The End of Affirmative Action:  Society Calls for a Change

Diane Nagel


            “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Guernsey 27).  This famous line written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence clearly states our country’s ideal that every individual is inherently equal to another in a race and color-blind society.  However, at the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted the phrase all men did not carry the same meaning it holds today.  White women, blacks, and even white men who did not own land were not considered a part of all men.  The exclusion of these groups was discrimination in its most outright and profound form. 

            Discrimination is an ongoing problem that has plagued the United States since the time of her birth.  The practice of affirmative action was an attempt to resolve the issue of discrimination.  As defined by the authors of Affirmative Action: The Pros and Cons of Policy and Practice, affirmative action is “the protective or preferential treatment of persons in employment, the admission to selective schools and universities, and the granting of other social goods and resources by giving positive consideration to specified races and ethnicities and to one gender” (Crosby 123).  Despite the practice of affirmative action, the complexity of the issue of discrimination has prevented a resolution, and now more than ever, America’s obsession with issues of color and gender continue to grow. 

            Originally instated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to remedy the effects of discrimination against African Americans, affirmative action focused exclusively on the Negro.  At the time there was a definite need for affirmative action because there was a clear distinction between the races. One was the dominant white majority and the other an oppressed black minority.  Since then, affirmative action has deviated from its original purpose of ending discrimination against blacks and now focuses on anyone who claims they are a minority.  The beneficiaries of this program stretch to include nearly 70 % of the population, such as women and various other minorities besides blacks (Spohn 3).  Although these other minority groups have been discriminated against in the past, only the Negro claims a devastating past of hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, denial of civil rights, and enforced segregation.  With the shift to include all other minorities also came the newer justification for affirmative action, diversity, which requires that ethnic and gender composition of the population be represented in all areas of society.  This in turn led to quotas and preferential treatment which places nonminorities at a disadvantage.  Historically, affirmative action has fulfilled its original duty; however, under the concept of diversity, affirmative action has caused colleges and universities to accept minority students as numbers with little respect for their best interests, thus reversing the desired effect of true equality.

            Affirmative action in the area of education has been questioned and debated for over twenty years.  Problems arose almost immediately after it was put into practice and the first Supreme Court case on the issue was heard in 1978, only fourteen years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was instated.  In 1978, the Supreme Court handed down a controversial and somewhat contradictory ruling in the famous Bakke case.  Bakke, a white male, was denied admission at University of California’s medical school at Davis, but less qualified minority applicants were admitted.  The United States Supreme Court upheld the state’s supreme court ruling that Bakke’s rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment had been violated.  However, the Court also ruled that is was constitutional for schools to use race as a “plus” factor in admissions (Crosby 18). 

            Only eight years later, the Supreme Court faced an affirmative action case where a Michigan school board had signed a contract with the teachers union to lay off senior white teachers in order to keep minority teachers employed.  The reasoning behind the special agreement was to repress “societal discrimination” and to provide role models for minority students by keeping as many minority teachers as possible (Mchirter 102).  The Court ruled against these justifications claiming they were not reason enough for race discrimination. 

            During 1996, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against affirmative action in the Hopwood case.  Hopwood was a married white woman, raising a disabled child who was denied entrance into the University of Texas Law School.  Apparently, she was not “diverse” enough while 92 black and Hispanic students with lower test scores who were admitted ahead of her were.  The court rationalized that, “‘The use of race in and of itself, to choose students is no more rational on its own terms than would be choices based upon the physical size or blood type of applicants’” (Stock 1).  Based upon this, the court ruled that the Fifth Circuit States--Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, cannot use race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions to college (Hawkins 1).  The impact of the ruling was substantial and influenced other states, particularly California, to initiate anti-affirmative action bills within their own state.  

