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Pros and cons of affirmative action

A landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court has outlawed “affirmative action” in college admissions.

Decisions favouring members of disadvantaged groups have become widespread in many countries since the 1960s. But the highest court in the US has effectively banned it in America.

The ruling “upends decades-old race-based policies”, said Inaya Folarin Iman in The Daily Telegraph. From 1978, US universities had been permitted to consider race as a factor in admissions. Supporters argue that such policies – also known as positive discrimination – level the playing field for historically disadvantaged groups, but critics claim they unfairly discriminate and should be illegal.

1

Pro: boost for education

“Since nine states already have bans on affirmative action, it’s easy to know what will happen if affirmative action is outlawed,” said Natasha Warikoo, a Tufts University professor who studies racial equity in education, in an article on The Conversation published before last week’s Supreme Court ruling. Studies into college enrolment in those states indicate that the number of Black, Hispanic and native American undergraduate students will decline in the long term.

For example, after California banned affirmative action in state universities, the percentage of underrepresented minorities at UCLA dropped from 28% to 14% between 1995 and 1998.

“Research also shows that black students who are admitted with help from affirmative action are more likely to go on to earn advanced degrees than black students with similar academic achievement but whose admission was not helped by affirmative action,” Warikoo wrote.

Universities may lose out from the ditching of such policies, said Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at Columbia University in New York. The result of the Supreme Court ruling will ultimately “be institutions that are less representative, less intellectually stimulating, and less equipped to serve an increasingly diverse America”, Lee warned in an article for Science.

2

Con: a form of discrimination

Advocates often argue that affirmative action is necessary to correct historical injustice and that discrimination against some groups is so pervasive that it can only be corrected with reverse discrimination.

But “critics of affirmative action argue that two wrongs do not make a right; that treating different racial groups differently will entrench racial antagonism and that societies should aim to be colour-blind”, said The Economist.

In two lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina heard by the Supreme Court, the conservative-backed Students for Fair Admissions group argued that allowing colleges and universities to use race as a factor in deciding admission infringes civil rights legislation and is unconstitutional on the basis that it is discriminatory.

In ruling race-based affirmative action programmes in higher education violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court agreed and “it was right to do so”, said The Economist.

3

Pro: improves productivity

High-profile companies including Apple, Starbucks and Ikea joined together to file briefs at the Supreme Court arguing that racial diversity improves decision-making at their companies, said NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on daily news show “All Things Considered”. Similarly, “a bunch of big law firms also weighed in on the value of a racially diverse pool of talent coming in to them”. 

The same has proved to be the case in the military, according to Travis Knoll, a historian at the University of North Carolina. In an article on The Conversation, Knoll cited the Vietnam War, during which racial tensions in the ranks stemming from a lack of Black officers “led to at least 300 fights in a two-year-period that resulted in 71 deaths”. This “drove home to the military the idea that diversity in leadership was extremely important” and “also began the military’s use of affirmative action”, including race-conscious admissions policies at service academies and in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programmes.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared affirmative action policies in college and university admissions to be unconstitutional, “questions are arising over whether the court’s decision will affect diversity efforts in the workplace” and elsewhere, said Lauren Aratani in The Guardian.

4

Con: increases class inequalities

Somewhere along the decades, affirmative action “has lost its way”, said law experts Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. in The Atlantic. “The largest, most aggressive preferences are usually reserved for upper-middle-class minorities on many of whom they inflict significant academic harm,” they wrote, “whereas more modest policies that could help working-class and poor people of all races are given short shrift.”

“We want diverse stock traders, corporate-boardroom members, and tenured professors,” said Jay Caspian Kang in The New Yorker, but “it’s clear that what’s at stake isn’t a vision of social and racial justice that would ameliorate inequalities for a broad swath of people but, rather, a fight for spots in the elite ranks of society”.

“I think there’s a better way than what we have now,” a Harvard student named only as Kyle told Fox News. “You have people of color who actually come from really privileged families, and they’re getting benefited from this program, when you have people from other races who might not have any privilege in their background, and they don’t benefit from it.”

“Affirmative action betrayed black America,” said Inaya Folarin Iman in The Telegraph. “Far from addressing long-standing structural inequalities, it institutionalised the deeply racist idea that black people were incapable of attaining positions of excellence and high achievement on merit alone. It suggested that only through reliance on paternalistic white offerings could they ever succeed.”

5

Pro: backed by public

Polls show that affirmative action policies have become increasingly accepted over time. Gallup polling found that public support in the US stood at between 47% to 50% between 2001 and 2005, before climbing to 54% in 2016 and then 61% in 2018. And a poll by Quinnipiac University in 2020 of more than 1,300 people found that two-thirds believed that discrimination against Black people in the US was a serious problem.

“Americans are also solidly behind the broad concept of equal opportunity and improving the position of racial minorities in society – the underlying rationale for affirmative action,” said Gallup.

6

Con: not cost effective

Critics question whether the costs associated with affirmative action policies, such as grants and scholarships to help access higher education, could be better spent improving opportunities for a wider demographic.

“The staggering cost of the diversity bureaucracy contributes to the rising cost of tuition,” said Peter Kirsanow, a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, in a 2011 article for National Review. “Consequently, all students (or their guarantors/creditors) are paying more money/incurring greater debt so that preferred minority students will have a higher probability of flunking out.”

“The cost of such programs,” said Investopedia, “coupled with a belief that affirmative action forces the populace to make unwarranted accommodations, drives a significant part of the opposition,” 

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