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Affirmative Action

When is Affirmative Action Justified?

Affirmative Action is a policy, usually carried out by schools, businesses, government entities, and federal contractors, in which individuals of minority racial status are afforded preferential treatment on the basis of race. Affirmative action came about as part of a desire to rectify the traditional underrepresentation of minority peoples in desirable professions and universities, which negatively impacted their financial and social conditions. Supporters of affirmative action claim that it is a necessary mechanism that corrects the wrongs of the past and ensures equal treatment and an equality of outcomes for minorities.  Many supporters also argue that white Americans have unfairly benefited from the nation’s long history of anti-minority discrimination, which gives white Americans an unfair advantage called “white privilege.” Opponents of affirmative action claim that it is a form of “reverse discrimination” that unjustifiably harms well-being and denies equal access to opportunities for non-minority peoples and for minorities that sometimes do not receive affirmative action coverage, such as Asian-Americans.  Critics also contend that affirmative action excludes better qualified candidates for jobs and placements at universities.  Further, they challenge the notion that white Americans in the present year still enjoy benefits from discriminatory practices that ended several decades ago. This eLesson introduces students to the concept of affirmative action and the debates surrounding it.  After investigating neutral, pro-affirmative action, and anti-affirmative action viewpoints, students will participate in a civil dialogue with their classmates.



  1. As homework the night before or as an in-class assignment, ask students to read the neutral background source “Affirmative Action Overview.” Assign the following comprehension questions, which should be submitted as homework or written as an in-class activity.
    1. What is affirmative action?
    2. Why was it developed and implemented, and why is it still being implemented?
    3. What kinds of organizations use affirmative action when selecting job candidates or admitting students?
    4. Why is affirmative action controversial?
  2. In class, assign students to read both opinion pieces, “Why We Still Need Affirmative Action” and “The End of Affirmative Action.” Both articles are relatively brief.
    1. In their own words, students should summarize the arguments or salient contentions of the respective authors. Their responses should include, but may not be limited to the following issues.
      1. “Why We Still Need Affirmative Action”
        1. In order for people to join the nation’s government and professional elite, admission to elite colleges is a necessity.
        2. The ranks of the elite are too white and lack sufficient racial diversity.
        3. Minority admission into elite institutions increases overall minority earnings.
        4. White privilege is a malignant and “powerful force” which gives unfair advantages to white students, preventing minorities from achieving professional and academic success. Affirmative action counterbalances white privilege.
        5. Whites who enjoy the benefits of white privilege have unfair advantages over blacks and Hispanics.
        6. Blacks are underrepresented in colleges and high-skilled professions requiring degrees.
        7. There is no clear point at which affirmative action will become unnecessary.
      2. “The End of Affirmative Action”
        1. During and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, affirmative action may have seemed a worthwhile tool for righting the wrongs of segregation and slavery, but this has changed over time.
        2. Class, not race, is a greater determinant of one’s chances of success in life.
        3. People in modern America cannot be easily categorized into neat racial categories. Many people are mixed-race and have multiracial families.
        4. It is difficult for an individual to certify that they are of a particular race.
        5. Fifty years after the civil rights movement and 150 years after the Civil War, it is unlikely that affirmative action is a justifiable tool for compensation of past wrongs.
        6. It is impossible to place a value on the historical suffering of a particular group of people.
        7. It is difficult to determine the relative value of a person’s minority status vis-à-vis other minority groups. Which minority groups should receive greater preferential treatment?
        8. Affirmative action should not apply to recent immigrants, because they have not suffered historical injustices in the United States.
        9. If affirmative action is desirable, then why isn’t it used as a determinant in selecting competent medical doctors, pilots, and other highly skilled technical professionals?
  3. Lead an in-class discussion. The guiding question your class will consider is “Should colleges use race as a factor in admissions?”  You may also use this time to answer general questions about affirmative action and how it is implemented.
    1. Your role will be that of moderator. Tell your students that everyone, including yourself, are going to work together to reason though this difficult question.
    2. Instruct the students that they will be called on as they raise their hands. To keep things orderly, keep a list of students as they raise their hands, and call on them in that order. They can either respond directly to what was said before, or start their own line of thinking.
    3. It is natural for people to disagree with one another, particularly on issues that personally affect them. But personal attacks in lieu of reasoned, polite dialogue is never acceptable, nor is it acceptable to prohibit another student from speaking because their viewpoint is disagreeable.
    4. If conversation dies down, encourage the class with your own questions.
    5. It is okay if the class reaches no consensus. Society-at-large disagrees on major issues.
    6. If appropriate for your class, at the end of the class discussion, distribute one sheet of paper to each student. Ask them to anonymously record their responses to the following questions.
      1. What viewpoint did you have toward affirmative action before the class discussion began?
      2. What viewpoint did you have at the end of the discussion? If your viewpoint changed, what piece of information or argument persuaded you to change your mind?
      3. What was the decisive aspect of this issue which led you to adopt your present viewpoint?
      4. What would need to happen in the future to make you reconsider your viewpoint?