            Finally, the most controversial move against affirmative action occurred on November 5, 1996, when 55 % of California’s voters approved Proposition 209 which bans preferences in public employment, education, and contracting (Guernsey 92).  After a random survey was conducted by the Southern California Voices of the Voters Coalition, it was concluded that a relationship existed between the level of support for Proposition 209 and party identification, minority status, gender, and employment.  Republicans overwhelming supported the proposition with 83 % of their votes, while all other political parties combined gave just 49 % of their votes in support of it.  Similarly, there was a 33 % difference between the number of whites and minorities who were in favor of Proposition 209.  Seventy-five percent of whites favored it, compared to 42 % of minorities.  There was only a small 6 % difference between the gender of the supporter, with men at 72 % and women at 66 %.  A slightly larger difference in employment status of supporters emerged.  Seventy-four percent of those who were unemployed and 67 % of those who were employed showed support for it.  From this information an overall generalization suggests that white Republican males, regardless of socioeconomic status, supported the measure.  The passage of Proposition 209 is significant because California contains a wide variety of minority groups, making it the most diverse state within the nation.  It is also of great importance because it is the first time in American history that the people were asked to vote on affirmative action (Rasinski 7).

             Quite possibly, the next affirmative action case the Supreme Court will encounter is that of Proposition 209.  Proposition 209 blatantly contradicts the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by abolishing affirmative action.  With the passage of Proposition 209, the practice of distorting admission requirements of universities and colleges to achieve desirable diversity among races will no longer occur in California.  Who or what could determine exactly what the balance should be?  Affirmative action is dangerous because it bypasses our nation’s merit-based ethic and instead focuses on racial and ethnic categories.  Granted, our nation has not applied the merit-based ethic to people of color because of past prejudices, but discrimination is no longer a serious threat.  The merit-based ethic, one of the most basic and fundamental parts of our democratic society, is being replaced by equality of group representation.  Unintended results, such as reverse discrimination, of  social reconstruction is what makes it so dangerous.  For example, by lowering the entrance requirements for blacks and Hispanics, one must also raise the standards for whites and Asians.  This only serves to further separate students within a college or university. Consider the fact that the gap in SAT scores between white and blacks in recent years has continually grown.  At UCLA there was a substantial difference of 235 points, at University of Virginia 206 points, and at Stanford 171 points (Crosby 194-195).

            The lack of a merit-based ethic under affirmative action can cause the unintended result of a feeling of inferiority by minorities.  Black author and university professor Shelby Steele believes that affirmative action leads to self-doubt and the questioning of self-worth among blacks because of the “blind” preferential treatment that is used.  In his well-known book, The Content of Our Character, Steele states,

                        The effect of preferential treatment-the lowering of normal standards to increase black representation-puts blacks at war with an expanded realm of debilitating doubt so that the doubt itself becomes an unrecognized preoccupation that undermines their ability to perform, especially in integrated situations (Crosby 20).

The self-doubt that Steele describes develops from the lack of a merit-based system.  Within a merit-based system, equal comparisons can be made between students to see exactly where they stand.  However, without it minorities may feel inferior and may be looked upon as inferior because there is always the question of whether or not they could make it on their own.  It is also a possibility that some beneficiaries of affirmative action may continue to cling to their status as a victim because of the special treatment they receive.

            Without a merit-based system, the concept of complete diversity on college campuses has now become the delusional and internally harmful goal of affirmative action.  The concept of diversity was first derived from Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.’s opinion in the Bakke case in 1978.  Powell’s idea of diversity stipulated that race could be a “plus” factor in college admissions, but not the final determining factor.  His idea, however, was greatly misconstrued and expanded beyond its implied limits to include any minorities, the disabled, and other people with defining characteristics such as age, sexual orientation, and veteran status, when in fact he was referring to the Negroes of America.  In practice, diversity has become the idea that an institution must reflect the population of which it is a part.  Instead of focusing on individual rights, diversity places an unhealthy emphasis on differences of ethnicity, gender, race, and other politicized categories.  Likewise, it is these differences of gender, race, ethnicity, and so on, that have been used to determine merit.  Diversity is the reason for preferential treatment, but in reality engineered diversity does little to end inequality.  For example, during the early 1990s there was a substantial increase in the number of black students on college campuses, but only 26-28 % of them graduated from these colleges (Guernsey 21-23).     

            California adopted Proposition 209 which promotes a merit-based ethnic over preferential treatment with affirmative action in an attempt to create equality and fairness for all.  Proposition 209 states,

                        “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting” (Spohn 2).

This statement was intentionally structured to resemble the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 which provided that, “All persons shall be entitled to be free, at any establishment or place, from discrimination or segregation of any kind on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin” (Commanger 688).  Ironically, Proposition 209 is the very document that eliminated the policies of the Civil Rights Act.

