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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 09:19 GMT
Should universities ban affirmative action?
The US Government is to join in a court action to block universities from taking race into account when making admissions decisions.

It will join a group of white students from the University of Michigan who are suing because black and Hispanic applicants were given extra points towards admission.

At the university, minority students were given an extra 20 points on a 150 point scale used to rate their suitability for admission - more than they received for high test scores.

President George W Bush has called the Michigan admission plan "invasive, unfair, and impossible to square with the US Constitution".

The Supreme Court will rule on the case later this year, and the government will file a brief outlining its own concerns to the court.

The issue of affirmative action in education has been a central part of the US civil rights struggle, since the US Supreme Court case in 1954 which ordered public schools to desegregate.

Should universities favour 'diversity'? Or should racial quotas play no part in university admissions? Has affirmative action had its day?


This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

The US has not yet reached the goal of allowing every child the option to attend college

Brian, USA
The US has not yet reached the goal of allowing every child the option to attend college. But, race is an optional entry on every college application that requests that data. Those who support racial quotas are free to indicate such on their application. Those who feel differently can choose not to indicate their race.
Brian, USA

Any boost given to a potential student based on their economic situation is welcome. Advantages based on race, however, only cause resentment and alienation for everyone.
Joe, USA

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the University of Michigan is located. University officials have a legitimate interest in admitting students that are likely to succeed. If it is shown that minority students only need a score of 500 on admission tests to have an 80% likelihood of success and other students need a score of 600 on admission tests to have a 80% likelihood of success, then the university is justified in requiring a different standard for admission as long as the procedure does not discriminate against a Constitutionally protected class.
Cheryl Gracie, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

I look at the reality of the conditions in America and the fact is people's choices are influenced by ethnicity. Also one has to understand that African-Americans were enslaved for 400 years and kept from education. Then after slavery was abolished Blacks in America were totally misrepresented as if they were not citizens of the country but rather a burden to the country. People fail to look at the big picture. Did President Bush get into Yale because he was smart or because he comes from a rich family? This is okay though right? I feel the circumstances that African-Americans face are unfair and need to be addressed someday.
Ajani, USA

College entry should be based on performance, not race

David, USA
Years ago equal opportunities were not provided, now they are (supposedly). College entry should be based on performance, not race. Give a break to students because of financial abilities, but not because of race or religion.
David, USA

I can't imagine anything more demeaning to anyone than being told that they need "special help" in gaining university admission purely because of their racial background. We must then ask ourselves, who are the true racists here?...those who want affirmative action (race-based preferences), or those who seek to eliminate it so that all races may be treated equally?
Kerry, USA

I attend the University of Dallas (a private Catholic school) and I am quite proud of the fact that race does not even show up on our admissions application. The school has no idea of the race of their applicants, and doesn't care. There's real equality for you.
Aaron, USA

Yeah the UK has the best possible balance. That's why we still have so few black students at Cambridge and Oxford and in top positions in the professions and in government. Whereas the American black middle and upper class goes from strength to strength and we see minorities at the head of such institutions as AOL Time Warner and soon, Merrill Lynch. The UK amazes me in its progress.
Aniz, UK

I recently received my bachelor's degree at the University of Michigan, and the use of affirmative action there has a positive effect. UM has an incredibly diverse student body, which provides a rich cultural environment for all its students, regardless of race. Why shouldn't a minority student from a less wealthy background have the same opportunities for higher education as an upper-middle-class white student whose parents could afford to pay $400 for SAT test prep courses? After all, isn't education the best tool for upward social and economic mobility? Maybe if whites and minorities had the same educational opportunities, we could start to break down the race barriers in this country.
Melissa, USA

Affirmative action is a necessary tool for levelling a seriously unlevel playing field.

Shawn, USA
Affirmative action is a necessary tool for levelling a seriously unlevel playing field. People from poor neighbourhoods, who are largely people of colour, don't have the opportunities and advantages enjoyed by rich people in the suburbs. They don't get to go to SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) classes, their communities' tax dollars don't provide an equal high school education. People who have never suffered discrimination in their lives should stop whining about this.
Shawn, Washington, DC, USA

A number of other contributors have addressed the real issue. Fix secondary education and you will no longer need affirmative action in college admissions. This is not about race or ethnicity, but rather about economic status. In America, communities with lower property tax revenues have less money to spend on public education. The result is that poor Americans, regardless of their ethnic origins, tend to perform lower on standardized tests used for college admissions. In Dallas, Texas, something like 6% of the public school students are white compared to around 30% of the city┐s overall population. That means 80% of the white students are paying for and attending private schools. I wonder how many Black and Hispanic parents would send their children to the same private schools if they had vouchers to offset the cost.
Peter W, Dallas USA

