Affirmative Action

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In 1997, three students were denied admission into the University of Michigan. Each of them, in turn, sued the school, charging them with discrimination. In one of the cases, a student was denied admission into Michigan’s law school. Chicago Sun-Times writers Dave Newbart and Kate Grossman reported that last Monday, June 23, 2003, in a 5-4 majority ruling, swing vote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor judged for the school maintaining their right to consider the race of their applicants. In a second decision, the court ruled that they supported the University’s use of race in their admissions policy, but use of a point system was unconstitutional under the fourteenth amendment (Equal Protection Clause). Why then was the student still dissatisfied with the ruling? She was suing the school for reverse discrimination stemming from the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action towards their applicants. The student was white.
     The lawsuit sent shockwaves across the nation. Though the case centered on college admission practices, affirmative action plays a role in many everyday matters, especially towards procedures regarding employment. Before delving into discourse and opinions, the background and history of affirmative action should be discussed.
     According to writer Stephen Cahn, affirmative action’s origins stem from an executive order that John F. Kennedy wrote in regards to the hiring practices of employers. Cahn writes that the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity Employment stated federal contractors “...will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The Contractor will take affirmative action, to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." The principle of this order from President Kennedy was more developed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which in part stated that "No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." About one year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson defined the concept of affirmative action emphasizing that civil rights laws alone were not enough to resolve discrimination. Just months later, President Johnson issued an order to enforce affirmative action toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment. Employers must take specific measures to ensure equality in hiring and must document these efforts.

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Two years later, the order was amended to cover discrimination based on gender. In 1969, President Richard Nixon issued an order that further defined the “goals” of affirmative action. C. Price Jones of the Michigan Daily reported that the order stated it “...would not impose quotas, but would require federal contractors to show 'affirmative action' to meet the goals of increasing minority employment,” minority referring specifically to “Negroes, American Indians, Orientals, and Spanish Surnamed Americans” (Cahn) .
     Nine years later, a landmark case hit the nation. In the case of the University of California v. Bakke, a white student, Allen Bakke, sued the university for reverse discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled that race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, but quotas were unconstitutional. Where as the subject of strict quotas was struck down, just two years later, the court ruled that in the case of Fullilove v. Klutznick, certain quotas “...were not unconstitutional and that 15 percent of public works funds be set aside for minority contractors” (Jones) . In the 1996 case of Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School, the court ruled that the Bakke decision was invalid and that the school’s affirmative action admissions policy was suspended. One more landmark in the history of affirmative action is the enactment of Proposition 209 in the state of California. It bans all forms of affirmative action, which in turn banned all forms of discrimination and preferential treatment (Jones). Thus bringing us back to last Monday’s ruling that affirmative action be upheld by university admissions.
     The history, as a whole, of affirmative action beings up a very heated debate about the morals of affirmative action. It has been both praised and denounced by minority leaders and “WASPs” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) alike. Affirmative action is only part of a potential answer to racial, gender and class inequality. In focusing on education and employment, affirmative action is seen as a temporary fix that will subside when the “playing field” is level for all American citizens. Promotions, salary increases, career advancement, school admissions, scholarships and financial aid that had been almost exclusive to white males before affirmative action are now available to the minority (Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and women). Many commend that affirmative action’s role in achieving racial and gender equality is important. Others agree the opposite.
Dr. Cornell West, the director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, states in his book, Race Matters, “We should see [affirmative action] as primarily playing a negative role – namely, to ensure that discriminatory practices against women and people of color are abated” (95) . Dr. West contends that affirmative action harms the fight against racial and gender inequality and in effect, class inequality. His argument is that change will become a reality when class lines no longer exist. He also reasons that affirmative action would not be necessary if those in power could show “...good will and meritorious judgments” (96) in declining discrimination toward those of a different race or gender. The roles of those in power are not the only roles that need to change. Dr. West argues, in regard to Black Americans, that self-respect and self-regard (or rather disregard) issues need to be addressed by the individual. He feels that individuals stereotype themselves into believing that their self-worth and identity is based on their class in society. (98) In the end, Dr. Cornell West’s feelings on the role of affirmative action are based and limited to what reallocation actions are being made towards minorities and how minorities change their view of themselves.
My feelings on affirmative action take on a different role. Being an Asian-American, I see it as a double-edged sword. Where in one situation, such as a being admitted to college as a freshman, affirmative action gives me an upper hand, if I were to take that same argument to get into medical school, affirmative action just might take that opportunity away from me. How?




Bibliography:

Race Matters, Cornell West


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