Dissecting all sides of the controversy 

by Annie Li and Anisha Rajaselvam

Photo source: Precious Abang (original art)

The question we’re all too scared to ask: what is “affirmative action?”

It seems that everyone has different opinions about “affirmative action” in admissions and hiring processes. Unfortunately, it turns out that they also have different definitions for “affirmative action.” In June of 2023, the US Supreme Court voted against race-based affirmative action in university admissions (The Economist, 2023). A survey on support for the policy in university admissions found that the percentage of people supporting it varied widely depending on how the question was asked. For example, when asked whether they “think the Supreme Court should not prohibit the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions, a practice commonly known as affirmative action,” 63% of responders agreed (Cato, 2023). However, when asked whether they “think colleges should be allowed to consider an applicant’s race, among other factors, when making decisions on admissions,” only 25% agreed (Cato, 2023). It seems this already controversial idea is muddier than we thought; people don’t really have a consistent idea of what we’re even arguing about.

Originally designed as a term to advocate for governments dismantling discriminatory societal frameworks, affirmative action has somehow devolved to the imposition of quotas, targeted hiring, and “racial filters.” The immediate backlash against the idea of affirmative action in selection processes is twofold. First, it perpetuates the narrative that historically marginalised groups selected through affirmative action never really earned their position. Regardless of how qualified the candidate is and how necessary conscious compensation for racial barriers is, being chosen with what some view as an “advantage” corrupts the idea of the original “merit-based” system (heavily ironic considering the fact this system was built by the privileged for the privileged and is therefore more biased than any compensation could be). 

Some members of groups that affirmative action was designed to protect are worried about long-term consequences of this type of selection and the harmful misconceptions it may end up solidifying. What happens if a candidate selected through an affirmative-action-based selection process doesn’t perform at the expected level? What sorts of pressures do these candidates have to deal with as they bear the weight of representing the entirety of their racial group? How do institutions protect candidates from discriminatory behaviour after selection? Simply facilitating representation on paper isn’t nearly enough; it needs to be accompanied by deeper systemic alterations to protect the long-term interests of vulnerable groups.

Second, it encourages the idea that certain groups are dependent on explicit preference in order to obtain the same merit-based opportunities as white men. This isn’t to say that compensation for racial bias isn’t important: the argument is that instead of providing support at the selection level, we should work towards removing existing barriers which create the discrepancies in the competitiveness of candidates based on the current metric of “success.” Affirmative action policies can be misinterpreted as a concession of certain groups being incapable of securing the position by traditional means, instead of a compensatory measure to level the playing field. 

In defence of affirmative action…

This doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been significant progress made thanks to affirmative action. None of the necessary systemic changes can occur without marginalised groups making their way into positions of influence. Quotas, targeted hiring, and other considerations of race in selection processes have been instrumental in finally allowing minority groups to be represented and, in doing so, have also laid the groundwork for catalysing real change (Karabel, 2023). The question then becomes, are these benefits exclusive to affirmative action? Do they only exist in the short-term? Do they outweigh its detriments? The problem is that affirmative action policies were not intended to be permanent solutions. They were conceptualised as a needed transition from the status quo to establishing the diverse representation required to realise true systemic racial equality. And, to a certain extent, affirmative action has been successful in boosting representation rates. We can’t solely blame existing policies for the current hesitancy to move on to the next step. Maybe we’ve become complacent, or maybe, we’ve gotten so entrenched in the affirmative action battle that we forgot about the war.

Putting a BAND-AID on a bullet wound

The controversy behind affirmative action goes beyond agreeing or disagreeing with the idea because the reality is that it can be co-opted by those in power as a band-aid solution over systemic socio-economic and racial issues. The policies fail to address the barriers that prevent marginalised groups from “achieving” at the same level as other “competitive” candidates. There is no doubt that the current metric for academic success is built around resources and opportunities more easily accessible to those of a certain socioeconomic standing and/or race. For example, students from wealthier families can participate in extracurriculars that those more socioeconomically disadvantaged cannot afford. Moreover, standardised tests also reflect economic inequalities and can be flawed measures of merit. Not only do schools in low-income areas often lack the resources to prepare students for testing, but the tests themselves often reflect the experiences of the dominant group (Cunningham, 2018). These inequalities are exacerbated when we look at the demographic breakdown of different socioeconomic brackets. According to the United States Census Bureau, Black people made up 13.5% of the total population and 20.1% of the population in poverty in 2022 (2023). Hispanic people and certain other minority groups are also overrepresented in lower socioeconomic brackets. On the other hand, white people are underrepresented in poverty. The existing intrinsic biases limit access to privileges and opportunities, creating a severely distorted playing field. 

It’s easy for politicians and lawmakers to point at affirmative action as the scapegoat for matters of inequality, when the end goal should be to eliminate the need for affirmative action in the first place.

It gets more complicated.

Unfortunately, the situation only gets more complicated when a potential nuance in the opposition against affirmative action is brought up. In some instances, valid arguments against affirmative action have been “hijacked” by privileged groups that now feel disadvantaged by compensatory policies. A Texan student named Abigail Fisher famously argued that she was discriminated against in university admissions because she is white, when subsequent investigation found that her application was simply not competitive enough. Furthermore, out of the students that were offered admission and had lower grades than Fisher, forty-two were white and five were Black or Latino (ProPublica, 2016). Affirmative action wasn’t just handing out admissions to individuals belonging to minority groups and Fisher was claiming to have lost a spot that was never really hers. 

To add to the complexity, Asians have been brought up as “victims” of affirmative action. Some claim that Asians have been held to different standards during university admissions procedures and that affirmative action policies designed to support other racial minorities introduce an additional disadvantage. Others—such as a race scholar at Berkeley named Ian Haney López—disagree and argue instead that Asian Americans are now serving as puppets for those wanting to cling to white privilege (NPR, 2023). This allows people who benefit from existing biases to protest against affirmative action under the guise of supporting equality, when in reality, it is simultaneously self-serving and pitting Asian Americans against other minority communities, pushing us further away from overall racial equality (NPR, 2023).

The deeply political and mixed motivations of opposition groups make it more difficult to separate valid points from malicious intentions. To what extent do we have to consider who is making the argument (and why) beyond what they are arguing?

So, what now?

The affirmative action phase that was meant to be purely transitory is simultaneously being dragged out and cut short. It is “dragged out” in the sense that we are getting caught up in extensive debates over the meticulous details and implications of affirmative action, which prevents us from stepping back and realising that the goal was to introduce the racial representation needed to advance to the next phase: addressing the barriers that made affirmative action necessary in the first place. It is “cut short” in the sense that bureaucratic red tape and administrative inefficiencies, paired with policy reversals motivated by fear of backlash, are inhibiting affirmative action from fully achieving its intention of adequate representation. 

This somewhat contradictory phenomenon is an interesting reflection of the broader fight for racial equality. It remains messy and nuanced and complicated and exhausting and deeply controversial. While this article is by no means claiming to hold the be-all end-all solution, hopefully now you at least know what “affirmative action” means. Kind of. Maybe?

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