Where is the outrage from the Black Community? If I were an American of African descent, I would be embarrassed and insulted every time the Democrats stated that I need them and their laws to get into college or get a job. I would also be insulted that the University and the Democrats seem to value me not for my ability to contribute to the University but to give them Diversity. If I were black, I would want to be in college because I earned it, not because someone gave me a handout and turned down a more qualified person. That would make me feel real bad for myself and the person whose spot I have. Of course, I am white. And as a white guy, I feel the very same thing.
Brian Stacey, USA

I feel I have been a victim of such actions

A. Rawls, USA
I feel I have been a victim of such actions, as well! I am white. I am female. I graduated cum laude with a BA in Art in 1999. I spent the next three years trying to get into a graduate program. Despite earning scholarships in college, graduating cum laude, and making the Dean's List numerous times, I was never accepted to graduate school. I wanted more than anything to be a professor- to spread the excitement of learning to others. My hopes and dreams were crushed and destroyed by these admissions policies. There is no reasonable explanation for my not being accepted. The only explanation is quotas. I applied to 6 different schools. All of them rejected me. I have lost faith in our collegiate educational system in this country.
A. Rawls, USA

What the opponents of affirmative action are failing to understand, is that the policy they criticize was designed not as a gift to American minorities, but as a legal impediment to the discriminatory practices of the majority of American society, whether in the private or public sectors. The US remains a country where the colour of ones skin is central to the respect and power one is afforded within society. It is sad to see the American government has so lost touch with its own history that it fails to see the responsibility it still has towards those who are marginalised by the majority.
Montgomery, Canada

Blacks and other minorities need help, but never at someone else's expense. There are plenty of poor, uneducated White children from inner city schools, and they don't get the help that poor, uneducated Black children get. If we're going to help people it needs to be based on economic and educational opportunity and not skin colour.
Roger, United States of America

The USA is tired of Political Correctness

CindyLu, USA
I believe what you are seeing here is that the USA is tired of Political Correctness abroad and at home. No one is owed anything based on the history of our country. I'm a female American Indian, Sure, I've been discriminated against - everyone has - but no one owes me anything because of my ancestral background, or because my text books weren't as new as the next persons. Affirmative Action is wrong - it allows people to do less and go ahead of people who have done more. If a white male is better suited to be an air traffic controller then by all means please hire a white male, but under the affirmative action program that is not the case. I truly think about this every time I crawl onboard an airplane. Hoorah for Bush pushing to lose Affirmative Action - it's the right thing to do for our country - to hell with political correctness...
CindyLu, USA

Affirmative action is the wrong solution to a serious problem. We can start by ending ALL kinds of affirmative action. Such as the affirmative action that got George W. Bush into Yale and Harvard. Really now: Are we to believe that the likes of George W. got into these colleges on his merits? This rich person's version of affirmative action is never debated, or for that matter challenged in the Supreme Court.
Sean Stuart, USA

Affirmative action isn't solving any problems, only creating more. It's true that there are still a great deal of racial disparities in this country but that won't be solved by sending the message to minorities that's its OK to do a little poorer on tests or in schools. If you want to erase the discrimination in our country, start at its roots, the level of education available at certain social levels might be a good starting point, but don't start a new brand of discrimination that teaches us its not our effort and intelligence that get us where we want to go in life, its the colour of our skin.
Shannon, USA

This debate is ignoring a rather crucial aspect of affirmative action: the people most helped by it in the United States have been white, European, well-educated women. Now, at long last, we are finally able to earn 70% of what our male colleagues earn - just like our European counterparts. Without affirmative action, this would not be the case.
Inna Tysoe, Sacramento, CA, USA

It should be based on your family's earnings, not your skin colour.

Liz Petty, USA
I support the idea of helping those less fortunate in getting a better education, but it should be based on your family's earnings, not your skin colour. A black male whose father is a multi millionaire should not get preferential treatment over a young rural female whose family is living in poverty. Economics, not race, should be the issue.
Liz Petty, USA

I am an African man who attended University of Minnesota and it is sad to see such a low number of minority representation in the school. If affirmative action is going to help bring more minorities to school, provide a better chance to those who was educated in the inner city schools then so be it. When the States can provide the same education level to the inner city schools as to those white suburban schools then there will be no need for Affirmative action.
Ahmed, Minneapolis,USA

Everyone is saying that affirmative action is unfair because only the best qualified applicants should be accepted by universities. This would make sense if everyone began with the same opportunities. However, this is not the case. And the fact is that it is mostly minorities who attend the worst schools, who live in poverty, and who grow up dealing with racism day in and day out. People seem to think that racism and sexism is a thing of the past. Make no mistake about it - it is still a force to be reckoned with. 30-40 years is nothing when you are talking about changing the entire philosophy of a society. There are many minorities who excel in their academic careers when given the opportunity, and that opportunity for women and people of colour is given by affirmative action.
Anisa, USA

As a black man in the United States I do see and feel a level of racism that permeates the culture.

