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years. Citizens of the United States question whether the government should
grant certain advantages to races that have endured bigotry in the past.
This plan goes by the name of Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action is a
federally subsidized program that encourages universities and other
educational institutions, to accept a greater number of minority students.
Throughout the years, Affirmative Action and the different advocates have
changed, but racial inequality remains stagnant.
Affirmative action has various proponents and opponents, both of whom seek
the eventual goal of an integrated, educated middle class society. The
opponents of Affirmative Action argue that it is not the responsibility of
the current majority to make up for prior actions; and imposing these
types of programs would be a form of so-called, reverse discrimination. The
proponents argue that it is everybody’s responsibility to create a society,
which gives everybody an equal opportunity regardless of race, and the only
way to ascertain this goal is through Affirmative-Action programs. How can
this nation come together and disregard the color of a persons skin? Will we
reach this goal by subsidizing programs that assist minorities, or shall we
sit and wait for time to establish equal opportunity for all?
The history of Affirmative Action dates back to the days when the nation
attempted to rebuild its society after the civil war. Reconstruction
attempted to establish virtuous relations between the white Europeans and
black Africans that made up a large part of the American society. The nation
was torn on how to establish these relations.
Many call Reconstruction the low point of race relations in the United
States. This era included the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment,
defining national citizenship so as to include blacks. This Amendment passed
Congress in June 1866 and was ratified, despite rejection by most Southern
states (July 28, 1868). In response to the newfound freedom of African
Americans, whites incited numerous accounts of violence. White hatred of the
black race created an era that experienced the most lynchings in the history
of the United States. Whites also began using contemporary forms of labor
exploitation to maintain control of their socio-economic advantage.
Something needed to be done so that the nation would not split at its seams.
One side argued that time was the only solution to racial problems. Creating
government programs would make African’s dependent and give them an unfair
advantage. “They were said to be fat state subsidies that unfairly penalized
innocent whites and taught blacks self-destructive habits of indolence and
independence.” This argument was sustained by the Democratic Party who
expressed their thinking by publicizing material, which endorsed their
belief. One such example is a cartoon that was created in 1866, which pokes
fun of “The Freedmans Bureau”. This highly publicized illustration showed a
black man sitting under a tree, while a white man labored intensely.
Along with public advertising, many prominent individuals came out and spoke
vehemently against the establishment of compensatory laws. One of the
principal objectors of compensatory laws was Booker T. Washington. Washington
believed the best interests of black people would be attained through
education in the crafts, industrial skills and cultivation of the virtues of
patience, enterprise, and thrift. He urged his fellow blacks, most of whom
were impoverished and illiterate farm laborers, to temporarily abandon their
efforts to win full civil rights and political power and instead to cultivate
their industrial and farming skills, so as to attain economic security.
Blacks would thus accept segregation and discrimination, but their eventual
acquisition of wealth and culture would gradually win them the respect and
acceptance of the white community. This would break down the divisions
between the two races and lead to equal citizenship for blacks in the end.
Such rhetoric infuriated many black and white liberals, who were in favor of
such programs. For behind reformers clamor against class legislation and the
belief that the new freedmen must work out their own destiny, they were
refusing to acknowledge blacks unique historical experience. To black and
white liberals these beliefs demonstrated a cruel indifference to the
African American fate.
One such program, which was fervently debated, was the aforementioned
Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 by
Congress to provide practical aid to 4,000,000 newly freed black Americans in
their transition from slavery to freedom. Headed by Major General Oliver O.
Howard, the Freedmen's bureau might be termed the first federal welfare
agency. Despite handicaps of inadequate funds and poorly trained personnel,
the bureau built hospitals and gave direct medical assistance to more than
Its greatest accomplishments came in education: more than 1,000 black schools
were built and over $400,000 spent to establish teacher-training
institutions. All major black colleges were either founded by, or received
aid from, the bureau. The radical William Whipper told liberals opposing the
Freedman's bureau and other special efforts on behalf of the former slaves:
“the white race has had the benefit of class legislation ever since the
foundation of our government.”
Another liberal who acknowledged the need for such programs was W.E.B.
Dubois. Although Du Bois had originally believed that social science could
provide the knowledge to solve the race problem, he gradually came to the
conclusion that this was not possible. In a climate of virulent racism,
disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation laws, and race riots, social change
can only be accomplished through protest and reform programs facilitating
black education. “The system of education must strengthen the Negro’s
character, increase his knowledge and teach him to earn a living”. In this
view, he clashed with the most influential black leader of the period, Booker
Constant debates on the necessity of federally subsidized programs culminated
in the Supreme Court case, Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896). The decision
established that states have the authority to segregate the races into
separate but equal. Separate but equal signified that public institutions
could be separated by race, but facilities must be equally funded. This
decision initially benefited those whom argued that the government did
not have the responsibility to improve the social capabilities of African
Although the decision was an initial victory for conservatives, it also came
with a tremendous drawback. The negative aspect can be attributed to the
words of Supreme Court Judge John Marshall Harlan. Asserting that "our
Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among
citizens," he expressed the justified fear that the majority of the court was
consigning black citizens of the United States to a permanent "condition of
legal inferiority." Justice Harlan’s declaration, that blacks would not
become equals unless measures were taken, proved to be accurate. Black and
white supporters of Affirmative action type programs took this pronouncement
to heart, and vowed to keep fighting for their beliefs.
