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Debates on the Affirmative Action Policy

Affirmative action, a historically polarizing policy to our country, is widely seen as a noble effort by many but was controversial from its inception in the civil rights era America. By definition, it is the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against in the past. While this may seem to appear beneficial to minorities and those who have been historically discriminated against, there are many Americans who are firmly against this ideology, claiming that it is unnecessary, unfair and that it worsens racial tensions. Richard Rodriguez, the controversial Mexican author of Hunger of Memory, sharply criticizes affirmative action, as he believes that it leverages the force of multiculturalism as a way of reshuffling the idea and image we hold of our countries elites, all the while never redistributing resources or educating underserved communities. As the years go on, the debate on the policy continues, which leaves policy-makers and employers struggling with questions alike. Can employers and colleges make the right decision between promoting minority groups’ opportunities and dealing with reverse discrimination? Are affirmative action programs necessary to make minorities equal and have a history of discrimination fixed, or are such programs the wrong way out of an increasingly urgent problem?  Is affirmative action necessary in 2019?

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Affirmative action, a policy designed to improve the number of minorities and females who have been scarce or nonexistent in schooling and the workforce, was created in the 1960s under the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations as a strategy in the struggle for equal opportunity. The terms first use was actually by Kennedy himself, in a presidential order which encouraged federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed…without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.” President Lyndon B. Johnson established affirmative action in 1965, solidifying the strategy as government policy when he signed Executive Order 11246, which created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. To improve the recruitment of minority community employees, the order requires public contractors to adopt “affirmative action.” An affirmative action program involves an analysis of the current workforce to determine whether the “protected groups” percentage in a given job classification is similar to those in the surrounding communities. If it is noted that certain practices have a discriminatory impact on the selection method, ethnicity and gender-conscious interventions may be needed to resolve the situation at hand. These actions may be voluntary or court-mandated, and the responsibility for providing equal opportunities would rest solely on the employer. Affirmative action programs had spread throughout the 1960s when schools and universities began recruiting African-American students aggressively. Although only government contractors were required to take such steps, certain personal employers also enacted affirmative policies. Many firms saw a diverse workforce as a competitive benefit and a way to improve their perception of the public and prevent the discriminatory prosecution.

Although the policy has been an accepted strategy for years, it has been argued that affirmative action programs have experienced limited success. Author Augustus J. Jones Jr. claims in his book Affirmative Talk, Affirmative Action that poor communication between the policy-makers and the employers is among one of the many reasons as to why the strategy is not as successful as it should be. These policies need to be clearly explained for employers to administer what needs to be done effectively. Another reason why the procedure is lacking in success is that there is a lack of adequate resources in the workforce for accommodating for affirmative action, as money, authority, and the staff must all be in order before taking on new employees. One tragic reason why affirmative action does not fully succeed is the fact that many employers who are responsible for carrying out the policies may be against the action, and will work against it. Rhetoric like “preferential treatment,” “racial quotas,” and “reverse discrimination” has created reservations amongst white Americans regarding the legitimacy of affirmative action, and deeply-rooted hatred and racism is something that can nearly never be broken.

Affirmative action critics claim that the policy gives special privileges to groups of individuals whose people are discriminated against. They also retain that affirmative action strategies lay down strict quotas so that possibilities are provided for people who otherwise are unqualified. This results in opposition to affirmative action due to creating “reverse discrimination” against white males. Concepts such as “preferential treatment, “minority set-asides,” “managing diversity,” and “reverse discrimination” have made white males across America disagree with the concept of affirmative action, and not much will change their stance on the matter, as they are the ones who are threatened by the existence of the policy. Some opponents of affirmative action argue that such strategies are social engineering and breach the Constitution. Discrimination against the white male is almost sanctioned, and thus, the subject of discrimination is merely reversed. The reasoning against reverse discrimination holds that females and members of minority groups receive preferential treatment in the field of employment (e.g., in acquiring employment opportunities) and in higher education institutions, in particular where previous discrimination can be documented.

