Affirmative Action Pros and Cons

Affirmative action is controversial, with zealous partisans staking out both pro and con positions. In its simplest terms, affirmative action involves steps taken by the government to increase the representation of women and ethnic and racial minorities in business and education. Its supporters and opponents have been arguing since 1972 or earlier; the debate has shifted but shows no sign of subsiding.

Pros: Arguments for affirmative action

  • Diversity. Admitting an underrepresented segment of the population to employment and education previously closed to them gives the workforce a more versatile and flexible point of view. The United States is creative and competitive because it accepts ideas and innovation from all its citizens, not merely those traditionally considered part of the creative, managerial or academic classes. Nations in which women and minorities are not admitted to professional occupations suffer in the global marketplace because these countries fully use the abilities of only a part of their workforce.
  • Compensation. No one doubts that past injustices limited the achievement of certain groups of people. People who lose civil lawsuits are required to make up for past wrongs by compensating the victims. Similarly, institutions guilty of discrimination in the past should be required to compensate victimized classes.
  • Fairness. Fairness explains why the United States has a court system, public education and a spectrum of programs designed to ensure equality among its citizens. Affirmative action guarantees women and minorities a fair share of the economic pie. It’s fair to try to make up for past inequalities.

Cons: Arguments against affirmative action

  • Merit. Affirmative action makes it a policy to ignore merit. Extra points on examinations or informal or unspoken quotas that ensure the admission of women and minorities to elite schools, for example, prevent recognition of superior effort and ability. Ignoring merit actively harms the competitive position of the United States by failing to place those persons who appear to be most talented. It’s possible to measure merit, though perhaps not precisely. High school grades, test scores and essays do indeed demonstrate ability. It’s wrong to ignore them.
  • Initiative. Affirmative action guarantees equal results instead of equal opportunities. By doing so, affirmative action rewards a person merely for being a female or a minority and thus fails to encourage effort. This stifles initiative. It’s morally corrupt to fail to award the person who actually won that award.
  • Reverse discrimination. If discrimination is wrong, then surely it’s wrong in every form. Admissions and hiring should be completely colorblind throughout our society. When someone is given a place or position through affirmative action, someone else faces discrimination.

Supporters and opponents likely will never agree on this issue. One way out of the impasse is to continue to increase efforts to provide every child with opportunities to succeed. When the United States nurtures the abilities of every citizen equally, the debate on affirmative action will be a fading memory.

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