Spencer Holbrook, USA
As a black man in the United States I do see and feel a level of racism that permeates the culture. This, however, is not to assume that it is a white against black racism. Racism goes both ways. With that out of the way I would like to point out that if the University of Michigan continues with their policy of Affirmative Action then that University is guilty of staining American cultural attitudes. If Black and Hispanic people get an "extra" twenty points on their application, that is saying that they are not as smart or qualified as any other group. Some say that it is the true and that giving them a leg up increases Black and Hispanic economic growth. Okay, let us assume this is true. Does that mean that it will raise the standards of the inner city? We live in a world that is still bound by the rules of nature. Some kids will have it all and some will have none!
Spencer Holbrook, USA

George Bush speaks from a privileged background. I wonder what his stance on affirmative action would be if he had grown up as a non-English speaking minority reared with limited financial resources? His argument, like others who take his view, rests on the assumption that minority students have had an equal playing field. Merely reaching the level of applicant for minorities has meant overcoming years of daily disadvantages due to race and class differences, which Mr. Bush could not possibly relate to. Perhaps, Mr. Bush should focus on truly unfair admission policies such as the reservation of admission placements for children of alumni.
Jorge A. Castillo, U.S.A

Because of poverty, my mother left school at twelve, lied about her age, and went to work full time. My father was unable to go on to college. As a child, I lived in a poor neighbourhood and went to a tiny school with few advantages. But my parents were determined, and I read constantly, spending my small earning on books instead of clothes and make-up. I was 16 years old before I saw a play, visited a museum, went to a concert, or experienced the incredible richness of a public library. I lived at home and worked while attending college classes. After my bachelor's degree, I went on to further schooling as a student teacher, paid half the amount the male students received for the same work. On several occasions, I went hungry to buy books. I got my advanced degree, and have spent 30 years teaching. Affirmative action is the most offensive of insults; it tells people they are so hopeless that they must be given a place that others earn. Even disadvantaged, poor people can read and learn and improve until they meet the high intellectual standards a university should require.
Anon, US

Racial quota systems have long since served their purpose

Chris, USA
In the earlier years of our Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action was absolutely necessary. It served to forcibly break down those racist barriers that kept Blacks and other "minorities" in a perpetual cycle of subservience and poverty. Nowadays in my country, one can find people of many races with high-paying jobs and in important positions of authority. I am by no means saying that the problem of racism in the U.S. is solved, but it is clear that racial quota systems have long since served their purpose and now serve to breed resentment and perpetrate the very racism they were once meant to quell.
Chris, USA

A very good decision by Mr. Bush. We have this system in India and we are seeing the results. When incompetent people are placed somewhere because of their caste/religion/origin...it only leads to hate.
Pushpendra Singh, India

I never thought I would hear myself say this but bravo President Bush. Discrimination is discrimination.
Gerry, Scotland

Positive action will only breed resentment

Michael, Cork, Ireland
Positive action will only breed resentment and lessen the value of academic achievement. There are many other ways to help those with the potential to break the mould of their class without having to patronise them by giving away free points. Academic results are what matter!!
Michael, Cork, Ireland

I am appalled the Republicans suggest America is an equal playing field, and quotas are unfair. This is so obviously coming from the mouths of people who have not had to ever experience what it means to be a minority with limited options. This spells out clearly that those without a golden spoon in their mouth are not going to get any help from the administration to improve their lot.
Ajay Pandhi, Canada

Some kind of action must be taken to ensure a proper education is distributed evenly. Affirmative action is a quick fix to bring minorities into the higher education forum. What must be invested in is the improvement of the secondary school systems of the poorest areas. Quality teachers are not attracted to these places and for good reason: there is absolutely no support!
Brian Muschong, US

Students who work hard and succeed in high school should be given equal access to college entry

Brandon, USA
As someone who worked in college admissions, I can tell you that there is a strong concern about accepting minorities and women. I agree with President Bush in that the current system in many colleges implies more of a quota system than one based on merit.

