Americans have a long and troubled relationship with race, and a similarly troubled history when it comes to discussing race. Many contend that America is now a post-racial society-- indeed, a biracial man has achieved the highest office possible in the nation. However, research suggests that racism and privilege has not disappeared in the United States, it has merely taken on new forms and now wears a different guise.
Affirmative action is a type of public policy that is designed to circumvent the disadvantages that minority individuals have traditionally felt in American society-- often, affirmative action policies are put in place to ensure that certain types of public institutions are comprised of a representative mix of racial and ethnic groups (Dale). Although it has problematic areas when it comes to implementation, affirmative action is a flawed but necessary type of public policy, and should be perpetuated and modified, not done away with completely.
Currently, affirmative action laws in the United States require that public institutions such as universities, public agencies, and government agencies employ protected groups in similar proportions to those within their respective constituency (Dale). The roots of affirmative action stretch as far back as the 1950s, when the government was in the process of desegregating the schools in the South (Leonhardt).
In 2003, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of affirmative action in universities, and released a decision stating that affirmative action policies that concerned race, gender, ethnicity, and other so-called “protected classes” were allowed. The Court ruled that they were allowed because “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today” (Slater). Whether or not America will be a post-racial society in twenty-five years is another discussion entirely-- however, it should be noted that the Supreme Court did find evidence that racial discrimination in the public sphere is still present enough to uphold affirmative action policies in public institutions (Slater).
The problem with affirmative action policies are many, and to properly discuss the issue, they should be addressed. First, race is one of the legally protected classes in the United States (Slater). This means that discriminating against anyone on the basis of race is an illegal act under federal law (Dale). There is a legal question, then, presented when federal law also allows for race to be a consideration in admissions and hiring practices to ensure that more minorities are represented in education and employment.
However, in the legal sense it is not unheard of for the Supreme Court to allow exceptions to federal law in certain cases when the benefits outweigh the problems of the exception. In this case, there is systematic discrimination against minorities in American society; affirmative action, therefore, is designed to offset this discrimination and the historical discrimination that minorities in American society have faced.
There is a pervasive myth among individuals who do not support affirmative action that says that to create a society where racism is eradicated, colorblind policies must be enacted across the entirety of society. However, colorblind policies do not necessarily ensure that the society is colorblind. In education, for instance, a color blind admissions process will often favor white students because white students are more likely to have earlier educational opportunities that will put them ahead of minorities and individuals of lower socioeconomic status.
This does not mean that non-minorities that are qualified will necessarily lose out if affirmative action policies are continued, as well. Qualified candidates, regardless of race, are considered under affirmative action policies. These policies affect similarly-qualified candidates, but do not remove anyone’s opportunities at success. The Understanding Prejudice website points out, “Government statistics do not support this myth. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, there are 2.6 million unemployed Black civilians and 114 million employed White civilians (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). Thus, even if every unemployed Black worker in the United States were to displace a White worker, only 2% of Whites would be affected” (Understandingprejudice.com). There is also the fact that affirmative action policies only apply to individuals who are qualified for the job or spot at the educational institution; an individual who is qualified will never be displaced by one who is unqualified.
Another common argument against affirmative action states that affirmative action harms women and minorities because it does not allow them to succeed on their own merits, instead giving them an unfair “leg up” on their competition (Understandingprejudice.com). Women and members of minority groups, however, are still very underpaid compared to white males with the same qualifications and job titles. To eliminate this employment gap, historical and society-wide discrimination and racism must be taken into account when designing employment policies (Dale).
The future of affirmative action is unknown. The Supreme Court has upheld the policies in the past, but the makeup of the Court has changed in the years since that decision was made; a more conservative Court is currently in session, and may rule in favor of overturning the precedent if the case comes before them. The decision was very closely split the last time it was made in 2003, so any decision that is made could be hotly contested (Leonhardt).
Affirmative action is a hotly contested issue in American politics, but very few outside the legal world truly understand the issues that must be addressed to properly discuss affirmative action policies. While there are many arguments that are made against affirmative action policies, it seems that they are mostly founded in a misunderstanding of the law and the policies that surround the law.
Affirmative action does not work all the time, and there are always exceptions that are not in need of affirmative action policies but benefit anyway. However, when weighing the benefits to society, affirmative action policies seem to do more good than harm. Without these policies, it may take even longer to create a society that does not have any need for affirmative action.
Chen, Stephanie. "Does your name shape your destiny?." CNN, May 26. 2010: Print.
Dale, Charles V.. Federal Affirmative Action Law: A Brief History. Congressional Research Service, 2005. Print.
Leonhardt, David. "Rethinking Affirmative Action." The New York Times, October 13. 2012: Print.
Marger, Martin N. Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives. S.l: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.
Slater, Dan. "Does Affirmative Action Do What It Should?." The New York Times, March 16. 2013: Print.
Understandingprejudice.org. "UnderstandingPrejudice.org: Ten Myths About Affirmative Action." 2009. Web. 10 Apr 2013.