Affirmative action: the issues in the US

Affirmative action is designed to help give disadvantaged students equal opportunities, but not everyone agrees with current policies.

In the United States, affirmative action has been a part of many universities’ enrolment for several decades.

The term refers to policies which favour typically disadvantaged groups, with African Americans the most common intended beneficiaries. The end goal is to ensure that the diversity of society is reflected on campus.

Though very few would deny that helping disadvantaged students gain access to higher education was a good thing, these policies have attracted the ire of many students and observers, who think that the policies no longer counteract inequality, but actually cause it.

One student who thinks so is Abigail Fisher, a young Texan who was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin.

While the top 10% of students in the state are guaranteed entry into the state’s public university system, those who lie just outside this range are subject to a range of considerations, which include race.

Fisher, who is white, believes this is unfair and began a lawsuit which has since got as far as the American Supreme Court – potentially making it a landmark case.

Affirmative action: does it favour one minority over another?

Another headline grabbing challenge is eye-catching as it comes from a minority group – interesting as it is minority students who are supposed to benefit from affirmative action.

However, a number of groups representing Asian-Americans have complained that the system has ended up discriminating against them.

The explanation for this is that students belonging to this demographic often perform better than average, therefore any sort of action that favours another group will result in a smaller proportion of Asian-American candidates being admitted.

Therefore, these groups are lobbying for the end of any sort of race-conscious admission.

One of these groups is the 80-20 National Asian-American Educational Foundation. A spokesperson for the organization commented that, “Policies can produce unintended consequences.

“Worse, a policy that was intended to help minorities for historic wrongs can be executed in a way that made the smallest minority in America, Asian-Americans, the most discriminated against in entering work places and in elite colleges.”

The spokesperson referred to Princeton sociologist, Thomas Espenshade, who found that Asian-Americans need to score 140 points more than whites on their SATs in order to enter elite colleges.

It should be noted however, that not all Asian-American groups are of this standpoint, arguing that affirmative action policies aren’t really the problem, and often benefit Asian-American students.

Affirmative action at universities: economic mobility

Other arguments against race-conscious admission focus on the fact that they no longer really aid the students who really need it.

It has been commonly noted that the African-Americans who benefit most often from policies tend to belong to a relatively privileged part of society, and perhaps are not really the people who really need affirmative action the most.

Instead, the argument goes, it should focus on students from lower economic brackets, who might be the first in their family to attend university.

This, they argue, is a win-win situation, as it will go a long way to help those African-American students who are really in need of affirmative action, as well students belonging to other demographics.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation (a research organization which looks as economic, political and social issues), is a proponent of this approach.

“Research today suggests that [the group of people disadvantaged through their] economic status is about seven times as large as [that of those disadvantaged by] race, so as a matter of fairness, affirmative action programs should be aimed at giving a leg up to promising economically disadvantaged students of all races.”

This approach is popular with those who think economic social mobility should be a priority, who point to the progress made in this regard in states such as California, where race-based affirmative action is not allowed.

It has been found that these policies do serve to increase the number of minority students enrolled at any given institution, although to a slightly lesser extent than purely raced based admissions policies.

Other beneficiaries of affirmative action

There is another layer of depth to the argument as expressed by Melissa McEwan, founder of blog Shakespeare’s Sister, who thinks that arguments that affirmative action policies are unfair against white students are not accurate:

“Affirmative action, while closely associated with race, has broad applications beyond addressing racial inequality: Women, members of the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups have benefited from public and private affirmative action programs.

“Criticisms of affirmative action on the basis that it doesn’t help – or actively harms – white people fail to consider that white women, white queer folks, and white people with disabilities, as examples, benefit from affirmative action.”

The picture, then, is complex. Questions of who should – and who does – benefit from affirmative action remain up for debate, do not yield easy answers, and it remains to be seen what the Supreme Court decides. One thing remains certain though – not everyone will agree.

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