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Affirmative Action: A Necessary Evil

Vivek Rao

“Affirmative action” is a phrase that conjures up a variety of images for a variety of people. A product of the civil rights movement, affirmative actions permits women and minorities to receive special consideration in employment, education, and contracting decisions, even if they may not be the most talented or qualified candidate.

The debate has raged on for years as to the morality of affirmative action. Though the whole concept no doubt sprang forth from good intentions, many feel it represents reverse discrimination, robbing white males of the jobs and educational opportunities they deserve. Still, a significant segment of the population remains in favor of the policy, feeling it justly empowers those people who are typically disadvantaged and discriminated against.

Yet even as the ethics are carefully weighed by both the general public and policymakers alike, there is still the question of legality. Does affirmative action lie in accordance with the Constitution, or does it violate fundamental principles of equality of opportunity? Surprisingly, despite the universal nature of this arena, the issue has gone largely resolved in the past, especially regarding college admissions processes. That is, until this week, when the Supreme Court formally agreed to deliberate on the application of affirmative action toward state university admissions.

Affirmative action is a crucial issue facing this country, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the education sector. Ever since the signing of the Constitution over two hundred years ago, the United States has always placed a high emphasis on education. As one of the world’s first modern democracies, the country has long stressed the notion of educated and capable citizens. Combine this with the image of America as the land of equal opportunity, and you can immediately sense the intensity behind the affirmative action debate; do such policies strip deserving citizens of the fundamental right to equality of opportunity they deserve, or do they merely restore to minorities privileges that have otherwise been undermined by far more subtle social factors and pressure?

Normally, I have little trouble formulating strict viewpoints on a given topic, but this is one issue for which I must rest on the fence.

On one hand, affirmative action is a rather disturbing concept. After all, there is no doubting that it is a policy that formally discriminates against a certain segment of the population, even if this segment happens to be a relatively large and wealthy one.

This country prides itself on the belief that everything in life is earned. While it may be idealistic, there is a rather widely held desire to eliminate special privileges from our lives, and affirmative action clearly flies in the face of all of that. Or does it? Certainly, there is little doubt that affirmative action cannot and should not be a final endpoint of our society. It is never an ideal situation when people are discriminated against based on factors they have absolutely no control over, but given the circumstances, affirmative action represents a practical temporary solution.

While the American university system is designed to provide equal educational opportunities to all deserving students, it has become apparent in recent years that this is not yet true. The most universal indicator used to shape college admissions is the SAT, which was designed to be somewhat like an IQ test, predicting not who knew the most by the end of high school, but who was most likely to succeed in their freshman year of college. However, all results from this standardized test have suggested that minorities consistently and blatantly underperform. This is not because they are less smart, but because they have less access to educational resources than most white students.

This has caused a tenuous situation in college admissions, especially at a time when diversity is considered more valuable for education than ever before. University officials are left with a critical dilemma. On one hand, the admissions process is one that puts full emphasis on everything a student has accomplished: grades, activities, test scores, and more. At the same time, however, many of these criteria depend not insignificantly on the student’s background and upbringing, factors which we would rather believe are independent of this entire process but are in fact intrinsic to it in a subtle way. So while universities feel obligated to reward students who have succeeded to date, they are also left wondering about the less privileged students who for various reasons, have not achieved a high level of achievement but may indeed offer a great deal of promise and potential. Isn’t college a place for broadening horizons and opportunities, rather than perpetuating existing limitations and privileges?

Affirmative action, in moderation, is a necessary evil in combating class perpetuation along racial lines in this country. At the same time, it is not a very satisfying solution; it attempts to solve a fundamental problem of inequality of opportunity in a rather superficial manner, rather than attacking the root causes of the problem. It would behoove the Supreme Court to not only provide legal backing for affirmative action as a short-term solution to the college admissions dilemma, but to also suggest more permanent and essential approaches to tackling this problem.