            Diversity among the student body at colleges and universities, a major goal of affirmative action, was not being achieved before Proposition 209 was passed.  Although the University of California has been an avid practitioner of affirmative action, Hispanics accounted for only 13 % of new students during the 1993-1994 school year.  Considering that more than one-fourth of California’s population is Hispanic, under the principals of diversity, their admission percentage should have been higher.  During this same year, Asians comprised 36 % of all the new students.  In proportion to population, Asians were over-represented approximately seven to eight times that of Hispanics (Crosby 200).  As shown by the statistics above, affirmative action has not met it’s goal of creating an equally diverse society for college students.

            After Proposition 209 abolished racial preferences in California, advocates for affirmative action were shouting racial statistics, claiming that the bill needed to be reversed.  However, they are not taking into consideration the whole picture.  Granted, at the University of California’s two most elite schools, Berkeley and UCLA, the admission of blacks and other minorities did drop significantly.  The number of black freshman at Berkeley declined 57 % and Hispanics 40 % (Krauthammer 1-2).  At UCLA the drop was 43 % for blacks and 33 % for Hispanics (1-2).  However, these figures do not include the other six less prestigious campuses of the University of California.  When the number of minorities at each of the University of California’s eight campuses are considered together, the percentages that show the loss of minority students dropped drastically.  For blacks, the rate was 17.6 %, not 57%; for Hispanics it was 6.9%, not 40 % (1-2).  Overall, within the entire University of California system there was only a slight decline in black and Hispanic admissions, from 17.7 % to 17.2 % (1-2).  The small decrease of minorities in the most elite schools is made up for by a significant increase in the less competitive schools.  For example, at University of California Riverside, black and Hispanic admissions increased 34 % and 43 % respectively (1-2).  Students who were not qualified to attend the University of California’s two most elite schools were instead accepted into less competitive campuses of the university that are better suited for their needs.

            The drop of minority admissions to the most competitive schools is understandable considering that affirmative action admitted students with an “academic handicap” (Krauthammer 2).  The average SAT score of minorities who were admitted to Berkeley was 288 points below their overall average.  Students admitted under affirmative action were put into a far more academically advanced environment were not prepared.  Failure in this situation would be inevitable for anyone.  In fact, approximately one-half of the black freshman admitted under affirmative action at Berkeley drop out within their first year.  Consider that under affirmative action, only 18 % of blacks and   22 % of Hispanics who were admitted to Berkeley graduated in 1982.  The graduation rate for blacks and Hispanics who were not admitted under affirmative action was 42 % and 55 % respectively (Guernsey 87).  Under Proposition 209, a color-blind system, the black freshman class of Berkeley and UCLA was cut into half, but the other half who did not qualify academically and quite possibly may have been among the 42 % that drop out, will likely enroll at less competitive campuses (Krauthammer 2).  Without affirmative action minority students are treated as individuals and not statistics.  Under this system, an effort is made to better their future, not risk it by enforcing artificial diversity that places students at colleges and universities not suited to their needs.

            Before Proposition 209, America was experiencing a growing trend in the change of attitude towards affirmative action and the rising position of blacks within society.  An expanding number of US citizens, nonminorities and minorities alike, began to question the need and effectiveness of affirmative action.  In the wake of Proposition 209’s historical passage by the public, however, the issues of the need and effectiveness of affirmative action became more prevalent.  Former Vice President of the US Civil Rights Commission Morris Abram commented on America’s changing opinion on affirmative action, “The word equal means equal.  It means no preference.  It means non-discrimination.  That is one of our basic principals, and our country, after a period of some ambivalence, is returning to the basic principals which guided the movement” (Durcanin 2).

