First & Last Name Professor Martin



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First & Last Name

Professor Martin

English 1301.S13

08 April 2009

Affirmative Action: Good Intention but Wrong Methods

In 1965, racial and sexual biases, which impeded women and minorities in all levels of society, were at their highest. In an effort to resolve the widespread discrimination, politicians used government intervention in hoping of an immediate effect. As a result, a law named Executive Order 11246 was signed by Richard Nixon, the U.S. President at that time. It is also known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, or more popularly, “affirmative action.” Since “affirmative action” appeared, it has been a topic for endless arguments and controversies. Although the law was well-meant and helped a lot of people, in practice it faced a lot of flaws, especially in education.

What exactly is “affirmative action”? When people talk about “affirmative action,” they often state their oppositions or support; rarely do we see discussions about this policy’s definition (Reyna et al. 668). People tend to develop their opinions about a policy under the frame, in other words, the version of that policy they encounter the most or which best fits their “ideological perspective” (669), and that is the beginning of the arguments. Opinions are many, but they can be grouped into two contrasting major groups: Opponents claim that affirmative action destroys the equality which was the basis of the Constitution, whereas supporters look at it as a policy that levels the playing ground for everybody. In general, supporters and opponents of affirmative action seem to contradict each other in how they define the effect of affirmative action; does it reduce discrimination or does it promote that? Things do not stop there, as although people usually oppose preferential action, they have a positive bias toward the support of women and minorities. It appears that there are fierce viewpoints between opponents or supporters; so it can be said that the battle over affirmative action is actually the battle between individuals with different attitudes (669).

Various studies have attempted to understand the problem. There is an article named “Searching for Common Ground between Supporters and Opponents of Affirmative Action” written by Christine Reyna, which mentions affirmative action as either merit-upholding or merit-violating. This type of classification is just a branch from the source, when individuals use merit as a criterion to judge affirmative action. According to Reyna, there seems to be no exact definition of affirmative action; supporters and opponents are arguing about different programs of affirmative action, not what it is, and surprisingly, they all have an agreement: “members of both camps support programs that provide opportunities for qualified minorities, and they both eschew programs that violate merit principle.” It can be said that affirmative action, then, is a policy that provides equality for minorities as well as women, and that is the common ground of both supporters and opponents (679).

One of the most significant areas affected by this policy is education. We all know that race has constitutionally been a factor in college admissions for a long time, but none of us care about two other major preferential action programs that give advantages to athletes and legacies, or children of alumni. Although these two groups are different in background, they are labeled as “special students” as they bring non-academic criteria into the admission process (Mooney 99). One might think that two other affirmative action programs are so small that they are not worth paying attention to, but actually they are. In fact, athletes and children of alumni contribute a large population in both public and private school. Several studies show that the number of athletes and children of alumni in freshmen classes match the same rate compared with African American (100).1 It is clear that special treatment for legacies and athletes are at least as common as those for minorities, but despite that, arguments only aim toward minority affirmative action. Perhaps this is the case because race and ethnicity are extremely sensitive issue. According to Douglas S. Massey and Margarita Mooney, there are three basic charges against minority affirmative action. The first criticism is that affirmative action lowers the chances of admission of other students does not stand up with real data, as there has been no research showing that minority affirmative action affects the admission of other applicants.2 The second criticism, which is called the “mismatch hypothesis,” argues that affirmative action is actually making life harder for minorities, as it gives them tasks beyond their ability. For example, when a black student is admitted to a school through the help of preferential program, he will be set up in academic settings where he is under-prepared. Although this hypothesis sounds logical, it is still proven wrong by real numbers. Researches show that black students in competitive schools are even more likely to graduate than those in less competitive schools. The last argument is that affirmative action leads to psychological pressure. This is labeled the “stereotype threat hypothesis” because “it claims that affirmative action underscores the belief-deeply ingrained in American culture- that minority students, especially African American, are less intelligent” (Mooney 101).

