Is It Time To End Affirmative Action?

Note: I realize that by venturing into the political arena, particularly when taking on a subject that raises as much emotion on both sides of the issue as affirmative action, there is a good chance that my position on the issue is different than yours.  I hope that, rather than hurling insults and pejoratives at each other, we can agree to disagree, and come together to discuss this calmly, and perhaps, even give each other some more insight in how the other side of the issue thinks, and why they believe the way that they do.  Thank you for not simply tossing out insults and going on your way.

We’re in an odd place in history, at least when it comes to race relationships.  The scars of institutionalized discrimination still linger; heck, most of our lawmakers and politicians are old enough to have suffered under the policies of segregation (or conversely, to have tried to enforce them).  Even the youngest among us don’t have to go back further than our grandparents to find a time when ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains and schools were the law of the land.

On the other hand, in the past fifty or so years, great progress has been made towards the goal of judging people ‘not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character’.  Legalized discrimination has disappeared from the national stage, minority men and women are ascending to the tops of their chosen fields, and hey, did you hear that we have a black man (or, as I’m sure Financial Samurai would be happy to remind us, a man who is half white, half black) as President of the United States now?

Yup, the guy with the funky O logo

In fact, more than a few people would maintain that we’ve actually gone too far in the other direction, that affirmative action and other attempts to give minorities and others who were (and sometimes still are) discriminated against are actually leading to ‘reverse discrimination’, discriminating against those in the majority.  Evan’s (of My Journey to Millions fame) story of one particular example is what inspired this post in the first place.

Given these conflicting messages, the question becomes, what should we do about affirmative action?  Should we call it done and relegate affirmative action to the dustbin of history, or are the scars of past injustices still fresh enough that we require more salve to soothe them?  Let’s take a closer look at the arguments on both sides.

We Still Need It

Let’s start with something most people on both sides of the debate can agree with: whatever the appropriate place for affirmative action is now, it definitely served a needed purpose in the past.  When the policies were first put into place in the sixties, there were still laws on the books preventing ‘colored’ people from partaking of the same opportunities available to whites.  Discriminatory laws were just being struck down (or were still in force in many places) and the official policies by many schools, businesses and governments was to exclude African-Americans and others from learning, working or participating.

Supporters of continuing affirmative action maintain that things aren’t too much better today.   African-American and other minority members today still experience income inequality, difficulty getting employment, and other problems that Caucasian students and workers do not.  Even without direct discrimination, the legacy of slavery and the following discrimination still puts them at a disadvantage; to cite but one example, it’s hard to be much of a ‘legacy’ student if your grandparents weren’t even allowed to come on the campus.

There’s also the issue of diversity, and the attempts to promote it.  Particularly in college, exposing students to other races and cultures can give them a better appreciation of groups other than their own, and help them better function in the broader world.  Without affirmative action to help minority students get into traditionally white colleges (and vice versa), it’s more likely that students will go to colleges where their own race (or religion, or other trait) is overwhelming prevalent, or even the only one represented, preventing them from broadening their horizons.

It’s Time To End It

While there is little denying that the deck has been stacked against minority groups back in the old days, opponents of affirmative action argue that things  have changed greatly since then.  Whereas discrimination and segregation were the official policies of the past, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of 60 arguing that viewing the color of someone’s skin allows you to determine their abilities and skills.  (For that matter, you’d be unlikely to find too many people over the age of 60 expressing that opinion nowadays, at least out loud.)

Instead,  the issue many opponents worry about is reverse discrimination.  With schools and businesses so eager to increase the number of minority or otherwise discriminated against students or workers they have, they can end up recruiting less qualified minority candidates while passing over more qualified white students or employees (particularly with some of the older ‘quota’ systems that were in place all but forcing them to get more minority candidates, regardless of skill level).  You end up with the white candidates feeling discriminated against and blaming the minority candidates for not getting in.

It’s not much better for the minorities who are accepted.  Not only must they deal with snide comments behind their back that they ‘only got in because of affirmative action’, but they have to work even harder in order to combat this perception.  Affirmative action also serves as a barrier to a truly colorblind society; if we continue to treat people differently according to the color of their skin, regardless of whether it helps or hinders the people who were victimized in the past, we’re just continuing to reinforce the idea that differences in skin color really DO affect intelligence or other attributes that influence a person’s ability to work.

My Views

As I said at the opening of this post, we are at a weird juncture in history.  We are not yet at the point where skin color doesn’t matter, where society as a whole is able to ignore a person’s race when evaluating his or her skills, but we are far beyond the time when your race could limit you to a second class lifestyle for your entire life.  As we continue along the path from the latter to the former, we’re going to have to change and re-evaluate how we, as a society, view issues of race and equality, and how we react.

That’s why I propose that we end most of the public affirmative action programs we currently have in place.  There are ways to ensure that disadvantaged students, whether their disadvantage comes as a result of their race or some other factor, can get into school.  (Case in point, looking at a student’s socio-economic background rather than his or her race can provide a much more accurate picture of the difficulty he or she has faced throughout their lifetime.)

There will, I am sure, be places, be they universities, businesses, or government offices, that will try to discriminate against one group or another, to add only members of their preferred race(s) to their membership.  But at this point in our society’s growth, any but the smallest, most remote places that attempted such discrimination would quickly find themselves on the wrong end of a boycott by not only the minority community, but also a sizable portion of the white population as well (myself included).  Leaving punishment for discrimination to a well-informed public seems like a much better approach for our current society.

I will admit, such a plan might not work; it’s quite possible that we are not as far along as I believe that we are.  (Not suffering directly from discrimination, I might have a skewed perception on this subject.)  If this is the case, and years from now, we find that without affirmative action, we are headed back away from a fair and equal society, I will be amongst the first calling to reinstate it.  For now, though, I think we can do more good than harm by ending affirmative action.

Readers, what are your views on affirmative action?  Am I missing any advantages that make affirmative action indispensable?  Or any disadvantages that make it even less desirable than I’ve portrayed here?

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