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Affirmative Action

Definition and Purpose

Affirmative action is intended to level the playing field and give equal access to historically disadvantaged minorities (on the basis of race, sex, disability, etc.) in education and in the workforce. 

A Brief History 

  • During the Civil Rights Movement, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order in 1961 that stated the government could “not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Furthermore, the order mandated government to “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.” 
  • Later, affirmative action would extend to women (1967), disabled people (1973) and veterans (1998).

The Controversy

For using race as a factor in admissions

Against using race as a factor in admissions

Combats racism and inequity 

  • Because of unequal backgrounds, applicants should be evaluated by their circumstances which may be different from someone else’s.
Violates the 14th Amendment Equal Protection

  • Affirmative action makes applicants of different races subject to different criteria for entrance, which isn’t equal.
Promotes diversity

  • A diverse environment brings different ideas that come together to spur innovation, improving everyone’s quality of education.
Enables reverse racism 

  • Better qualified candidates get turned away because of unchangeable qualities such as race.
Reflects societal makeup

  • By accounting for race in admissions, a campus or workforce can better model the real world.
Enables racism 

  • Society assumes a minority is accepted solely based on affirmative action and not their own merit.

Sources: Republican Views, NPR, The HarbusPeople Press,

Supreme Court Cases

Affirmative action is not limited just to higher education, and it has become the most controversial when regarding college admissions. At the heart of the debate over the policy is whether or not affirmative action violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. 

Reagents of the University of California v Bakke (1978)

The earliest case that reached the Supreme Court over affirmative action was called Reagents of the University of California v Bakke in 1978. Alan Bakke, a white man, was rejected from the University of California Medical School twice although he had met the criteria for entrance. He argued minorities were given unfair preference as the university had a quota of 16 seats for every 100 to be reserved for minority students. The court ruled in favor of Bakke and stated the racial quotas for admission violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment. However, the court also said taking into account race, among other standards, in admissions was constitutional.

Fisher v. University of Texas I and II

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled on another case: Fisher v. University of Texas. The University of Texas admissions automatically accept an in-state student if they rank in the top 10 percent of their high school. Everyone else must go through an application process. Abigail Fischer, a white student, was not among the top 10 percent of her school. She applied but was eventually denied by the school. She argued the University of Texas’s use of race as a factor in admissions was unconstitutional.

 The University of Texas won the lower courts; however, the Supreme Court ruled against the lower courts in a 7-1 decision in favor of Fisher. The court reasoned that while race could be a factor in admissions, the lower courts did not judiciously scrutinize the University of Texas’s use of race thoroughly enough; therefore, they were wrong. 

In 2016, the Supreme Court revisited the case after it made its way back through the court system. This time around the justices ruled in favor of the University of Texas, 4-3. The court reasoned that the University of Texas’s holistic review approach, without specific race quotas but conscious of an applicants ethnicity, to admissions was constitutional as educational diversity was a valid goal for the school.

Revisiting Fischer’s case, however, it is likely that she couldn’t have been admitted had race not been a factor because of her less impressive GPA and test scores. While there were students with worse scores than her admitted, 42 of those students were white while only five of those students were black or Latino.

Harvard Discrimination Lawsuit

Harvard deemed constitutional, not discriminatory against Asian Americans

Nov. 1 marks the deadline for early action and decision to many universities. Among these schools is Harvard University, which offers early action and regular decision on Jan. 1. Senior Greta McNamee is applying early action to Harvard. 


Sources: Harvard Politics, Constitution Center, Oyez Cases 2012, Oyez Cases 2014

Public and Political Opinion

While affirmative action is generally supported by the public, giving minorities preference in college admissions is generally not.

Do you think race should be considered on college and job applications?

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