The Opportunities and Obstacles of Affirmative Action

By: Catherine He

Affirmative action probably sounds alien to the average reader, but the words may ring a distant bell if you’ve ever researched or experienced the daunting, bone-chilling, petrifying process known as university admission applications. Essentially, affirmative action is “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women” (“Affirmative action”).

The term was first coined by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a method of redressing discrimination that had persisted despite civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. Essentially, this would ensure that access to opportunities would be not diminished because of the factor of race. It went on to be developed and enforced for the first time by Lyndon B. Johnson. He asserted that, “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek…not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result” (Infoplease Staff).

This revolutionary new idea would go on to be adopted by the higher education system in the United States, and it really flipped the tables for minority enrollment in schools. Previously, white males had a huge advantage in comparison to all other groups, particularly if they had legacy status (Webster). Having affirmative action in place eventually led to our current education scene – diverse and bustling with different kinds of students from all walks of life.

However, affirmative action isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, Students for Fair Admissions can testify. In the November of 2014, Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, sued Harvard on behalf of Asian American applicants on the basis that the university in question uses affirmative action to discriminate and unfairly hold Asian-Americans to a higher standard than other races. The case was decided in 2019, but by no means did that mark the end of conversation (Jaschik). Affirmative action is a topic that sparks a forest fire of debate, but why is this the case?

Supporters attend the ‘Rally for the American Dream – Equal Education Rights for All,’ in Boston on Oct. 14, 2018. The rally was held the day before the start of the federal trial to determine if Harvard University is discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Image from The Christian Science Monitor.

The original idea of affirmative action was to offer African-American and Hispanic students an advantage in the admissions process, offering an extra footstep to a racial group that statistics did not favour when it came down to education and admissions. It was an attempt to bring equity and equal opportunity to the college admissions process (Webster). When it comes down to the bare facts, it’s no secret that African Americans and Hispanics have been prejudiced against in the past, and while this issue has slightly subsided it by no means has been resolved. Affirmative action is still ever important in moving all cogs of society onto an equal playing field.

Additionally, learning in a diverse environment can be beneficial to all students, not just minorities. As Peter W. Cookson Jr., a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute says, “Having people from different backgrounds in colleges improves educational opportunities for students” (Webster). When you look at affirmative action from this perspective, it looks to be perfect, and if everything went according to plan this could be (or have been; affirmative action has been on the decline recently) the solution to all of our problems.

There are many critics to affirmative action that believe that the policy is outdated and no longer necessary, stating that it leads to reverse discrimination by disadvantaging majority groups either by admitting minority applicants over others who are more qualified, or by prioritizing minority applicants over white applicants who are otherwise on that level playing field, unbalancing the system (Webster).

To put this into perspective, let’s say that we have a Caucasian college applicant and an African college applicant, both applying to the same school. Both of these individuals have the exact same grades in school, and their extras are pretty on par with one another. They are both highly qualified students for this competitive college, and are photocopies of each other in terms of academic performance. Despite all of this, it is a critic’s belief that the African American student has an advantage over the Caucasian applicant. There isn’t much data and evidence out there to support this belief, but this definitely is an obstacle of affirmative action – an attempt to level the playing field resulted in plotting races against one another. This can be especially detrimental when it comes to minorities against minorities that fuels the ever-lasting cycle of internal racism.

Image from Brookings.

The aforementioned legal case argument that affirmative action discriminates heavily against Asian students can’t be denied completely – Asian applicants are often to held to a higher standard than other races in the admissions process, and typically need higher test scores and grades to be admitted into highly competitive universities (another coincidence – while many universities no longer use affirmative action, many prestigious schools including the Ivy Leagues continue to admit students with affirmative action). This fact is enough to drive a rift between minority groups, when they should all be coming together to fight against the hardships that they all collectively face.

Without even considering inequality in admissions consideration, affirmative action could be seen as detrimental because it can potentially fuel the intense cycle of racism against minorities in the country by forcing them to compete against one another to be accepted by a predominantly Caucasian majority community. In theory, this allows the idea of white supremacy to continue, as those ‘below’ fight against each other in order to have a chance to be accepted by those ‘superior’. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some Asian-American groups believe cases such as the one against Harvard are using Asian students to dismantle beneficent policies aimed at assisting Black and Latinx students. In contradiction to the earlier point, recent polls show that the majority of Asian-Americans support affirmative action overall (Webster).

Affirmative action probably sounds pretty alien to our average audience, however this important topic on diversity in higher education is something that has been debated for decades on end.
A study showing Asian American support for affirmative action from NBC News.

Affirmative action offers many opportunities to previously discriminated groups that don’t have access to the same resources and would never have had a chance to attend competitive schools because of factors outside of their control. However good natured the intention might be, plans don’t always get carried out in the way they were originally prepared, and affirmative action could prove an obstacle to reaching our final destination of equality for all, and plotting already vulnerable and discriminated minorities against one another. Both sides of affirmative action are perfectly valid and reasonable, and therefore one might wonder if this becomes an argument of necessary evil.

Works Cited:

“Affirmative action.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 30 Dec. 2020.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Affirmative Action.” Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, 18 May 2020, 

Infoplease Staff. “Affirmative Action History.” Infoplease, Infoplease, 10 Aug. 2020, 

Jaschik, Scott. “Inside Higher Ed.” Appeals Court Backs Harvard on Affirmative Action, 16 Nov. 2020, 

Webster, Emma Sarran. “This Is How Affirmative Action Actually Works.” Teen Vogue, 14 Aug. 2017, 

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