Affirmative action pros and cons have ignited fierce debate for generations. With systemic racism continually discussed today, let’s revisit this contentious strategy for building racial justice. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Affirmative Action, Then and Now
Affirmative action pros and cons have ignited fierce debate for generations. With systemic racism continually discussed today, let’s revisit this contentious strategy for building racial justice.
In the US, affirmative action describes efforts to expand access to educational and economic opportunities to historically excluded groups. Such policies aim to get rid of discrimination — and correct for past discrimination — in selection processes for college and work opportunities. Today, affirmative action generally supports racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; women; people with disabilities; LGBT individuals; and some veterans.
Its roots lie in US labor law and the Civil Rights Movement. Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt issued the first order preventing federal defense workers from discriminating against workers based on race, color, creed, or national origin. The 1941 decree came as African Americans increasingly protested Jim Crow laws barring them from jobs in WWII factories. Over the next 30 years, presidents and state/federal legislatures strengthened these measures supporting historically disadvantaged groups.
Still, affirmative action isn’t always supported. Eight states have banned the use of related programs in public sector hiring and college admissions. Before reviewing political stances, let’s examine affirmative action pros and cons.
Affirmative Action Pros
First, those in favor maintain that institutions can craft constitutionally sound affirmative action programs that uplift marginalized groups without suppressing others. In education and the workplace, this includes targeted scholarship and recruitment programs, and intentional interview practices.
Secondly, proponents argue that treating everyone the same doesn’t create equality. For example, black students are six times more likely to attend high-poverty K-12 schools than their white peers. Requiring the same criteria for college and employment opportunities won’t result in equal outcomes for both groups. Additionally, one recent study found that affirmative action bans at public colleges was related to widening enrollment gaps for black, Latinx, and Native American students.
Supporters also argue that affirmative action is still necessary to close persistent racial wealth gaps. For example, McKinsey & Company reports that “the median white family had more than ten times the wealth of the median black family in 2016.” Even further, only three black women have ever been named CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Lastly, providing opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups benefits the entire country. Policies that help black families build wealth could boost the US economy by $1.5 trillion by 2028.
Affirmative Action Cons
First, opponents argue that these programs result in reverse discrimination, as favoring some groups discriminates against others. With this belief, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has long maintained that considering race in college admissions is unconstitutional.
Secondly, opponents warn that affirmative action measures actually harm those they’re intended to help. Many contend that racial preferences in college admissions elevate minorities to environments they’re unprepared to succeed in. Conversely, some also warn that affirmative action fuels racial bias, undermining qualifications minorities have earned even without boosts from preferential treatment.
There are also concerns that affirmative action causes institutions to treat minorities as members of one identical group. For example, Students for Fair Admissions argues that Harvard’s admissions policy sets a higher standard for all Asian-American students. That’s despite great ethnic and economic diversity among those who identify as such. The Supreme Court will soon hear the case.
Lastly, some race-neutral strategies may better provide equal access to advancement opportunities. For public colleges, that may include automatically admitting any students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. For private elite universities, that could mean getting rid of preferences for legacy applicants and athletes.
Affirmative Action Pros and Cons: What Both Sides Think
Conceptually, most Americans support these programs for racial minorities in education and the workplace. Although, a political divide exists. In 2017, 84 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans held this opinion, according to Pew Research.
However, more than 70 percent of US adults oppose racial considerations in college admissions decisions. According to Pew, 85 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats share this position.
Recent presidential policies on affirmative action closely follow these partisan trends. Former Democratic President Barack Obama supported racial considerations in college admissions and expanded anti-discrimination protections to LGBT workers. Republican President Donald Trump’s administration reversed those policies and sued Yale, alleging racial discrimination in its admissions process. Democratic President Joe Biden has dropped that lawsuit, repealed Trump’s prohibition on racial sensitivity training, and expanded anti-discrimination protections for LGBT workers. Biden also reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to “advancing racial equity” for underserved communities through federal policy.
Interestingly, the partisan divide doesn’t fall as neatly when considering state-wide bans. Eight states currently prohibit affirmative action in public sector hiring and college admissions. Four lean Republican, and four lean Democratic (including the Democratic strongholds of California and Washington).