Affirmative Action Has Been a Contentious Issue

Affirmative Action has been a contentious issue in the United States ever since its inception. Although the main aim of the institution has always been to redress the inequalities and unfairness towards African-Americans and other groups in the past, its opponents have increasingly begun to claim that affirmative action is no less than reverse racism. The basis of this claim is that affirmative action programs are seen to provide advantages to certain groups of people, primarily based upon race. As the constitution expressly forbids such discrimination, affirmative action has been said to be unconstitutional. Specifically, affirmative action programs in educational institutions have been under the spotlight in this regard. Authors such as Richard Bernstein and Ronald Dworkin advocate the widely divergent viewpoints currently prevailing on this issue.

The Problem of Affirmative Action

Bernstein cites the case of Cheryl J. Hopwood, who sued the University of Texas Law as a result of not being admitted to their program. She believed that the main reason for this was her race, being white. She also believed at the time that race and ethnicity were the most important and indeed all-important criteria for admission, without considering other legitimate concerns, as stipulated by the Supreme Court in the case of Allan P. Bakke against the University of California. Upon investigation, it was found that the law school set aside more or less 15% of its places for African- and Mexican-American students. According to the report, criteria used for their admission are also different from other applicants. This is the basis for Ms. Hopwood's objection.

Hopwood also stated that race at such a level of study should not be one of the determining factors for admittance. Indeed, the academic records of the persons admitted should be the only factor. The point here is that those admitted under "special" conditions did not necessarily have the social and educational disadvantages that such programs are normally meant to address. The university on the other hand contended that the quota program was indeed aimed at providing a more representative basis of graduates for their location. Furthermore, a state containing 40% African- and Mexican-Americans should be encouraged to provide an educational system that is inclusive and representative. This is the reason for the lower standard of admission for these sectors of society, although it is contended that race is not the only requirement for admission to the program. According to the University, both the lower and the higher standards are sufficient to produce high-quality students.

Bernstein presents arguments both for and against the university, with the facts appearing to indicate that nonwhites are indeed unfairly advantaged not only in terms of admission, but also in terms of scholarships regardless of financial need. Significantly, the University admits that nonwhite students who are successful generally have successful parents as well. The initial purpose of affirmative action to redress past wrongs in this sense appears to be obsolete - the nonwhite students who are admitted to the University and who are successful are not those who in fact need the benefits provided by affirmative action.

It therefore appears that Hopwood makes a valid point with her statements that nonwhites should not receive preference at the level of study she was entering, and that she should have been granted admission on the strength of her merits. In her case, it appears that she was denied admission on the basis of little more than her skin color. Although Bernstein does not offer a personal viewpoint, the facts of the case appear to indicate that this is indeed both discriminatory and unconstitutional in a country that does not allow such bias.

Individualism as a Solution

Steven Yates appears to advocate a similar objection to the supposed merits of affirmative action programs at universities and elsewhere in the professional sector. Yates raises the issue in terms of historical disadvantage. He points out that those who have in fact been disadvantaged by social marginalization and the white-biased system of employment and study do not belong to the generations entering the education and workforce today. Indeed, many nonwhites, as stated above, have all the privileges and advantages of their white counterparts. Still, aged affirmative action programs, originally instituted for generations past, still advantage current generations who no longer in fact need them. Yates points towards the basic unfairness of this. He notes that the whites who are today forced to give up job opportunities and college admissions to allow affirmative action programs have not been born at the time when segregation was at the order of the day, while those benefiting from it are mainly also from a privileged sector of society, and were also not yet born to experience the wrongs committed against their parents and grandparents.

A compelling case is that of white people like the above-mentioned Cheryl Hopwood, whose youth was anything but privileged. Despite many circumstances against her, she worked towards her goals and succeeded in advancing her academic career. It is then little wonder that she experiences the affirmative action program as negative and discriminatory when comparing her own struggle to the possibly privileged lives of those benefiting from the quota systems.

Yates emphasizes that the individualist model of society is much more appropriate for the current situation than the collectivist one. When social injustice and inequality prevailed according to collective sectors of society, the collectivist model was applicable in the struggle towards freedom and equality. Today, however, the struggle has diversified itself. It is as likely for a white person such as Hopwood to have financial difficulties as it is for a black person. In order to therefore promote true equality, the affirmative action program should also be diversified according to criteria other than race. Deserving academic performers with financial difficulties can for example benefit much more from such a program than a rich black person, who is equally deserving on an academic level.

Yates emphasizes that individualism is a much more accurate account of humanity, particularly in modern times, than is collectivism, as individuals make decisions and take action. If this is acknowledged, it becomes clear that affirmative action programs can no longer be valid for the model of society that is appropriate for modern times. If race is removed from the affirmative action equation, it becomes applicable to individuals and their specific problems, rather than to a collective sector of society who has done little or nothing to deserve the advantages promoted in this way.

Yates warns that the perpetuation of the quota system according to race would serve only to further divide society and emphasize existing paradigms of division and difference. Individualism, on the other hand, emphasizes the fact that each individual has choices and opportunities. It acknowledges that individuals are to help each other succeed and so attain success for themselves, rather than the distrust and hostility promoted by collectivism.

The Collectivist Solution

Ronald Dworkin disagrees strongly with this view. He is in favor of affirmative action programs, which he believes will benefit society in the longer run. Indeed, his is a collectivist view of society, which rests on the view that uplifting one sector of the collective, divisions will eventually disappear.

Dworkin (in Boxill 298) believes that the affirmative action programs at Universities specifically are not designed to further divide the American nation, but rather to ultimately eliminate the importance of race as a consideration of society and professional life. He believes that the manifestation of these programs as protested in the Bakke case is based upon the fact that any weaker system would fail in the goal of ultimate fairness. In his words, "weaker [programs] will fail." Furthermore, according to Dworkin (Boxill 300), implementing non-racially conscious programs for University admissions is unrealistic, as the main goal of these universities is to increase the number of black students in the most white-dominated professions. Not acknowledging this as a goal is both hypocritical and ultimately unfair, according to the author.

Dworkin (Boxill 301) furthermore argues that the national goal of equality should be taken into consideration when arguing for or against the fairness of affirmative action programs. It is his opinion that an opposition of constitutionality is a misunderstanding, and that such programs are necessary and even vital for the future of the country. In order to promote equality in certain professions, Dworkin believes that there is no choice other than affirmative action programs, because these help deserving African-Americans and Mexican-Americans to enter professions that they would otherwise not have access to. Racial quotas and other such programs at these institutions are therefore seen as necessary steps upon the way to a more equal and representative professional sector in the country.

Of course Dworkin's opinions solicited a large number of responses to the effect that affirmative action programs are indeed unconstitutional by any definition of the word. Indeed, these opinions hold that such programs constitute nothing less than reverse discrimination, and that many deserving white people are now excluded from a profession in which they could have greatly benefited theā€¦