The sweeping civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s officially ended state-sanctioned segregation. They did not, however, end racism or erase stark inequities between the races in such areas as employment and education. As a consequence, affirmative action policies were enacted to ensure some equality between the races.
Proponents of affirmative action cite the continued need for such programs, especially for African Americans, because of the nation’s long history of discrimination and persecution. Racism was institutionalized throughout most of the country’s history; indeed, the Constitution specifically recognized, and therefore countenanced, slavery. For example, it rewarded slave owners with the Three-fifths Compromise, giving slave owners extra representation in the House of Representatives, a provision excised from the Constitution only after the Civil War. Moreover, few would deny that racism still exists in America. Given these facts, it follows that equal treatment of unequals perpetuates inequality. Programs that give an extra boost to traditionally disadvantaged groups offer the only sure way to overcome structural inequality.
To take the example of university and college admissions, affirmative action opponents argue that admissions decisions should be based on merit, not race. Yet affirmative action does not disregard merit, and in any case, admissions does not operate purely on the basis of merit, however defined, for any college or university. Institutions of higher education rely on such measures as grade point average, board scores, and letters of recommendation. But they also consider such nonmerit factors as region, urban versus rural background, family relationship to alumni and wealthy donors, athletic ability, and other specialized factors unrelated to the usual definition of merit. The inclusion of race as one of these many admissions criteria is as defensible as the inclusion of any other; moreover, it helps ensure a more diverse student body, which in itself is a laudable educational goal. In addition, such programs do not guarantee educational success but simply assure that individuals from disadvantaged groups have a chance to succeed, an idea most Americans support. Affirmative action programs have in fact succeeded in providing opportunity to millions who would not otherwise have had it.
Opponents of affirmative action argue that such programs, while based on good intentions, do more harm than good. The belief that persons who gain employment or college admission from such programs did not earn their positions stigmatizes those who are supposed to benefit, creating self-doubt among the recipients and mistrust in others. In the realm of education, students admitted to colleges and universities under these special programs have lower graduation rates. Affirmative action also violates the fundamental American value of equality of opportunity. Although all may not possess the same opportunity, the effort expended to provide special advantages to some would be better directed toward making sure that the principles of equal opportunity and merit are followed.
America’s history of discrimination, though reprehensible, should not be used as a basis for employment or educational decisions, because it is unreasonable to ask Americans today to pay for the mistakes of their ancestors. Moreover, the track record of affirmative action programs reveals another problem: the groups that have benefited most are middle-class African Americans and women. If anything, preferential programs should focus on economic disadvantage, regardless of race, and better education early in life. Good intentions notwithstanding, there are limits to what government social engineering can accomplish, and most Americans favor the abandonment of race-based preference programs.