Racial and Ethnic Discrimination

Start Free Trial

Is affirmative action the best way to redress racial injustice towards African Americans in American society?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, affirmative action is "an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women." In practical terms, affirmative action involves laws, policies, and guidelines that stipulate special consideration for minorities or women to counterbalance historical discrimination.

The first practical consideration of affirmative action occurred after the Civil War, when General Sherman proposed that land in the South be divided and each African American family be given "forty acres and a mule." This policy was never implemented due to its lack of popularity. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy used the term "affirmative action" in an executive order against discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in the workplace, and in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order for federal contractors to practice affirmative action.

Since then, affirmative action has been widely used as a method of offsetting discrimination towards African Americans, although it is banned in several states. It is a highly controversial topic that incites fervent debate for and against its implementation. Since your question is subjective and involves personal opinion, we'll present some of the most common arguments for and against using affirmative action as a method of addressing racial injustice towards African Americans, and then you can decide which side you want to adopt in your answer.

First we'll examine some of the main arguments in favor of affirmative action. Although in a perfect world affirmative action should be unnecessary, as everyone would be judged on their merits, in practice this does not happen. If there is no such policy, many employers and educational institutions will continue with the discrimination that they have used for centuries when vetting candidates. Diversity cannot be left to chance. Prospective employees and students who are at a disadvantage need to be given a boost in order to succeed and break into fields in which they have historically been excluded. Without legal mandates, some people will feel justified in continuing their practices of discrimination.

As for arguments against affirmative action, one of the most prevalent is that it is a form of reverse discrimination. It requires employers and schools to take on African Americans whether or not they are as qualified as other candidates. This can lower standards when employers and schools must accept people based on their background instead of their ability. It demeans real African American success when acceptance is based on race rather than achievements. In fact, African Americans are well able to meet the standards of education and employment in order to be accepted even without affirmative action.

These arguments for and against affirmative action should enable you to make a decision one way or the other and write a paper to back it up.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no one single best way to address issues which have evolved over centuries and involve the lives of millions of people. Thinking about simple "best" solutions actually gets in the way of trying to understand and remedy a wide range of social injustices.

First, it is difficult to separate racial from economic injustice. Reserving, for example, a fixed number of university places for racial minorities can benefit mainly the middle classes. On the other hand, what are known as "legacy admissions," some athletic scholarships, and favoritism towards big donors act as a form of "affirmative action for rich white students." While affirmative action can help create a more ethnically diverse student population, it is not a complete solution.

Another major area of educational inequality has to do with property taxes supporting schools, something that causes schools in rich white areas to be better funded that schools in poorer minority areas. A fairer distribution of school funding and less racial segregation by neighborhood would give young people equal starting points in education.

While affirmative action can help with issues like corporate boards still being disproportionately white and male, it is equally important to address issues such as childhood poverty. By providing better access to food, medical care, and a safe home and community environments, it would be possible to give young black people a start in life that gives them more opportunities as adults.

Rather than seeking some one best solution, it is important to find multiple synergistic solutions.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Affirmative action may not be the best way to address racial injustice, but in many cases, it's almost unavoidable. One of the biggest criticisms leveled against the policy is that it doesn't deal with the underlying structural reasons—such as inequalities in education and employment opportunities—that regularly hold back African-Americans and prevent them from gaining equality.

But in response to that, one could argue that affirmative action isn't supposed to do that in any case. It's really nothing more than a stop-gap measure. On this reading, dealing with structural equalities and implementing affirmative action programs are not mutually exclusive; it's possible to do both simultaneously. The former can be seen as more of a long-term project, while the latter is a short-term measure that at least makes the effort to iron out certain of the most egregious inequalities in society.

That's what I meant at the start by saying that affirmative action may not be the best way to deal with racial inequality. It isn't. But that doesn't mean that it has no part to play. So long as African-Americans are massively underrepresented in college admissions or certain professions such as medicine and law, then some kind of affirmative action program, whatever its drawbacks, is inevitable. The main thing, however, is to make sure that such programs are used in addition to, and not instead of, dealing with the deeper underlying problems in society that lead to racial inequality in the first place.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

No.  Race-based affirmative action is not the best way to do this.  There are two reasons for this.

First, race-based affirmative action serves to further divide America on racial lines.  It sets different ethnic groups against one another.  It makes whites (who are still very much the majority in the United States) against non-whites.  This is bad for minorities in the short run and for the country in the long run.

Second, it is not the best way to target those African Americans who are most in need of help.  Affirmative action programs tend to skim off the top of African American society, taking those who might not have needed help anyway.  It would make more sense to base affirmative action programs on economic status.  That way, those African Americans who have been most hurt will be sure to get help.  At the same time, such programs would benefit whites, reducing the degree to which they would cause racial animosity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial