Many Americans agree with the goals of affirmative action. However, the practices used to carry out this policy have been controversial. An affirmative action plan may set specific goals, such as numbers of minority or women workers to be hired. It may include a timetable with dates for achieving those goals. It may also prescribe preferential treatment [preferential treatment: giving preference to a minority or female job applicant because of that person's ethnicity or gender] for some groups. This means giving preference to a minority or female job applicant because of that person’s ethnicity or gender. To many people, preferential treatment looks like unfair discrimination against white males.
During the 1960s, many colleges and universities adopted affirmative action plans to attract more minority students. Members of minority groups were often given preferential treatment over white students who were equally qualified or more qualified. Such treatment was necessary, admissions officers argued, to open opportunities for minorities and to create a diverse student body.
In the late 1970s, a white male named Allan Bakke challenged preferential treatment in university admissions. Bakke had twice applied for admission to the University of California Davis Medical School. He was rejected both times. At the same time, minority candidates with lower grade point averages and test scores were admitted under a special admissions program. Bakke concluded that he had been refused admission because he was white, and he sued the school for reverse discrimination [reverse discrimination: discrimination against whites or males] .
In 1977, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke [Regents of the University of California v. Bakke: a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that narrowly upheld affirmative action, declaring that race may be one factor, but not the sole criterion, in school admissions] reached the Supreme Court. After hearing arguments on both sides, the Court was left deeply divided. Four justices were firmly against any use of race in university admissions. Another four felt just as strongly that race should be used. The remaining justice, Lewis Powell, thought race could be used as a criterion in choosing students but opposed the system of preferential treatment used by the University of California. Writing for the majority, Powell cautioned, “Racial and ethnic classifications of any sort are inherently suspect and call for the most exacting judicial scrutiny.”
The Court’s ruling narrowly upheld affirmative action by declaring that race could be used as one of the criteria in admissions decisions. However, it also said that racial quotas were unconstitutional—that race could not be used as the only criterion. Therefore, the Court ordered the university to admit Bakke to medical school. The ruling, however, did not end the debate over affirmative action and preferential treatment for women and minorities.
The Supreme Court narrowly approved affirmative action in the 1978 Bakke case. But it left many unanswered questions. Is affirmative action a form of reverse discrimination? Which groups should receive preferential treatment in hiring and school admissions? And for how long? In 1996, these questions were put before California voters in the form of Proposition 209, which stated,
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. Proposition 209 was approved by 54 percent of the voters. In other states, however, the debate over affirmative action continues. Here are two contrasting perspectives on this issue.