The Hypocrisy of Affirmative Action

In an attempt to compensate for historical discriminatory practices, our well-intentioned institutions and social engineers have simply swung the pendulum back over.

Joseph Williams / Flickr Creative Commons

The concept of affirmative action is an embodiment of an ideology and culture that has risen to dominance in American society, particularly in that of business and higher education where the rationale of increasing diversity and equality among a select population is applied to situations and practices of which may result in greater diversity but certainly not equality while being completely hypocritical in nature.

Affirmative action rose in support and popularity in the same years that the Civil Rights movement entered the national stage. Executive Order 10925 was issued by President John F. Kennedy requiring government contractors 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.” The administration was not encouraging quotas to be established or for minorities to receive special preference but rather “advocating racially neutral hiring to end job discrimination” [1].

There is a fundamental difference between the nature and application of the affirmative action Kennedy envisioned and that of which it has evolved into today. This alone should provoke a sense of wariness when viewing our current state and usage of affirmative action.

We have shifted far from the objective of where race is sought to be regarded as a neutral characteristic of an applicant to where it is advantageous in the case of minorities or historically marginalized demographics. The most common rationale for this form of affirmative action lies in the desire to aid those who are underprivileged or underrepresented to achieve opportunities they would have otherwise been devoid of. There is also the argument that increased diversity within a select population, such as a workplace or university, can lead to greater progress and success.

The premise against the modern model of affirmative action is quite simple. The demographics of an applicant now contains a considerably higher value to a recruiter or officer than it has in the past. While affirmative action has the ability to offer minorities or historically marginalized demographics greater opportunities and representation, it is at the cost of limiting the success and opportunity of more deserving applicants.

In recent years, affirmative action has become more of a balancing act in an effort to maintain a “proper” representation of each demographic in certain fields and populations. This has been most visible in higher-education.

In 2009, Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford quantified the SAT scores necessary for each race to have an approximately equal chance of admission at the top seven universities in the United States in the book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal — Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life [2]. On the 1600 scale, African Americans were found to have a 310-point bonus, Hispanics a 130, while Asians had a 140-point penalty. This system attempts to balance out the greater number of higher-achieving Asians in the applicant pool.

Simply because a certain demographic shows inclination or excellence in a certain field does not implicate that they have to be balanced out for the sake of diversity through means of selecting those less qualified.

An applicant should not be declined or hindered because of their demographic. But at the same time, an applicant should not be accepted or given an advantage simply because of their demographic.

A satirical analogy that exemplifies the unfairness of affirmative action can be found in athletics. African Americans realistically and stereotypically produce better performances in nearly every athletic event. Affirmative action, if applied here, would implement some factor or contingency to hinder the performance of African Americans while giving the contrary to an underrepresented demographic in athletics. For example, African Americans would have to be set back a number of meters in a track event to ensure that competitors of underrepresented demographics are given ample support and opportunity.

There is no singular policy or piece of legislation that describes or legalizes the way in which affirmative action is utilized in organizations, business, and higher education institutes. Court cases continue to refine our understanding and interpretation of affirmative action.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978 ruled that Allan Bakke, a Caucasian man of necessary academic achievements for admission, could not be rejected from the University of California Medical School at Davis, the Supreme Court arguing against the rigid use of racial quotas where the university would be violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court also ruled that race as a factor of admission decisions was constitutional as long as it was “narrowly tailored” and considered along with several other admission criteria. This landmark case gained enormous public attention. A great number of people viewed this case as a test of whether or not America had truly progressed ahead of the Civil Rights Era. Ironically, many also believed it to be a test of institutional equality among races and sexes.

In 2013, the Supreme Court voided a lower appellate court’s ruling in favor of the university’s affirmative action policy in Fisher v. University of Texas, holding that the court had not applied the standard of strict scrutiny set forth in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke to its admission system. However, the Court’s ruling did not directly address the question of the constitutionality of race as a factor in college admissions.

The American public’s opinion of affirmative action is quite predictable. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that 58% of African Americans and 53% of Hispanics were in favor of the preferential treatment brought to them through affirmative action while only 22% of Caucasians were in agreement.

There has been a sharp increase in the support of affirmative action when described as “programs to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education,” wherein August 1995, 58% were in favor and 36% opposed and in 2007 when 70% were in favor and 25% in opposition. However, there is still much division in regards to the minority of preference and further uncertainty when discussing the appropriate extent to which affirmative action should be utilized.

Dissent over affirmative action has periodically entered the American news cycle in the past decade. The most recent challenge to affirmative action occurred in the Spring of 2018 with several Asian American organizations accusing Harvard University of discriminatory practices against Asians.

In a statement in support of the Asian American groups, the Justice Department of Massachusetts wrote,

[…] the record evidence demonstrates that Harvard’s race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups […]

The Trump administration have publicly addressed their plans to rescind Obama-era policies promoting affirmative action. In early July of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked 24 guidance documents supporting affirmative action. The new Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been vocal in his support of ending race-conscious admission policies and could provide the swing vote necessary to bring the Trump administration’s goal to full fruition.

Affirmative action is representative of a new form of discrimination, where the effort to provide equal opportunities to minorities has crossed the border from necessary and sufficient to simply hypocritical. The goal of the Civil Rights movement was to create equal opportunity. In an attempt to compensate for historical discriminatory practices, our well-intentioned institutions and social engineers have simply swung the pendulum back over and slapped a new name on it.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rescinding and challenging the practice of affirmative action will contribute to creating a society where we “are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character”.


[1] Anderson, Terry H. (2004). The pursuit of fairness: a history of affirmative action. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195182453.

[2] Espenshade, Thomas J. (2013). No Longer Separate Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691162133

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