The prayers, of those whom sought such programs, were answered in the Supreme
Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education Topeka. On May 17, 1954, the
U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public
schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says
that no state may deny equal protection of the laws to any person within its
jurisdiction. The 1954 decision declared that separate educational facilities
were inherently unequal. Based on a series of Supreme Court cases argued
between 1938 and 1950, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka completed the
reversal of the earlier Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that
permitted "separate but equal" public facilities.
This decision gave hope to those who pleaded for government intervention.
The government felt precedence to intervene because time was not proving to
be a worthy solution in regards to racial inequality. From that day forward
education became the driving force of the civil-rights movement. American
schools would never be the same, and the Brown decision paved the way for
future Affirmative-Action decisions.
The contemporary debate in regards to educational Affirmative-Action, which
is whether educational institutions can set quotas for accepting minorities,
came to fruition nearly a decade after the Brown decision. President Lyndon
Johnson's administration began the use of modern Affirmative-Action programs
in order to improve opportunities for blacks, while civil-rights legislation
was dismantling the legal basis for discrimination against them. Johnson’s
feelings towards Affirmative-Action programs became clear in a speech he made
to the graduating class at Howard University: “You do not take a man who for
years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting
line of a race, saying, "you are free to compete with all the others”, and
still justly believe you have been completely fair”.
The federal government began to institute Affirmative- Action policies under
the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and executive order 11246 in 1965.
Businesses and educational facilities receiving federal funds were prohibited
from using criteria that tended to discriminate against blacks.
Affirmative-Action programs were to be monitored by the Office of Federal
Contract Compliance and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Martin Luther King Jr., was one of the largest supporters of
Affirmative-Action type programs during the mid to late 1960’s. In his book
Why We Can't Wait, published in 1963 as the movement to dismantle segregation
reached its peak, King observed that even white supporters of civil rights
"recoil in horror" from suggestions that blacks deserved not merely
colorblind equality but "compensatory consideration." He pointed out;
"special measures for the deprived" were a well-established principle of
American politics. The GI Bill of Rights offered all sorts of privileges to
veterans. Blacks, given their long "siege of denial," were even more
deserving than soldiers of "special, compensatory measures."
By the 1970s many educational facilities took Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and
his supporters words to heart. Most educational facilities agreed that the
use of racial quotas would help diminish racial inequality. The objective
was to create a school system rich in cultural backgrounds. This infuriated
several individuals including President Richard Nixon. Although Nixon agreed
that there should be goals and timetables, he disagreed with the specific use
of educational quotas. “Strict quotas are unacceptable, but goals and
timetables are reasonable tools”.
Many agreed with Nixon’s statements and this led to the most important court
decision, in regards to the elimination of racial quotas. University of
California vs. Baake(1975-1977) was an extremely important case and reached
the United States Supreme Court. Baake, a recent college graduate, sued on
the basis that he was rejected from medical school because the University of
California used racial quotas. He declared that using quotas is a form of
reverse discrimination. Baake also exclaimed that less qualified minority
students were accepted to the school, while he was rejected.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which was heavily divided on the issue of Affirmative
Action, decided that race could be a factor in choosing a diverse student
body in university admissions decisions. The court also held, however, that
the use of quotas in such Affirmative-Action programs were not permissible;
thus, the University of California, medical school had, by maintaining a 16%
minority quota, discriminated against Bakke, a white applicant.
The Supreme Court did not establish a legal precedent on the issue of
Affirmative Action. In fact the only matter it accomplished was that Mr.
Baake received an acceptance letter from the University of California medical
school. The question of Affirmative Action has lingered for the past 135
years, and we still question whether it is right or wrong. Both sides have
clear concise arguments, and neither is going to stop fighting for their
beliefs. Today Affirmative-Action programs include all minorities and
women. The program is heavily debated, but it is growing throughout most of
the nations universities. Is Affirmative Action a form of reverse
discrimination, or is it a method that must be used to create racial
equality? The answer lies in the hands of current Supreme Court Judges.
Bundy, McGeorge: "Who Gets Ahead in America". The Atlantic Monthly, 1977.
Curry, George: The Affirmative Action Debate. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
DuBois, W.E.B: “The Talented Tenth”, 1903.
King, Martin Luther: Why We Can't Wait, Dewitt-Clinton. LA. 1964.
Lancaster, Steven: Black and White. , Columbia. Ny. 1994.
Whipper, William: Speech in Maryland, 1870.
www.Britannica.com/ Freedman’s Bureau/1996