The 1960s would go down in American history as one of the most transformative decades. During this time, key legislation regarding civil rights was passed in order to make sure that no more injustices could take place under the government’s watch. It is during this time period that the phrase “affirmative action” was first used. Part of Executive Order No. 10925, affirmative action stated that applicants for jobs, universities, etc. were to be treated fairly regardless of their “race, creed, color, or national origin.” It held the same objective as many other civil rights bills: to promote equality and to attempt to undo the injustices caused by segregation in America. Over the course of the following 20 years, affirmative action would go on to include a call for equality regardless of a person’s religion, and gender.
Affirmative action was created to encourage the growth of often disadvantaged minorities and create a barrier against future discrimination on the basis of one’s looks and beliefs. At the time of its passage, affirmative action was justified as being a helping hand to minorities who had generally been ill-treated in America.
It is important to establish the meaning of affirmative action in relation to the quota system. Often, the two are confused to be synonyms; in reality, they each possess very specific qualities that set them apart from each other. The quota system sets a limit per social or racial distinction, meaning once the “quota” is complete, the institution employing this system need not admit more people of said specific group. Affirmative action, on the other hand, is a positive program that advocates for the inclusivity of minorities by setting “targeted goals” to address past discriminations.
Although affirmative action was created to right the wrongs of an older America, in recent years, opponents of the policy have come forth claiming it is outdated and counterproductive to some degree. It has become the piece of legislature that attempted to eliminate racial favoring in American society by utilizing racial favoring.
The controversy about affirmative action begins with this question: is it still required? While proponents of the policy claim it is key legislation to ensure equal treatment of all Americans regardless of background, opponents claim it to be disadvantageous to majority groups in modern America.
In recent times, the topic of affirmative action with regards to higher education has come under scrutiny by many. Over the past 20 years, there have been four major Supreme Court cases regarding universities and their interpretation and implementation of affirmative action. The plaintiffs of these cases have sued on the basis of unfair admissions processes and consideration of factors other than test scores and extracurricular activities. The reason for the sudden opposition to affirmative action can also be attributed to these court cases. Among these four landmark cases are Fisher v. Texas, 2013, and Fisher v. Texas, 2016. In both circumstances, the plaintiff was Abigail Fisher. In the 2013 case, Fisher was rejected from the University of Texas, Austin, after applying to the school as a “high scoring student.” Fisher, a Caucasian female, claimed that in rejecting her application (which ranked her as being in the top 12% of her class and an overall good student) in preference to an applicant from a minority, her Constitutional right to equality was violated. The court ruled in favor of Fisher in 2013. The case was revisited again in 2016; however, this time, the court ruled in favor of the University of Texas, stating that their admissions process survived strict scrutiny procedures, and could legally utilize race as part of their admissions review.
In 2019, the debate over the constitutionality of affirmative action opened to a larger audience with the highly publicized court case, Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard, 2019. The plaintiffs of the case, the SFFA, put forth the claim that the Harvard admissions process was flawed in that it utilized affirmative action to discriminate against Asian Americans. The SSFA was led by Edward Blum, a conservative strategist who favored anti-affirmative action rhetoric. He was also known to have played a part in the Fisher trials. The final court ruling on the case (passed by Judge Allison D. Burroughs) reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Harvard admissions process, stating it was within the bounds of the Constitution and was therefore not discriminatory. Burroughs also went on to cite previous Supreme Court cases which examined similar conflicts as evidence that no injustice was being committed against Asian-American students.
Although the ruling itself favored Harvard and the further practice of affirmative action, the attention that the proceedings drew was enough to convince many Americans about the negative effects of affirmative action. Affirmative action gained the reputation of being a band-aid solution to a deeply-rooted problem in American society.
Political and social theorists have tirelessly offered resolutions and compromises regarding the fairness and constitutionality of affirmative action. Some say that by perhaps providing disadvantaged minorities better groundwork in the form of more refined basic education will be more effective in bringing equality to America. Others say that affirmative action has significantly improved racial and social polarity in America until now, and will continue to do so in the future.
For now, affirmative action remains a political and social controversy in American society.
Author: Sanjana Sharma