Affirmative action generally means giving preferential treatment to minorities in admission to universities or employment in government & businesses. The policies were originally developed to correct decades of discrimination and to give disadvantaged minorities a boost. The diversity of our current society as opposed to that of 50 years ago seem to indicate the programs have been a success. But now, many think the policies are no longer needed and that they lead to more problems than they solve.
One notable example is a case currently being argued in the Supreme Court concerning admissions to the University of Michigan. The school has a policy of rating potential applicants on a point system. Being a minority student earns you more than twice as many points as achieving a perfect SAT score. Three white students have sued citing this as raced-based discrimination. School officials say that diversity is desirable and affirmative action is the only way to achieve true diversity.
Racial quotas for public colleges were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Bakke v. California. Since then, public colleges seeking to increase diversity have used other types of affirmative action. While private universities have more freedom in their admissions decisions, they generally find that other affirmative action policies are a better way of achieving diversity than quotas because they allow for greater flexibility and more fairness.
Affirmative action in the college admissions process has, in the decades following Bakke, been primarily an ethical rather than a legal issue. So long as the decision process did not employ strict racial quotas, colleges could choose to accept whomever they wanted. This is changing however; California's Proposition 209, passed in 1996 with 54% of the popular vote, prohibits any use of racial preferences in government hiring and public school admissions. More than a dozen states are considering similar legislation, and Federal courts in Texas and elsewhere have also brought into question the legality of using race as a determinant in academic admissions.
Insofar as the question is an ethical one, the bulk of the disagreement is over whether or not affirmative action increases fairness in the admissions process. Additionally, the debate over affirmative action raises the question of what role diversity in student bodies plays in both the academic mission of a university and in the quality of life on campus.
Affirmative action in evaluating college applicants has supporters and opponents on both sides of the political spectrum, but generally speaking it is more popular among liberals than among conservatives. To help you make your own decision about the issue we've listed the arguments for both sides. Let's start by looking at some of the arguments in favor of affirmative action.