In my opinion, the “stereotype threat hypothesis” is the most dangerous threat. It is triggered by the wide belief that standards have been lowered for minorities as well as legacies and athletes (Mooney 102). According to Mooney, there are two types of stereotype threat: internalization, which refers to self-belief, and externalization, which refers to social effect. The decrease of self-confidence occurs when a student believes in a negative stereotype about his/her own group. Grades indicate amount of work and intelligence. If a student with internalized stereotype about his own group receives a bad grade, he will confirm that he is not so intelligent rather than blaming that he is not working hard enough, and this is a very painful psychological situation. In addition, internalization of intellectual inferiority can lead to reducing of study hours, as even if the grades are low, the students might console themselves that they do not work that hard to deserve those grades (104). This type of stereotype threat lowers the performance and the determination of minorities because they always think that their academic results are not their work, and that they are less intelligent than others. For athletes and children of alumni, the pressure is similar, but the intensity is somewhat lesser. Since minority status is far more visible and easier to recognize. For athletes, except big tall boys who play basketball, athletes are not easily recognizable, and legacies are even harder to identify (105).



The externalization occurs with social effects. According to Mooney, externalization “creates a kind of psychological burden compared with internalization because the stereotype is acknowledged publicly.” Because members of targeted groups always expect people to evaluate them in a prejudiced bias, they always feel that their performance reflects the quality of the entire group. This reflects the conflict between individualism and collectivism because any member of those groups is always treated like an athlete or a minority, not simply an individual student. It is as if they carry a whole group on their backs; thus, it increases the pressure on the students whenever they perform (104). This negative effect does not stop there, as members of those groups will face the same difficulty in their future career. Nobody can do their best under such pressure. I did experience this situation before, in which I was both a legacy and an athlete. Before I moved to the United States, I was in my country’s largest medical school with the help of a preferential program for athletes. I used to be a swimming athlete, and, right before the main admission exam, I won a prize in a national tournament, so I got three bonus points on my final score. To be honest, I endured terrible pressure throughout the time I studied there. Most other students, even some professors, thought that I had been admitted for the position of my father as vice president in that school and my athletic skill but not for my academic performance. My every movement and every test result were checked and watched with full of comments. Because of all those issues, I could not give my best in anything I did. This is an example of how affirmative action can worsen the lives of its targets.
Affirmative action can be counter-productive not only in education but also in many professions of life. In politics, there are the cases of Clarence Thomas, Lani Guinier and Colin Powell. All of them were charged with obtaining high places in government with the help of special treatment, and it appeared that they were stuck with the “unqualified” label although they might have been really good (Jeffrey 229-230). This is a classic example of stereotype threat. In the economy, according to Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, affirmative action forces the employers to lower the standard in order to give a high position to a minority worker. Thus, it alters the interaction between employers and workers. That means affirmative action leads employers to patronize minority workers to a different standard, and this can make skill acquisition less necessary to minority workers. In his article, Loury explains the counter-productiveness of affirmative action as an unintended effect that will dull “the incentive to acquire skills for those whom the policy is intended to benefit,” and affirmative action will perpetuate the unequal productivity between minority workers and majority workers rather than eliminate it (20).

Loury also explains consecutive effects of “stereotype threat.” Since the employers believe that minority workers are less skillful than majority workers. they are not willing to give them high positions. Besides, the minorities always think that they do not have the ability to be assigned to high positions, so they do not have the motivation to invest their skills, and this confirms the employer’s view. With affirmative action’s demand, that employers must assign the minorities at the same rate as the majorities, employers will have no choice but to choose to make it easier for the minorities in order to meet the demand. Furthermore, seeing that they do not have to be as qualified as the majorities to achieve the same success; minority workers may have less incentive to acquire skills that enhance the performance (20). Loury summarizes the situation saying, “When skilled workers are less likely to succeed, fewer find it worthwhile to become skilled. Similarly, when unskilled workers are more likely to succeed, fewer deem it necessary to become skilled” (19). However, the problems did seem to get better after the 1970s, when people realized that minorities and women share the same interests and qualifications of white men, an effective affirmation program should be a program that provides chances for minorities and women to have the same occupations, in other words, to have the same position in work (Leonard 385).3

Many negative effects of affirmative action are obvious, so what can the supporters of this policy say in defense of it. According to Tom L. Beauchamp, a philosophy professor of Georgetown University in Washington DC, affirmative action was initiated to ensure more equitable opportunities against intractable prejudice. However, nowadays people see it in a different meaning: a policy that targets specific groups, especially women and minorities, for quotas and preferential programs (Beauchamp 144). In addition to misunderstanding the meaning of affirmative action, people even misjudge the definition of “quota.” Quota is not a fixed number of a group that must be admitted, including less qualified persons if they are the only available members of that group, instead, quota is a target percentage that an organization attempts to meet. To Beauchamp, “quotas” of affirmative action are “numerically expressible goals pursued in good faith and with due diligence.” (145) In other words, he assures that there is no part of the policy to hire less qualified persons. He also gives some statistic data showing the discrimination against minorities and women in order to justify the necessity of affirmative action (146-148).4 Beauchamp shows that in order to remove the damaging effects of sexism and racism, we have no choice but to apply aggressive policies, which include quotas, and if it is necessary, those policies will have to use sex and race as bases. In addition, because all the facts of affirmative action have not been assessed clearly due to the lack of the time of practice, nobody has the right to oppose or to support or to make any judgment about it (149-151).