Students who work hard and succeed in high school should be given equal access to college entry. If minority groups feel they are left out, perhaps it is because they are not encouraged enough by their own parents or community. Merit alone should be the only key factor in college admissions - not colour, sex, or economic strength.
Brandon, USA

"Affirmative action" is also known by the word "positive discrimination". It isn't very positive for the other person!
David Phillips, UK

White people (in general) seem to see the affirmative action case as a preference system for colour. They typically ignore the realities of racism in the US that is extremely prevalent. Many whites don't understand that an average black person must deal with racism on so many levels each and every day, in the bank line, in the grocery market, applying for a loan, trying to buy a house, trying to do basically everything. That's not to say everyone in the US is racist but there are many, many racists still in the US.

If the University of Michigan point system can counter this constant, subtle racism then it is worth it. Universities are supposed to create a society that is better for all who live in it. But unfortunately many people have the view that it is a place where only the best and the brightest can attend, a place to learn some skills that may make them rich.
Benjamin Osborne, United States of America

Martin Luther King never believed in positive discrimination

Rak, United Kingdom
I would strongly disagree with having "positive discrimination" on racial grounds. I believe it to be outrageous that the this policy was ever considered. Martin Luther King never believed in positive discrimination to integrate the US. Positive discrimination is racism. I'm sure that if people from all coloured backgrounds were encouraged then there would be no need for this awful policy.
Rak, United Kingdom

Affirmative action is not about minority vs. majority. It is about letting blacks and native Americans come up to the national average level in education and jobs after 400 years of discrimination. I am an Asian. Except for blacks everybody else came to US on his or her own wish. All of us own a great deal not only to initial white settlers, but also to blacks and native Americans. Are we ready to pay back??
John Kumar, US

In the USA it is right and proper that affirmative action proceed. It is a process that recognises historical wrongs which as everyone knows are legion in the US.
Jim MacDonald, Canada

George Bush has imposed tariffs on imported steel into the USA. His argument is that underperforming companies need to be protected from more efficient foreign competitors, until domestic firms are able to catch up. Is this not the same argument used by those who advocate affirmative action? It would be helpful if the American government just came out and spoke the truth: The rules will be made and broken as they see fit in order to protect established vested interests.
Kwesi, UK, UK

In Martin Luther King's historical "I have a dream" speech, he longed for a nation that judges by the content of his character and not the colour of his skin. The affirmative action policy in question completely defies this notion. It is blatant. It is wrong. It is unconstitutional.
Seth, USA

It was so depressing to get to state university and find such little representation of black Americans

Megan, USA
I had the exceptional good fortune as a white high school student to attend a racially diverse school. Teachers encouraged white and black students to talk about race and break down racial stereotypes. I came to recognise my unconscious racism and come to terms with it. It was so depressing to get to the state university and find such little representation of black Americans there!

In order to be a place of genuine democratic discourse, our state universities need to represent all of America's population - otherwise they become white-dominated institutions that spit out people who seem to think that non-white people are something less than human.
Megan, USA

Affirmative action was designed to impose an imperative on a discriminatory society: though the majority population might not want to extend equal opportunity to the minorities in its midst, the law would oblige it to. The hope was that eventually the society would achieve a form of universal socio-economic equality that transcended race.

It hasn't. Minorities have faced policy makers and a legal system that is bent on overt discrimination, and an overall American philosophy which disdains the poor, and celebrates the rich.
Elmore, Canada

Before you discount affirmative action you should take a moment to ask yourselves the following question: Have I ever been turned down for a job, promotion, college admission because of my race, gender, religion or sexual orientation? If you can answer yes to that question then you can see the need for protections like affirmative action. I do believe that the system as it exists is flawed but it should not be eliminated.

Every day people from all backgrounds are being discriminated against here in the US. Affirmative action can help to insure that those who are not of the privileged class get a chance.
RB, USA

All personal information should be removed from applications, with each record being assigned a reference number

Claire, UK
Affirmative action is discriminatory and only succeeds in patronising those it seeks to assist and devalue their achievements. It would be better if all personal information was removed from applications, with each record being assigned a reference number. In this way, the person would be judged on their merits alone.
Claire, UK

How can a minority ever feel equal if they start from an unequal position? As an employer looking for the best candidate, do you take someone from a minority knowing that they are not up to scratch or a candidate who not only had to achieve but against the odds as well?
John, France

If anybody wants equal rights they must then accept them as that - equal.
Andy, Scotland

