Affirmative Action On Campus Does More Harm Than Good

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Illustration by Thomas James

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Affirmative action, when used as a factor in college admissions, is meant to foster diversity and provide equal opportunities in education for underrepresented minorities. But is it achieving its stated goals and helping the population it was created to support? Its critics point to students struggling to keep up in schools mismatched to their abilities and to the fact that the policy can be manipulated to benefit affluent and middle class students who already possess many educational advantages. Is it time to overhaul or abolish affirmative action?  

  • Heriot90px


    Gail Heriot

    Professor of Law, USD School of Law & Member, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

  • Sander90


    Richard Sander

    Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

  • Kennedy90


    Randall Kennedy

    Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

  • Shaw90px


    Theodore Shaw

    Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Gail Heriot

Professor of Law, USD School of Law & Member, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Gail Heriot is a professor of law at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Prior to entering academia, she practiced law with Mayer, Brown & Platt in Chicago and Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. She also served as civil rights counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary and clerked for the Honorable Seymour F. Simon of the Illinois Supreme Court. A former editor of the University of Chicago Law Review, Herriot has been published in the Michigan Law Review, the Virginia Law Review, and the Harvard Journal on Legislation, as well as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union Tribune. She is the editor and an author of a forthcoming anthology of essays entitled, California Dreaming: Race, Gender, Proposition 209 and the Principle of Non-Discrimination.

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For The Motion

Richard Sander

Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

Richard Sander, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law, has been working on questions of social and economic inequality for nearly all of his career. In 2005, he published the first broad analysis of the operation and effects of racial preferences in legal education. Widely considered the leading authority on affirmative action in higher education, he co-authored Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It (2012) with Stuart Taylor. During the 1990s, Sander worked primarily on issues related to fair housing, housing segregation, and economic inequality, and his research closely paralleled a variety of civic work in Los Angeles. In addition to serving as the president of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California and founding the Fair Housing Institute, he helped the City design and implement what was, at the time, the nation's most ambitious living wage law.

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Against The Motion

Randall Kennedy

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. Awarded the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Race, Crime, and the Law (1998), Kennedy writes for a wide range of scholarly and general interest publications. His most recent books are For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law (2013) and The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (2011). He is a member of the American Law Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association.

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Against The Motion

Theodore Shaw

Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

Theodore M. Shaw is a professor of professional practice in law at Columbia Law School and Of Counsel to Fulbright & Jaworski LLP. Previously, he was director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for which he worked in various capacities over the span of twenty-six years. His legal career began as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, and he has since litigated education, employment, voting rights, housing, police misconduct, capital punishment and other civil rights cases in trial and appellate courts and in the U.S. Supreme Court. While a professor at University of Michigan School of Law, he played a key role in initiating a review of the school's admissions practices and policies, and served on the faculty committee that promulgated the admissions program upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

61% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (16% voted FOR twice, 38% voted AGAINST twice, 6% voted UNDECIDED twice). 39% changed their minds (5% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 7% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 3% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 14% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 10% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link reader Sunday, 02 March 2014 21:26 posted by reader

      Agree. Two wrongs do not make it right. It's time to re-examine Affirmative Action.
      The most recent Affirmative Action effort is SCA 5, which, if passed, would repeal provisions of Prop 209 and allow the State of California to deny an individual or group's rights to public education on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. UCLA chancellor Gene Block supports SCA 5 which has earned the nickname Skin Color Act.