            As a result of the counterrevolution against affirmative action under the Reagan administration, America’s view of affirmative action has become increasingly unsupportive.  Surveys conducted by numerous sources cite this same increasing trend.  In April 1991, a poll by Newsweek asked the question, “Do you believe that because of past discrimination against black people, qualified blacks should receive preference over equally qualified white in such matters as getting into college or getting jobs?”  Seventy-two percent of whites and 42 % of blacks questioned believed blacks should not receive preference (Crosby 236).  This means that not only do a majority of whites reject the idea of preferential treatment, but so do a large minority of blacks.  In the event that both candidates are equally qualified for a job, other factors to determine merit should be considered, such as community service and any notable awards, not race.  Only four years later, in July of 1995, the Gallup poll showed a significant shift in opinion.  Approximately one-fourth of the population thought that reverse discrimination, discrimination against the white male, was the result of affirmative action.  In addition, nearly one-half of those surveyed thought affirmative action is not “needed today to help women and minorities overcome discrimination” (Crosby 7).  Later in 1995, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll discovered that two out of three Americans oppose affirmative action (Guernsey 13).  The New York Times poll in December 1997, found that Americans rejected racial preferences 52-35 %, but in the event of its termination, supported preferences for the poor by 53-37 % (Kahlenberg 5).  Finally, in a survey of our nation’s future, 90 % of teens agreed that race should not be a factor in employment opportunities and college admissions (Guernsey 59).

            America’s change in attitude towards affirmative action can be partially attributed to the rise in position of blacks in society.  The fact that on an average blacks score lower on SATs and have a lower graduation rate than whites does not determine their success on the job. Since the 1960s, the percentage of affluent black Americans has more than doubled.  Between 1979 and 1991, the number of black accountants increased by 479 %, the number of black lawyers by 280 %, and the number of black computer programmers by 343 %.  Also during this time period, blacks comprised 41 % of all new police officers.  Today, approximately 1.3 million blacks work in government service.  Compared to figures from 1964, there are four times as many black families with incomes above $50,000 a year, thus creating a substantial black middle class.  Finally, it is predicted that by the year 2000, two out of every three workers will be either women or minorities (Guernsey 15-16, 18, 63).  These statistics prove that black citizens have progressed considerably in society to a level of equality since the instillation of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

            Ultimately, the initiative for affirmative action began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  President at the time, Lyndon Johnson issued his opinion on the matter, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete ...and still justly believe that you have been completely fair’” (Spohn 3).  Johnson believed that certain steps needed to be taken to so that the oppressed could stand equally with the rest and compete.  After these steps had moved the oppressed forward, there is no longer a need for special treatment.  California was the first state to recognize this and as a result sanctioned Proposition 209 to end preferential treatment in any public institution, including colleges and universities.  Proposition 209 in turn brought an end to the unhealthy environments of universities and colleges that have become obsessed with maintaining the necessary diversity that affirmative action calls for. While it made history, Proposition 209 was actually the result of the increasing number of Americans who are growing weary of affirmative action because blacks are now well established within society.  Affirmative action created a major turning point in the history of the United States thirty years ago when society called for a change to end discrimination.  Now society again calls for a change, only this time it is to end affirmative action.

Works Cited

Commager, Henry S.  (Ed.).  (1988).  Documents of American History.  Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Crosby, Faye J.,  Sharon D. Herzberger, and Richard F. Tomasson.  Affirmative Action: The Pros and Cons of Policy and Practice.  Washington DC:  American University Press, 1996.

Durcanin, Cynthia, and Ron Taylor.  “Civil rights:  Is Era Coming to an End?”  Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  2 July 1989 pg. A1+

Guernsey, Jo Ann Bren.  Affirmative Action:  A Problem or a Remedy?  Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1997.

Hawkins, B. Denise.  “Hostile Environment Reducing Applications to Medical Schools Nationwide.”  Black Issues in Higher Education.  WilsonSelect.  On-line. Dialog. 27 November 1997.

Kahlenberg, Richard D. “In Search of Fairness:  A Better Way.”  The Washington Monthly.  WilsonSelect.  On-line.  Dialog. 

Krauthammer, Charles. “Lies, Damn Lies, and Racial Statistics.” Time.  WilsonSelect. On-line.  Dialog.

McWhirter, Darien A.  The End of Affirmative Action:  Where Do We Go From Here? New York:  Carol Publishing Group, 1996.

Rasinski, Kenneth A.  “Effects of Media on Support for the California Civil Rights Initiative.”  The University of Chicago.  Wilson Select.  On-line.  Dialog.  15 May 1998.

Spohn, William C.  “Negative Action in California:  A Gospel Perspective.”  America. Wilson Select.  On-line.  Dialog.  22 February 1997.

Stock, Sarah.  “Angry White Females.”  American Enterprise.  Wilson Select.  On-line. Dialog.  September 1996.