Unfortunately, what institutions and other misguided affirmative action advocates in America seem to be most interested in is racial and ethnic diversity, and not necessarily intellectual diversity, or diversity of ideas and points of view. Which is what they claim "diversity" will achieve. Clearly this is nonsense, and it is a welcome thing to see the federal government finally say, in effect, enough is enough. But a lot of damage has already been done.
Eric H, Germany

Any system which allows access to an education for reasons of race, no matter how well intentioned, is fundamentally wrong.
Steve, England

Without a mechanism such as affirmative action, the percentage of non white college students will drop

David S, USA
Every time white men are inconvenienced, they act quickly to remove that inconvenience. African Americans have suffered (for so long) many problems (slavery, and '60s racism) in America and we need more and more of them to go to college and earn degrees in law and other fields. Without money and good high schools and without a mechanism such as affirmative action, the percentage of non white college students will drop.
David S, USA

Affirmative action was needed in the beginning when minorities were not accepted into schools. People should only get into universities and colleges based on their test scores and previous school records. Not because they are in a minority. And what minority? The University of Minnesota is packed with students from Asia and the Middle Eastern countries.
Margaret, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Although on the face of it this may seem unfair, if you dig a little deeper there may be a rationale for it. Although I haven't seen the figures, I would guess that a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students attend poorer schools in deprived areas than white students. As a result, they may need to work much harder to achieve the same grades as students from more privileged backgrounds. These extra 20 points may be there to reflect this. Now, perhaps this is all too general, and they could find a better way of targeting those who may need and deserve this extra help, but I do think that the principle is sound.
Tristan, UK

This is "positive discrimination" at its worst. The whole idea of equality is exactly that - equal, not preferential treatment for another group. People should be entered on test scores alone, their sex or colour should have absolutely nothing to do with it. These quotas that are appearing everywhere do nothing except to continue discrimination.
George, UK

University admissions should take into account only academic achievements and nothing else

Stephen Ash, Wales
University admissions should take into account only academic achievements and nothing else. In my opinion all the universities should be able to see is the person's qualifications. Personal details should be withheld from them so that there can be no bias towards race, age, wealth and the university's image. The admission would be totally about the persons academic capability
Stephen Ash, Wales

Every little helps in this society which tends to benefit Europeans
Betty, UK

Just imagine this: there is one space left on a university course. Two applicants are being considered: a white student and a Hispanic. The white student has academic qualifications that are far better than that of the Hispanic. But the Hispanic gets in because the university hasn't accepted enough people from that ethnic group yet?

Something is very wrong with that. The only criteria for gaining entry into a university should be academic achievement. That's it. No group of people should get points for any other reason at all. Positive discrimination is still discrimination.
Anon, UK

Whether we like to admit it or not, this occurs in all sorts of situations anyway. The mechanisms the Oxbridge universities use to favour public school applicants are a good example, which have switch from exam results and an entrance exam to emphasis on the "interview", simply because more and more state students are getting the exam results. The bottom line is that we often refuse to see positive discrimination for what is in those situations where we regard it as acceptable; it all depends on the outcome you want!
Steve, UK

If there are too few black students in universities, the problem should be addressed by encouraging more black students to apply. If I was an employer, I would be instantly sceptical about any black graduates admitted from universities that took positive discrimination because I would have no idea whether or not they got there on their own merits.
Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

For once I find myself in complete agreement with George W Bush. Favouring those of one racial group over another cannot be called affirmative action when it suits and racism when it doesn't. I agree that racial minorities are sometimes in need of help in such areas as education but that should never be at the expense of anyone else's future.
Bill, UK

There is no argument that young people from socio-economic groups which do not encourage excellence and achievement in education in the same way that more affluent or academically minded socio-economic groups do, should be given some type of "help" to encourage them to break out of this morass. The exact form of that help will always be contentious, especially among short-sighted and narrow-minded communities.
Harry Windsor, UK

It's a tough one. The Indian version of affirmative action was meant to be phased out in the years after Independence, the idea being that eventually there would be no need for quotas. Unfortunately the practice still goes on, meaning that unqualified people get top jobs.


America might end up with the same problem. It seems odd that they're so worried about political correctness in this issue while being so gung-ho internationally. We in the UK probably have the right balance. No positive discrimination but go strictly on the basis on who's right for the job/university place. There will always be those who feel hard done by (Laura Spence) but on the whole I feel we've done well.
Anu, UK

 VOTE RESULTS
Has affirmative action had its day?

Yes
 63.85% 

No
 36.15% 

4694 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

15 Jan 03 | Americas
20 Dec 02 | Americas
26 Jun 01 | Americas
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