    • Comment Link aspasia Sunday, 02 March 2014 20:30 posted by aspasia

      The "for" team--Profs. Heriot and Sander made a strong case by developing their argument through analyses of data and reputable scholarship in Affirmative Action. The other side Profs. Kennedy and Shaw made their claim mostly by appealing to the emotion of the audience. There're obvious logical fallacies and inconsistencies in their argument. This became clearer when Kim--the Asian American student asked whether they think Asian American students are harmed by the current policies of Affirmation Action. Prof. Kennedy seems to indicate that the discrimination against African American/Latino Americans is discrimination but the discrimination against Asian Americans is "sacrifice" that Asian Americans should make for the sake of advancing the larger mission of ending racial discrimination. How does this logic make any sense? So you want to end discrimination against one racial group by discriminating against another racial group? It seems Prof. Kennedy doesn't care if any individual Asian American student is discriminated against and hurt by the current AA; as long as his group is getting preferential treatment, everything should be fine. Prof. Shaw used an interesting analogy to describe the problem as "spaces reserved for the disabled in a park lot" --i.e. lots reserved for African Americans in elite schools; and he indicated clearly: we are sorry that there are not enough lots even for African Americans. So go somewhere else to find your own lot. This sounds like a knee-jerking rather than a rational argument. By the end of the debate, we can see that Affirmative Action has lost its way--not only it is doing harm to the beneficiaries but also it is based on an unfair/immoral premise which says giving racial preferential treatment to one group at the expense of another racial group is perfectly fine as long as it is not mine. So we see that according to this logic, we should adopt a double standard for racial justice; certain racial groups deserve more equality and have more rights than others. Doesn't this sound similar to the logic of the very racism experienced by African Americans in the age of segregation? Is that where we really want to go as a country? I'm afraid that continuing the current Affirmative Action policies in university admissions will perpetuate racial discrimination we have fought against in the past 50 years.

    • Comment Link Person Sunday, 02 March 2014 13:03 posted by Person

      Affirmative action is completely unfair.
      It is just reverse discrimination. Discriminating to favor those who have been discriminated against will only cause more trouble. Adding two negative numbers together only will result in another negative number. Affirmative action is another step back in creating a color blind society.
      Also, affirmative action is clearly a violation of the Civil Rights Act and the 14th amendment.

    • Comment Link Shan Liu Sunday, 02 March 2014 02:57 posted by Shan Liu

      In 40 years affirmative action will hurt African American and Latino students for sure. Take the Asian Students for example.

    • Comment Link Shan Liu Sunday, 02 March 2014 02:39 posted by Shan Liu

      First Chinese Americans who came to this country as unpaid labor who worked and died on the rail road construction and their children from that day forward did not receive preferential treatment, they did not benefit from affirmative action, some of their children starved through their schooling, yet still they made it. Now we all know inequality is wrong, and while I have nothing against providing to qualified students, how can we determine qualified with such bias? Imagine all the Asian students who would out perform their class mates yet still be rejected a chance, the same chance we here speak of to help the minority, why punish Asians? Is there any quantifiable fact that suggest they fall short of the qualifications of the recipients of the affirmative action? Some Asian students come from worse neighborhoods than the Bronx, yet because we don't have a voice, we don't have a chance, although we work so hard, but we're cheated out of our American dream, simply cause we're not colored enough...

    • Comment Link wodoo Sunday, 02 March 2014 01:08 posted by wodoo

      We have reserved 10% space for "disabilities", which is for low income family. Now you want to reserve a quota based on the skin color (40% for Latin and 10% for Black, and so on) and told us they are space for "disabilities". Tell me where to park my car.

    • Comment Link Shan Saturday, 01 March 2014 23:25 posted by Shan

      Why would the Universities deny a student the opportunity of success, when the student is Chinese? Many Chinese Americans had rough beginnings as well, what about their struggle and challenged overcame? Chinese students who had grandparents sold as railroad slaves don't get preferential treatment, and look how they are doing.

    • Comment Link trevor davis Saturday, 01 March 2014 18:44 posted by trevor davis

      AWWWW Poor white people. I'm literally in tears for your lost privilege.

      Get over it, you little crybabys.

    • Comment Link Voice_of_Reason Saturday, 01 March 2014 10:00 posted by Voice_of_Reason

      It is really just this simple: affirmative action is discrimination.

      One can couch it in all sorts of highly moral sounding words, but it is simply discrimination.

      That goes for ALL shapes and flavors of affirmative action, to include 8a contract set asides.

      The practical result of such discrimination is that people who don't really "need help to overcome past injustices" often game the system to take advantage of discrimination. A certain "Native American" politician from Massachusetts comes to mind.

      And what about the rights of people shunted aside to make room for affirmative action? When the highest SAT score at a university achieved by one minority group is lower than the lowest SAT score achieved by Asian students admitted to the school, that means the university refused admission to Asian students unfairly in favor of a different minority group. It is incredibly unfair to the Asians students who were not admitted just because they were not of a certain race.

