Progressives typically use the term affirmative action as a positive reference, reflecting a way to intentionally reduce discriminatory bias (usually related to race), whether unconscious or deliberate. Specifically, affirmative action calls for consideration of a person’s membership in a historically disadvantaged group in such matters as employment and college admission. To many progressives, this is something U.S. society needs - as much today as ever - to “level the playing field” so that every American citizen has an equal chance to succeed. In the 1978 Supreme Court case that upheld a university’s right to use race as a factor in admission, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently."
Conservatives, meanwhile, typically use the same term as a negative reference, reflecting set-asides or quotas that violate traditional American ideals of meritocracy. For these people, the term carries connotations of “special treatment,” injustice, and abuse, especially in cases where highly qualified applicants may have been denied employment or college admission because of their (usually white) race. To this group, the playing field is in danger of being (or has already been) “leveled” to the point of injustice in the opposite direction. They believe that proper implementation of affirmative action only takes place when two candidates for a position are in all other respects equally qualified.
More recently, the progressive justification for affirmative action has shifted from “leveling the playing field” to “diversity being a compelling interest of society,” and from “mere equality” to equity. Thus, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and then again in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013), the primary legal argument in favor of preserving the university’s right to use race as a factor in its admission process was not to compensate for past discrimination but because racial diversity in higher education was a compelling interest of all students and employers.
The conservative rejoinder has been to assert that diversity is not important enough to override what they see as the unconstitutionality of race-based policies. They also assert that, in practice, there really is no way to operationalize “equality of qualifications” without creating unintended negative social and economic consequences. Justice Clarence Thomas summarized this position by saying: "there is no principled distinction between the University’s assertion that diversity yields educational benefits and the segregationists’ assertion that segregation yielded those same benefits” (Fisher v UT at Austin).
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-Do you see affirmative action as a sensible effort to redress past wrongs and ensure equity? Why or why not?
-What do you think differentiates people who disagree on the value and merits of affirmative action? Is it simply a difference in compassion or sense of justice – or are there competing views of justice and compassion at issue?
-How important should diversity be for students and employers?
-What is the most appropriate role of government in regard to promoting diversity?
-What should be the criteria (if any) for race-based or gender-based affirmative action to be legal?