The opposition has believed that systematically offering preference to individuals depending on the color of their skin or their gender is unfair and unlawful, and this has been a central talking point for the opposers for nearly half a century. In the 1970s, a reaction to affirmative action began to brew as critics, mainly white men, asserted that minorities and females, whom they claimed to be less skilled, were taking positions which they didn’t rightfully earn. Richard Rodriguez touched upon this topic in Hunger of Memory, when he said, “White students in the seventies frequently complained to me about affirmative action. They said that the reason they couldn’t get admitted to business school or the reason their fellowship application had been rejected was the minorities.” (Rodriguez, 178.) This bias towards minorities who weren’t fully qualified came to a boiling point in the late ’70s, during the legal case of Allan Bakke. In 1978, the Court of Justice reached a landmark decision concerning affirmative action during the trial of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a Caucasian male, filed a lawsuit against the medical school at UC Davis, which had previously rejected his application twice. A quota scheme had been used at the college, with the students of minority groups allocating 16 of its 100 places. Bakke asserted that he was refused entry because of his ethnicity, a breach of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents organizations receiving public resources from discriminating on the grounds of ethnicity.

Similar situations to this occur to this day, like the case of Fisher v. The University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, applied for entry to the University of Texas in 2015 but was rejected. She did not qualify for the Top Ten Percent Plan in Texas, which ensures admission to the top ten percent of all high school graduates in the state. The college sees many variables, including ethnicity, for the remaining places. Fisher sued the University and claimed that the use of ethnicity as a factor in the admission system breached the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The District Court ruled that the entrance process for the University was constitutional and the United States The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal confirmed that. The Court ruled that the appeal court made an error in not implementing the rigorous level of inspection to university policy. The case was referred to the Supreme Court. The case was remitted, and the appeal court reaffirmed the judgment of the lower court by arguing that the use of ethnicity by the University of Texas as a factor in the recruitment system was adequately adapted to the lawful purpose of encouraging academic diversity and therefore met rigorous scrutiny. This goes to show that what the white male believes to be reverse discrimination continues to this day, just as it was in the ’70s with Bakke.

As the opposition has long asserted that affirmative intervention is unfair and promotes so-called reverse discrimination against the white male, the supporters have argued that the continuation of affirmative action is essential to further socioeconomic equality between sexes. Affirmative action enables colleges and other organizations to retain diversity, which helps to remove ethnic and gender-based obstacles. Affirmative action is also essential to equalize the playing field after decades of discrimination for members of minority communities.

While many who oppose affirmative action believe that discrimination is a thing of the past, this couldn’t be farther than the truth, as gender and race discrimination have been rampant for generations. What many of the ignorant opposition fail to realize is that minority groups genuinely have little to no opportunities when compared to their Caucasian counterparts, which can be exhibited when comparing the income and net worth of the average white household with the average black home. A Pew Research Center survey discovered that in 2013, the net worth of the white people who participated in the study is 13 times greater than that of blacks who participated (Stepler, 2016). According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2016 – 2017, the average weekly earnings for full-time black and Hispanic men were $710 and $690, while the average weekly earnings for the white male was $971 (Hegewisch, Williams-Baron, 2018). The Institute’s article “The Gender Wage Gap: 2017 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity” detailed that these disparities aren’t only limited to racial groups, but females of all ethnicities as well. Women from all ethnic groups make significantly less when compared to their male counterparts, with women averaging 19.5 percent lower than men as of 2017. Hispanic women are going to have to wait until 2224, and black women are going to wait until 2119 to get equal pay as white men. It is quite evident that white men have an advantage in most things of the world, and affirmative action is necessary for the fight against discrimination by allowing groups of minorities more opportunities that are typically given to Caucasian males.