    • Comment Link Catodisciple Saturday, 01 March 2014 01:37 posted by Catodisciple

      This debate was thoroughly confusing for me. I still don't know what affirmative action truly means as no one defined it in the debate. In my view, It seems to me that that affirmative action is inherently "racist" and discriminatory. It says to one group that you are not good enough or smart enough so we are going to help you because you need it.

      It also causes more prejudice as it gives people a reason to believe that the system is not letting in the best and brightest (to echo Guy's previous comment").

      Further, it seems that we have no proof that affirmative action is even being implemented since we have no idea what the universities are doing in terms of admission. That was one learning I took from this debate.

      Sometimes discrimination can help. I am Jewish and sadly at one time Jews were not allowed into law firms because of religious prejudice. Those Jewish entrepreneurs started their own law firms and became extremely successful.

      Lastly, if I was Asian American, I would be deeply offended by the side arguing against the motion. They didn't seem to care about the Asian minority - just blacks. That was my takeaway and it was disgusting.

    • Comment Link John David Galt Friday, 28 February 2014 22:19 posted by John David Galt

      If it's still true that the best universities would admit practically no members of certain minority groups without affirmative action, I submit that that is not because of any bias by the universities. It's because nearly all applicants from those groups have been failed by their home towns' K-12 school systems, and in fact are not ready to go to a good university and be successful there.

      This is a real problem, and the minority groups should be demanding it be fixed pronto. But the only way it can be fixed is either to improve the K-12 schools, or to create alternatives to them by implementing school choice.

      Universities cannot help those victims by admitting them. If we do, it's pretty much a certainty that they won't graduate, which means it was a complete waste of time, money, and energy on the part of both the school and the student to admit him/her. (And he/she is probably poor, and will now be stuck with a lifelong student loan debt with nothing to show for it.)

    • Comment Link Kelly Marie Thursday, 27 February 2014 20:31 posted by Kelly Marie

      How can affirmative action do harm when its result produces two Ivy League law professors? These cons/against guys reaped the benefits of such policy and now shut the doors and put barriers against those who need that policy. Hmmmm????
      These men should remember "sticks and stones break my bones, but words don't hurt me". Just because you were admitted based on affirmative action does not mean you are not as good or better than the ones who got in without affirmative action. You don't hear rich people getting admitted via alumni legacy policy complaining that they are dumb and don't deserve the admission. They are proud that they were admitted because they were rich and connected via alumni statuses. These guys should be proud that the best of the best in the affirmative action groups got admitted. Forget how you got admitted into college and be thankful you got it and work and contribute and work and make sure others following have the same chances. Don't try to shut it down to appease your big egos!!!!

    • Comment Link Guy Tuesday, 25 February 2014 18:40 posted by Guy

      Affirmative action was never needed, it is a direct violation of the Constitution's equal protection under the law, amendment. Past injustices cannot be corrected by re-targetting different groups for the same type of injustice. All this does is cause animosity and make the purveyor of the injustice just as guilty as those who dished out the previous injustices - i.e. two wrongs do not make a right.

      If you wish to combat the inequity in education, stop dumbing down the system and punishing those that are able to avoid that system because their parents worked to provide them with a better education. Start holding the parents of those in the substandard system accountable for their children's actions and behaviors - like skipping school, not doing homework, disrespect toward teachers,,,, Demand the schools raise the bar for underperforming groups, not lower it, as is being done around the country, today.

      We are either "all equal" under the law or we're not, affirmative action demonstrates we are not. What it shows is that "some are more equal than others." It does a disservice to those admitted by it; these students either flunk out or squeak by because other standards are lowered for them. It also does a disservice toward anybody that hires them, believing they actually "made the grade" and earned what they had.

      Affirmative action is nothing more than another "welfare program" that needs to be shut down.

    • Comment Link Louis Calabraro Friday, 14 February 2014 09:19 posted by Louis Calabraro

      There was a time that the process was essential to jumpstart the inequalities between the races and economically deprived children of this country. It is clear that it's time has run out but continues despite the evidence that it no longer produces essential results. It is kept purely for the political value to divide us when it is ESSENTIAL to stop this practice. Continuing it is purely political and pretends to help while supporting the perception to total equality is achievable, which is and always be a, delusional fostered, lie. It helps the moneyed leaders of the policy makers only. To continue is fruitless and divisive.

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