Term Paper: Affirmative Action Policies Grew Out

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[. . .] Arguments based on results

In their book The Shape of the River, former Princeton University president William Bowen and former Harvard University president Derek Bok argue for the necessity of goal-based affirmative action policies in colleges and universities. According to them, "if universities were flatly prohibited from considering race in admissions...over half the black students in selective colleges today would have been rejected" (124).

While opponents of affirmative action quickly seize the findings of Bowen and Bok as proof of affirmative action's disregard of merit, supporters like Jesse Jackson argue that measures of merit are intrinsically skewed. First, Jackson eschews any correlation between standardized test scores and academic and post-academic achievement, citing instead motivation as the determinant of success (Jackson 1995).

Jackson further argues that many affluent white students have access to SAT preparation scores and have the time and resources to participate in extracurricular activities and honor courses. This places many minority students from lower-income families who need to work after school and do not have resources for SAT preparation tests at a distinct disadvantage (Jackson 1995). For proponents like Jackson, affirmative action is a way to address these discrepancies and ensure that disadvantaged youth receive an equal opportunity towards higher education.

Martin Michaelson takes Jackson's argument a step further, arguing that affirmative action policies benefit all college students, not just minority ones. First of all, Michaelson asserts that race- and ethnicity-sensitive admissions policies have had negligible effects on the student admissions of white students. Instead, the admission of minority students brings a healthy racial diversity into campus, a diversity that enhances the personal and academic development of all students (Michaelson 1999).

Furthermore, giving more racial minorities access to higher education has a long-term effect of facilitating the growth of a middle-class comprised of minority professionals (Michaelson 1999). If Michaelson is right, this access to education can have important implications later on addressing the many socio-economic problems faced by racial minorities today.

Continued racism

Against those who argue that affirmative action policies should be repealed because they have served their purpose, proponents argue that racism continues unabated in American society, albeit in more subtle forms.

For example, out of nearly 15,000 pilots in the U.S. Air Force, only 300 are African-American (Schipler 1998). White men remain disproportionally represented in Congress, tenured professorships, law firm partnerships, and managerial jobs, among others. In addition, Jesse Jackson points out that white men comprise "100% of U.S. presidents" (103).

Arguments Against Affirmative Action

The proponents of affirmative action have successfully argued the necessity of addressing inequities brought about by, among other factors, race and gender. They have also shown the need for minority access to gainful employment, to decision-making positions in economic and political institutions and to higher education.

However, these arguments fail to address the effectiveness of affirmative action in addressing these problems. In this section, the paper argues that current affirmative action policies are ineffective in addressing the problems caused by racism. The continued application of affirmative action policies to higher education will effectively negate any of its gains and may even be harmful towards minorities and the other people these policies were designed to help.

Problems of racial categories

Linda Chavez points to the problem of "racial boxing," Many of the defined racial categories are fluid. Native Hawaiians, for example, are currently classified as Native Americans and are agitating for their own category. Five different Asian sub-groups have petitioned for their own racial sub-box. Even white Americans of Eastern European ancestry complain about being lumped in the same general category as "white." Chavez writes that "any attempt to systematically classify human beings according to race will fail, because race is an arbitrary concept" (316).

This problem is perhaps illustrated best in the categorization of Latinos or Hispanics. A white man of Spanish ancestry from Argentina, for example, will generally be considered "white." However, if the same man cannot speak English without a Spanish accent, his inability to do so would most likely suddenly make him "Hispanic." Such fluid characterizations further serve to emphasize the arbitrariness of concepts about race.

Chavez further argues that just as it is impossible to truly characterize which individuals belong to a certain minority group, it is also difficult to determine which minority lags behind both economically and socially. She cites statistical evidence showing that many native-born Hispanics earn salaries commensurate to their education, while many Mexican-Americans earn up to 93% of their white counterparts. Chavez is therefore critical of representatives who characterize Latinos as a downtrodden minority instead of an upwardly-mobile immigrant group (Chavez 1996).

Moral arguments against affirmative action

Bill Conti and Brad Stetson further criticize the "color-coded" affirmative action programs as a step back from the gains of the "color-blind Civil Rights Act" passed in 1964.

In many ways, Conti and Stetson see affirmative action as a "poisonous race consciousness" that are, in many ways, "a flip-side of the biases of the past" (106).

In contrast to alarmist rhetoric that states "either we keep it this way or go back to Jim Crow," Conti and Stetson push for a racial humanism of leaders like Martin Luther King, who argue for people to be judged on the basis of their individual merits and character. For them, any automatic kinship based on race is akin to the "ethnic chauvinism" of the Italian-Americans who rioted upon hearing that mobster John Gotti were sentenced to life.

For Errol Smith, a black business leader, the moral unfairness of affirmative action policies are apparent when an affluent black family can be deemed "disadvantaged" while a poor young white man is similarly deemed "privileged." Smith asks, "Do we (black Americans) really like the world these policies are creating? Are we comfortable with the racial legacy we are leaving for our children?" (Smith, cited in Conti and Stetson, 107).

Affirmative action causes psychological harm

Conti and Stetson also maintain that affirmative action minimizes individual gains achieved by African-American and other minorities with its implied stigma. As an example, the two researchers have chronicled the case of a young black woman who was about to become the first African-American to make the University of Virginia's prestigious Law Review when an affirmative action policy went into effect. The supplanting of the merit-based system effectively destroyed the value of her Law Review imprimatur (Conti and Stetson 1995).

Carl Cohen, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan agrees, stating that admissions policies that unduly favor studies solely because of minority status place costly burdens on the student population as a whole. Like Conti and Stetson, Cohen believes that "the cruelest burdens, the most damaging and longest-lasting, are those borne by the members of the preferred minority group as a whole" (149). When an unqualified minority is accepted and performs sub-par, their below-average performance inevitably reinforces racial stereotypes. This lack of qualification also taints those minorities who, like the University of Virginia Law student, genuinely excel.

Furthermore, Cohen points to how such affirmative action policies can have deleterious effects beyond the university. Instead of promoting racial diversity and interaction within schools and universities, a system of racial preference instead engenders distrust, which has long-term harmful effects.


In summary, proponents of affirmative action argue for the continued need to address the deleterious effects of racism. They point to how affirmative action policies have opened the door for racial and ethnic minorities to seek higher education and to enter decision-making positions in the political and economic fields. They also point to a need for racial kinship and pride, to use affirmative action policies to ensure a vicarious success of members of their race.

Such arguments, however, do not take into account the deleterious effects affirmative action has had on society as a whole and on the very people these policies are supposed to help. For example, to maintain that many Black students would not be able to enter higher education without affirmative action is an insult to the many black, Latino and other ethnic-minority students to gain admission on their own merit.

Therefore, while process-based affirmative action goals that ensure all applicants for jobs or university admission receive the same treatment are admirable and should be protected by law, the goal-based affirmative action policies should be abolished. This includes policies that award a minority student "extra points" based on his or her race, rather than considering other indications of academic merit, such as SAT scores, recommendation letters from teachers, academic grades, or evaluations from college interviewers.

The goal of the civil rights movement has always been to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or disability, has access to equal opportunity. Process-based affirmative action policies are a big step towards this goal. In contrast, the rigid, race conscious and ultimately divisive policies of goal-based affirmative action are a step back and should therefore be repealed.

Works Cited

Bowen, William G. And Derek Bok (1998). "The Shape of the River: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university application." Excerpted in Race Relations.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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