the playing field.

Anomaly of "poor white Appalachian" less important than broad racism

Opponents of Affirmative Action argue that it is unfair to the “poor white male from Appalachia” to give the wealthy black neurosurgeon’s son an advantage in school admittance. Yet, the problem with this idea is that ignores the fact that there are for more poor blacks as a result of institutional racism. This relative disadvantage of blacks is what drives the need for affirmative action. As Charles R. Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda write in their 1997 book “We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action”: “All the talk about class, the endless citings of the ‘poor white male from Appalachia,’ cannot avoid the reality of race and gender privilege.”

Going to top universities is more important than good grades

The basic argument here is that, in order to advance higher in life, the stamp of a top university is more important than the performance of a student in that university. Therefore, it is more important for a minority student to attend a top university even if it means that they will be nearer the bottom of their class.

Predominantly black schools offer fewer AP classes

An ‘A” grade in an AP class is counted as a 4.5 by some universities, making it possible for a student who takes all AP classes and gets all A’s to get a 4.5. Yet, predominantly black schools offer far fewer AP classes, making it harder for exceptional black students to compete against the grades that exceptional white and Asian students are able to muster.

Affirmative action is discrimination by another name.

Affirmative action discriminates against non-minorities in order to compensate non-minorities. This is institutional discrimination.

Laws should be "race-blind" to counter discrimination

Because Affirmative Action descriminates against non-minorities, it is wrong and should be replaced by “race blind” laws that give no consideration at all to race, background, religion, or any other factors other than merit.

Affirmative action does more harm than good to minorities

Asian and Jewish Americans are an example of this, where they have been victims of institutional racism (and continue to be victims of forms of racism and prejudice), but whom are harmed by affirmative action since it benefits largely black and Hispanic populations. This disproportionate effect is perverse and counter-productive considering that the intent of affirmative action is to eliminate discrimination.

Affirm action wrongly considers race over econ/edu factors

Economic or educational disadvantages do not necessarily correlate to those of a particular racial/ethnic status. There are many examples of wealthy well educated black youths that have experienced every society advantage there is. There are also examples of white youths that have lived in economic and educational squaller. If it is economic and educational disadvantages that are the problem, why not focus in affirmative action on these criteria instead of race and ethnicity.

Affirm action mismatches bad students with difficult classes

By admitting minority students who are less qualified than their peers into more rigorous programs wherein they cannot keep up. UCLA School of Law professor Richard Sander wrote several papers on this occurring in both the law schools themselves and in law firms.[1]

Affirmative action lowers value of degrees earned by minorities:

Affirmative action creates an impression or a concern that black individuals that earn a particular degree, do so with the help of affirmative action, rather than by their own merits. This diminishes the value that job-seekers and society place on these degrees, relative to ones earned by non-minorities who did not have the help of Affirmative Action.

Meritocracy: Is it OK that Affirmative Action contradicts notions of meritocracy?

Affirmative action allows the best to rise by countering systemic exclusion

Affirmative Action actually ensures that, on average, the best candidate is selected precisely because affirmative action systematically includes individuals from groups that are otherwise systematically excluded.

Affirmative action makes race only a small "plus" for candidates

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Affirmative Action". October 10th, 2007

“racial or ethnic background, at Harvard, might be deemed a ‘plus’ in a particular applicant’s file, yet it does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.…This kind of program treats each applicant as an individual in the admissions process. The applicant who loses out on the last available seat to another candidate receiving a “plus” on the basis of ethnic background will not have been foreclosed from all consideration for that seat simply because he was not the right color or had the wrong surname. It would mean only that his combined qualifications…did not outweigh those of the other applicant. His qualifications would have been weighed fairly and competitively, and he would have had no basis to complain of unequal treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Affirmative action contradicts the notion of meritocracy

In a meritocracy, equal opportunity is essential. Every individual must have the equal opportunity to demonstrate their merit, and gain reward on the basis of that merit. Yet, Affirmative Action creates race as a factor in providing individuals with rewards. Instead of earning a reward such as a certain high paying job through merit, Affirmative Action opens the potential that race will be the determining factor for that reward being assigned to an individual. It makes unequal access to opportunities, violating both the notion of equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Affirmative action promotes mediocrity by undermining meritocracy.

Affirmative action undermines meritocracy by placing other considerations above merit. This subsequently promotes mediocrity by underming the incentive of the best minds to work hard and achieve, as their efforts may be for not under such a system.

Affirm action fills key jobs with less productive individuals.

Affirmative action results in less qualified and effective candidates filling positions, resulting in lower economic productivity for companies and a nation.

Affirmative action damages ethos of more qualified non-minorities

Affirmative action damages the ethos and confidence of non-minority individuals who work hard to try and achieve in the world. It risks causing them to work with less passion and vigor, as they might as “what’s the point, somebody else who is not working as hard will probably get the job?”

Justice: Does affirmative action justly compensate past wrongs?

Affirmative action justly compensates groups for past wrongs

It is important for injustices to be redressed. Slavery and institutionalized racism have not been redressed yet in America and around the world. In order for justice to be served, it is necessary for the main losers of racism in America (blacks) to be compensated for their loses through affirmative action.

Affirmative action only deprives whites of unearned opportunities

Michel Rosenfeld. “Affirmative Action and Justice: A Philosophical Inquiry.” New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press. (1991): “affirmative action plan is precisely tailored to redress the losses in prospects of success [by blacks and women] attributable to racism and sexism, it only deprives innocent white males of the corresponding undeserved increases in their prospects of success….”

Affirm action justly asks whites to sacrifice for common good

It is common in democracy for different citizens to take up unequal burdens to achieve certain social goods. Progressive taxes are a good example of this. Affirmative Action adopts the same notion of assigning certain unequal burdens to some currently privileged groups in order to achieve a greater level of equality.

Affirmative action wrongly takes from one group to give to another

Punishing one group in order to compensate another is inherently wrong, particularly when the wrongs are generations in the past. This is what is happening in the case of affirmative action. Whites are being deprived of opportunities simply on the basis of the color of their skin and how that relates to past injustices done by their white ancestors to blacks (or other minorities). This action of taking from one group to give to another is wrong.

No group should benefit or be punished for ancestral wrongs.

Given that most people in the current generations have never been harmed individually or unequally by government (in the sense of institutionalized racism, it is impossible to compensate them for harms that never occurred to them personally. Affirmative action wrongly attempts to perform such compensation.

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