Students at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

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Should Affirmative Action Be Eliminated?

The phrase “affirmative action” refers to preferences based on race that have been used in education and employment since the mid-1960s to compensate for the effects of past discrimination. It’s long been a controversial idea; opponents have argued that preferences for minorities in school admissions and hiring have the effect of discriminating against whites. Federal courts are currently considering an important legal challenge to affirmative action: A group of Asian-American students is suing Harvard University, claiming that its affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants. Whatever the court decides, the case could eventually end up before the Supreme Court, where a decision could have a broad impact on the future of affirmative action.

Here two experts—one from a conservative think tank that focuses on race issues and the other from an organization that promotes civil rights for black Americans—face off on whether affirmative action should be eliminated.

Affirmative action is a system that treats school or job applicants differently based on race or ethnicity. That’s called discrimination, and the costs of this kind of discrimination are much higher than any potential benefit.

The unfairness of this system is particularly evident in college admissions. A system in which applicants of different races or ethnicities are judged on different scales means that better-qualified candidates with the “wrong” skin color or ancestry will sometimes be rejected in favor of those with the “right” racial or ethnic credentials.

This inevitably creates resentment and divisions. If students are wondering if their classmates were admitted over more-qualified applicants largely on the basis of their race, that hardly creates a supportive learning environment in which people of different backgrounds can learn from each other.

It also stigmatizes those students who owe their place in the class, at least partly, to their race or ethnicity. Classmates and professors may be forced to wonder if they measure up to their peers. It may even force minority students to question their own abilities: Am I here because I’m African-American or because I’m talented and have something to contribute?  

The other crazy thing about affirmative action in college admissions is that some minorities are now favored over others. For example, Hispanic and African-American students are given preference over Asian-Americans.

Affirmative action is a form of discrimination that creates divisions.

The primary rationale for affirmative action has traditionally been that it’s a way to address our nation’s history of discrimination. In 2018, this no longer makes sense. People receiving admission preferences today, after all, were born around 2000: They’re not former slaves, nor were they even alive in the Jim Crow era. In fact, many of today’s African-American college applicants don’t even come from disadvantaged backgrounds.   

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts put it best when he said in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

—ROGER CLEGG

President, Center for Equal Opportunity

Affirmative action was not created as a way for African-Americans, Latinos, or Asian-Americans to get an unfair advantage over their white peers. It’s a mechanism to level the playing field and create equal opportunity for people of color following decades of oppression.

For far too long, fully qualified Americans were excluded from access to opportunities in education and the workplace because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender.

The harmful effects of this kind of historical prejudice have been passed down from generation to generation and still linger in American society, creating startling gaps in achievement. For example, African-American men earn 75 cents for every dollar their white male counterparts earn; Hispanic women earn just 54 cents for every dollar earned by a white man doing the same job. These numbers make clear why the U.S. still needs affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a way to compensate for historical disadvantages.

Furthermore, affirmative action has economic benefits that go beyond the groups it’s intended to help. Research shows that cultural diversity in the workplace can lead to increased productivity, more creativity, and higher profits for a company. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education has found that increasing diversity in schools leads to more long-term success for students both in school and in jobs.

A common argument against affirmative action is that schools and employers ought to be race blind. However, being race blind also means being blind to the many historical and systemic forms of oppression that have led to the limited opportunities many minorities face today.

The Supreme Court has ruled time and time again that affirmative action policies are consistent with our Constitution, so there’s no legal reason to end the policy. In our journey to become a society defined by inclusion and equality, we ought to foster efforts to promote diversity, not hinder them.

—DERRICK JOHNSON

President & CEO, NAACP

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