Affirmative action sounds good, but in practice it may not be. The Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal”. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution proposes the equal protection under the law for all people, and yes, here in the United States of America, we are all equal under the law. Affirmative action is contradicting that. It seeks equal results, whereas the equality in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution means equal opportunities. The intention of affirmative action is to provide opportunities for women and minorities but in action it is clear that the policy is actually compensating women and minorities because of what they had endured in the past. It is wrong, as you cannot be more equal than others because of past discrimination. There has been no positive effect of affirmative action so far. It in turn, has increased sexual and racial discrimination; it has worsened the problem that Americans had been trying to fix for decades. Furthermore, affirmative action leads to loss of self-esteem; it delivers a very painful message, in which it says that a woman or a minority cannot succeed without the help of government (Jeffrey 230). Why cannot we follow the Declaration? Why cannot we create a color-blind society, a society Martin Luther King Jr. had dreamed of? Affirmative action’s error appears in its core: “the premise that Blacks as a class that cannot succeed in an equal opportunity society” (231). With this flaw, affirmative action is no more than a discriminating program that is covered with a well-purposed exterior. Maybe affirmative action is not that bad; it might have a good intention, but in the present situation, it is no longer necessary. Women and minorities should be given equal opportunity to compete; they are not so oppressed anymore; give them free space so they can show what they can do.


Works Cited

Beauchamp, Tom L. "In Deffense of Affirmative Action." The Journal of Ethics 2.12 (1998): 132-58. JSTOR. CCCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 23 Apr. 2009 .

Jeffrey, Christina F. "Point: Rethinking Affirmative Action ." Public Productivity & Management Review 20,.3 (1997): 228-36. JSTOR. CCCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 3 Apr. 2009 .

Loury, Glenn C. "Incentive Effects of Affirmative Action." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523 (1992): 19-29. JSTOR. CCCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 2 Apr. 2009 .

Leonard, Jonathan S. "Employment and Occupational Advance Under Affirmative Action." The Review of Economics and Statistics 66.3 (1984): 377-85. JSTOR. CCCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 23 Apr. 2009 .

Massey, Douglas S., and Margarita Mooney. "The Effects of America's Three Affirmative action Programs on Academic Performance." Annals of the American Academy of Polotical and Social Science 54.1 (2007): 99-117. JSTOR. CCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 3 Apr. 2009 .

Reyna, Christine , Amanda Tucker, William Korfmacher, and P J. Henry. "Searching for common Ground between supporters and Opponents of Affirmative Action." Political Psychlogy 26.5 (2005): 667-82. JSTOR. CCCD Library, Plano, Texas. 3 Apr. 2009 .


1 In 1995, Bowen and Sarah A. Levin found that 24 percent of males and 17 percents of female were recruited athletes in New England Small College Athletic Conference.

Daniel Golden (2003) found that 23 percent of freshmen enrolled at Notre Dame were the children of alumni, with corresponding figures of 14 percent at Penn, 13 percent at Havard and 11 percent at Princeton.

In their study of three private universities, Thomas Espenshade, Chan Y. Chung and Joan Walling (2004) found that 50 percent of legacies were admitted compared with 25 percent overall.



2Studies show that minority affirmative action generally has small and insignificant effects on the admission prospects of white students (Dickens and Kane 199; Wilson 1995).

3 The success of this program in skilled occupation after 1974, after none had been observed before, is probably due in part to the increasing supply of skilled minorities in many fields in 1970s.

4 70% or more white-collar positions are held by women, although they hold only about 10% of management positions.

Three out of seven US employees occupy white-collar positions, whereas the ratio is but one of seven for African Americans.

Minority applicants are over 50% more likely to be denied a loan than white applicants of equivalent economic status.

In a 1991 study by the Urban Institute, investigators found repeated discrimination against African Americans male applicants. The higher the position, the higher the level of discrimination. The white man received job offers three times often than the equally qualified African-Americans who interviewed for the same position.




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