At its most objective definition, affirmative action entails “positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded.” Affirmative action acknowledges the presence of institutionalized and systematic forms of discrimination: which may not be apparent to members of the dominant or privileged culture. For example, white males will not even notice that no Blacks serve on the boards of directors in companies he works for. Affirmative action is a policy that seeks to correct institutionalized and systematic discrimination by seeing to it that diversity is both a means and an end. To deny the validity of affirmative action would be to deny that racism or sexism still exist. Given that human beings exhibit poor judgement based on their background, upbringing, and psychological biases, and given the presence of institutionalized discrimination, affirmative action remains an important and meaningful policy.
Affirmative action achieves several goals that are Constitutionally-supported as well as being ideologically sound in a democratic nation. First, affirmative action places non-white minorities and women into visible and practical positions of power so that they serve as role models for youth. Second, affirmative action places non-white minorities and women into positions of power so that they can make decisions based on their core values rather than continue to submit to the dominant culture or the core values shared only by the existing white male hegemony. Third, affirmative action reduces the impact of institutionalized and systematic discrimination, which tracks non-white students into vocational rather than erudite scholarly paths or tracks females into the path of domestic servitude.
Affirmative action corrects the imbalances in the existing power structure by ensuring access to positions of power by those typically excluded such as non-whites and females. Sykes (2010) defines affirmative action as “the set of public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate past and present discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Therefore, affirmative action should not be too narrowly defined to refer only to race. If the United States Constitution guarantees equal access and equal opportunity then affirmative action remains a necessary public policy. Equal access and equal opportunity are not yet guaranteed without affirmative action because of subconscious discrimination or bias and because of institutionalized or systematic discrimination.
The major strength of an argument in favor of affirmative action is that the policies help the United States truly live up to its ideal of freedom, liberty, and equality. Whereas the Constitution guarantees freedom, liberty, and equality, the document does not outline exactly how those goals may be achieved. Affirmative action is one method by which the United States can achieve that goal. Left to the discretion of private institutions and employers, discrimination continues to prevent non-whites and women from achieving social, economic, and political parity. A glass ceiling is still preventing the manifestation of American ideals.
The major weaknesses of the affirmative action argument are as follows. First, quota systems of affirmative action reduce the importance of merit on admissions or selections procedures. Quota systems have been a small part of affirmative action programs. Second, as the playing field does become more level, affirmative action will need to be phased out gradually. It will be difficult to know when and how to draw that line. Third, Barack Obama did not become President of the United States because of affirmative action and therefore the policy might not be as efficacious or necessary as presumed. Fourth, affirmative action can be misconstrued as “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.”
The values that are embraced by affirmative action include all those that underwrite the American value system. Equality of opportunity is the most important value that affirmative action policies uphold. Affirmative action is by definition a set of policies that ensures equality of opportunity.
Affirmative action does potentially and ironically undermine the value of equality. In fact, some affirmative action policies may take place of a pure meritocracy by offering preferential treatment. If non-whites and females are given preferential treatment, then they are not being allowed to be judged on their own merits. Therefore, affirmative action is detracting from the very values it seeks to promote. Theoretically, true equality actually suffers when affirmative action policies are in place because not all applicants are being treated equally.
The best rebuttal against affirmative action is that…