You Decide

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photo montage: ladders reaching into the skyImage CreditIs affirmative action fair?

By Jori Lewis

Think you know where you stand?

Back when it was first articulated in 1961, the term “affirmative action” meant any positive action used to fight discrimination — this was when it was first incorporated into the public lexicon through an Executive Order by President John F. Kennedy. In that broad original context, measures like civil rights and equal employment laws were “affirmative” actions.

For more than three decades, affirmative action policies of various stripes have been on the books. These days the term typically refers not just to the broad original thou-shalt-not-discriminate directives, but also to the range of specific policies and programs that aim to improve and increase educational and economic opportunities for people of color and women. Affirmative action programs include targeted recruitment campaigns and certain types of outreach and might at times call for race- and gender-based considerations, often called preferences. In practice, an example of an affirmative action preference is when a company or government agency, in addition to its nondiscrimination policy, sets a loose goal for hiring minority candidates.

Affirmative action preferences are often challenged in the courts and on ballots, but they have, by and large, remained. But the 2008 presidential race marked a new era, one that some think signaled that the playing field is now officially level: How could it not be with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vying for their party’s presidential nomination, Sarah Palin running as a vice presidential candidate, and Barack Obama being elected the first black president in American history, in what many even call a landslide victory? When Americans have “hired” a black man for the most powerful position in the world, are affirmative action preferences still necessary? Have we reached the point at which enforcing “fairness” is no longer necessary?

Critics of affirmative action say that it’s a policy whose time is up, for legal and moral reasons. Not only do many maintain that preferences are unconstitutional because they legitimize discrimination, but many believe that affirmative action results in the promotion of mediocre employees in the workplace and actually harm women and minorities by destroying their ability to compete with their peers and exposing them to ridicule. Plus, critics argue that many affirmative action programs don’t actually help the economically vulnerable people they were, in theory, supposed to support.

But supporters of affirmative action say that racism and sexism has shaped America in countless undesirable ways; to them, affirmative action programs that include racial and gender considerations appropriately correct for the systemic bias that will continue no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Antidiscrimination laws still need a little help from preferences that assure that workplaces hire and schools educate more women and people of color, they say, and affirmative action programs actually make organizations and institutions stronger and better, not weaker. Just because we’ve reached the point at which minorities and women are national leaders doesn’t mean affirmative action’s time is up.

Think you know where you stand on this issue? During the course of this activity, we will ask you three times: Is affirmative action fair? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite point of view.

Is affirmative action fair?

Nothing about the issues facing the candidates and American voters in 2008 is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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