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By Joanna Slusarewicz

An introduction to affirmative action

Modern political discourse in the United States sees debate over a variety of issues, and as election season looms, we must re-educate ourselves about the real meanings behind popular buzzwords. “Affirmative action” is one such term–though oft-used and commonly a source of contention between candidates, it can sometimes be difficult to make sense of its meaning and implications.

What is affirmative action?

Oxford English Dictionary defines affirmative action as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education”. In essence, affirmative action policies are policies that attempt to “level the playing field” between different social and economic groups.

The most famous government action concerning affirmative action, Executive Order 10925, was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and required that colleges and businesses take “affirmative action” to preferentially hire people of underrepresented groups. To some, this requirement has seemed an effective way to reintegrate underrepresented minorities; to others, it seems a potential barrier to fair assessment of qualified applicants and a threat to the free market.

Benefits of affirmative action

There are several potential benefits to affirmative action policies. Firstly, affirmative action in college admissions broadens the country’s talent pool by granting a more diverse group the skills necessary to succeed in the modern workforce. Studies by the Civil Rights Education Fund show that, “since the late 1980s, students of color have increased their total college enrollment by 57.2 percent, and the proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees is increasing steadily.” Greater diversity within universities means greater diversity within the companies that hire the graduates, thus ensuring a workforce with a broader variety of skill sets.

In addition, some view the purpose of affirmative action as compensation for decades of legal and social inequality. In the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”

Drawbacks of affirmative action

Criticisms of affirmative action often include the restrictions that the policy places of hiring. Some believe that affirmative action undermines the nature of the free market, in which every individual competes on merit rather than upbringing. The term “reverse discrimination” refers to the idea that certain policies threaten the freedoms of majority groups at the expense of minorities, and is often associated with affirmative action legislation. In the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, the prosecution claimed that the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policy unfairly disadvantaged white students at the expense of people of color, the main targets of the policy (the Court would uphold the policy in a 5/4 decision).

Another criticism of affirmative action is that it inhibits the process of hiring the most qualified workers by enforcing criteria unrelated to occupational skills when assessing applicants. For instance, a slightly less qualified minority applicant might gain admission to a competitive college while majority applicants with greater credentials are rejected.

Ultimately, any public policy results from balancing interests and consolidating a variety of perspectives into a single coherent step forward. Whether or not you agree with the implementation of affirmative action policy, it is important to understand all perspectives on the issue in order to form reasoned conclusions and achieve a greater appreciation of the intricacies of the matter.

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