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Affirmative Action: Pros and Cons

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Imagine for a second that you are applying to an “Ivy League” school. You have worked tirelessly to get to the top of your class. However, only the “best” candidates are selected for admission. Weeks pass by, and at long last, you receive a response letter. The word “Denied” echoes throughout your mind. You begin to think about how this could have happened. You achieved near perfect grades, participated in clubs, and worked within the community. What if you later learned that you were excluded because you didn’t have blue eyes. You would feel cheated wouldn’t you? Although this is a hypothetical, this is the kind of effect from the implementation and continued practice of affirmative action, that is being witnessed. For decades, it has unfairly favored people based on their racial, ethnic, and largely superficial traits. However reforms can be made to improve upon its current structure, without throwing out the current system entirely.

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Affirmative Action is made up of laws, guidelines, policies, and administrative practices intended to end and correct the effects of historical and systematic discrimination against underprivileged minority groups.(Feinberg) Affirmative action has been scrutinized by opponents over the last few decades. One of the main reasons for such opposition against Affirmative Action, is the belief that Affirmative Action policies actually promote reverse discrimination. Reverse discrimination involves discriminating against the majority in favor of the minority. In fact many people, like political activist Ward Connerly, argue that Affirmative Action is just another form of discrimination in itself. Although Affirmative Action seeks to aid minority groups who have been previously oppressed, it has fallen victim to perpetuating the very discrimination it sought to alleviate. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote during the Supreme Court Case Adadrand Constructors v Pena, “there is a ‘moral and constitutional equivalence’ between laws designed to subjugate a race and those that distribute benefits on the basis of race in order to foster some current notion of equality.” The summary of this quote is that there is no difference between laws that specifically punish a specific race and those that provide benefits because of race in order to grant equality.

While Affirmative Action may appear to benefit minorities, the policies are actually detrimental to all students or candidates, and doesn’t actually ensure the success of those who are supposedly being benefitted. During UCLA School of Law Professor Richard Sander’s study of law schools, he found that “affirmative action brings students into schools that are too demanding for them. As a result, they’re more likely to achieve poorly and eventually drop out. In the end, affirmative action actually decreases the number of black lawyers that law schools produce”. Due the fact that universities are not admitting minority students solely based on merit, they are allowing minority students, who are likely to fail, to take the place of students who are much more likely to succeed in that environment. This effects all demographics involved in the admission candidacy program, as those who deserve to be admitted are being excluded, and those who don’t deserve to be, at least based on the merit of their academic achievement, are being driven to failure for the purpose of diversity.

Affirmative action has also failed to reach the demographics that they supposedly want to help, at the highest levels of education. During a 2003 panel, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, and Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law Professor, made the comment that “the majority of them – perhaps as many as two-thirds – were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.” They further pointed out that “only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves.” These findings show how those intended to receive the benefits of Affirmative Action type policies are being overlooked, due to the way they are classified. The intention of the Affirmative Action policy was to aid members of groups who were previously discriminated against in the U.S.. However, the label of African-American is too broad to specify for people of African descent, who’s ancestors lived through a period in which Africans or African Americans were systematically discriminated against, whether in law or in practice, by the U.S. and its people.

The main counterarguments against the opposition of Affirmative Action is the belief that colleges and universities are providing opportunity to minorities who have been historically shut out of the system due to their race, ethnicity, etc. This belief makes sense, as in centuries prior minorities have been systematically barred from accessing higher education. It is also difficult to support the claim that the past centuries of discrimination, slavery, and segregation have not had an effect on the current structure of our society. Many believe that these historic inequalities have had a profound effect on the current advantages and privileges that some groups have over others within the U.S. In fact, that is the reason that these policies are in place in the first place.

However, it is unfair to say that every member of a specific minority group has had the same experiences, overcome the same adversities, and come from a similar background, mainly due to the generality of the terms. The Affirmative Action policies tend to operate on this assumption. In fact the arbitrary label that is applied to all minorities, no matter their socioeconomic status or background, as explained earlier, has failed to benefit those who have truly been affected by past oppression and discrimination. A significant part of these assumptions is the idea that everyone who is not a member of a previously oppressed group, has somehow benefited from the oppression of said minority groups, or at the very least has somehow gained some sort of societal advantage because of it. However there is a solution to this complicated issue. If Affirmative Action policy were to be redirected from focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, etc., and instead focused on socioeconomic status, those who are intended to receive the benefits from affirmative action would receive the focus, without alienating other equally disadvantaged groups. The new system would separate the population into several distinct groups based on income and other socioeconomic factors to prevent from excluding those who are from poorer areas, who are in fact disproportionately African or Hispanic American, without lowering the standards of academic standards. The advantage of this system is that those who are not members of a specific minority group are not placed at a disadvantage because of it. In addition to this, members of the poorer African and Hispanic communities will receive individual attention, rather than being overshadowed by other members of their demographic who are from a higher socioeconomic status. This proposal would also help highlight discrepancies in the socioeconomic status of racial and ethnic groups; which would allow us to focus on elevating the most disadvantage groups out of poverty and into a better life.

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Although our society could spend several more generations arguing the validity of the advantages that minority groups receive; especially as the memories of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement fade, we, as a society, could instead help the issue of racial and ethnic diversity by shifting the discussion away from race and ethnicity. 

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