These inequities faced by American minorities are also clearly demonstrated in the continuing disparities in home ownership in the United States. Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality claims that as of 2014, 41% of black and 45% of Hispanic families live in owner-occupied housing, while this figure is 71% for white families (Martinovich, 2017). In the article “Significant Racial and Ethnic Disparities Still Exist, According to Stanford Report”, Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s annual “State of the Union” report found that approximately 1 in 6 black and Hispanic families spend more than 50% of their revenue on housing, leaving them with fewer funds to pay on schooling, health care and other fundamental needs for their children, resulting in a downward spiral into a never-ending pit that is seemingly impossible to escape from. The main disparities are attributed to the development of household mortgages followed by the “New Deal” signed nearly 80 years earlier by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Colored families were disqualified from these mortgages. While white households used them and thrived, other minority families were left behind with nothing, and are still trying to catch up to this day. One out of four blacks and one out of five Hispanics are considered poor. When compared to whites and Asians, that figure is one in ten.

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Richard Rodriguez, the infamous writer of Hunger of Memory, believes that affirmative action keeps things the way they are rather than actually being beneficial to minorities. This is notable in Hunger of Memory, as he writes, “The strategy of affirmative action, finally, did not take the educational dilemma of disadvantaged students seriously. They need good early schooling!” (Rodriguez, 162.) Strongly against affirmative action, he believes categorizing all races in ineffective as well, because the wealth gaps in the minority race groups of America are quite large. In his book Hunger of Memory, he said” The policy of affirmative action, however, was never able to distinguish someone like me (a graduate student of English, ambitious for a college teaching career) from a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer,” (Rodriguez, 161,) which perfectly paints a picture of this point. This is not only true within individual race groups themselves, but also with entire race groups as a whole making vastly different amounts of income. Asian men are reportedly making much more when compared to their fellow minorities, as they made nearly double the median weekly earnings of Hispanic men in 2017. This is a result of colorism, which is very much alive today and has an effect on all discrimination to American minorities. A study of immigrants recently linked lighter skin and higher income, which stated that discrimination is the chief reason that lighter-skinned immigrants in the United States make more money than those with darker complexions. Joni Hersch, a law and economics lecturer at Vanderbilt University, examined a public study of 2,084 legal immigrants in the United States from around the globe and discovered that immigrants with the lightest skin gained an average of 8% to 15% more than comparable individuals with much darker skin (AP, 2007). “On average,” Dr. Hersch said, “being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education.”

Hunger of Memory, the story of Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez, details the evolution of his education, along with his thoughts on affirmative action. Those who were already opposed to affirmative action and bilingual schooling discovered an excellent “minority” witness in Rodriguez. Those who are ideologically devoted to these programs have vilified him as a traitor. Neither party is much concerned in the beauty of his quiet disclosure of the proof of his own experience. He believes that it is unfair, and he does not like that he is considered someone who is under the umbrella of a minority. He believes affirmative action is essentially discriminatory, and fully realizes this while he was in a harsh discussion with an assistant graduate student, who was a Jewish person with an outstanding record as Rodriguez, but who has no work opportunities, while renowned colleges compete to give Rodriguez a position. Rodriguez says during this talk that his “mind reared—spooked and turning—then broke toward a reckless idea: Leave the university. Leave” (Rodriguez, 184.) This talk affected him so much that he gives up all job offers that he had lined up without looking back. Rodriguez also acknowledges that affirmative action harmed learners themselves. There was an evident lack of education and qualifications for many Black Americans who were admitted to a university because they had no prior opportunities at the time. The students in the minority groups struggled as Richard saw that teachers were either leaving them and turning their backs if they were not, or pushing them to the next class out of pity. Some learners were at Richard’s graduate college and never wrote a thesis. Richard asks if these consequences help the student in minority progress, which they don’t. This is seen in Hunger of Memory when Richard said, “Teachers confronted with evidence of a student’s poor comprehension found it easiest to dispense a grade that moved a student toward meaningless graduation. The new minority students had been treated with such generosity before. That is how many of them had passed through twelve years of grammar and high school, in the end still needing to be considered culturally disadvantaged. My experience was different.” (Rodriguez, 165.)

In conclusion, there are many pros and cons to the concept of affirmative action, and there is no distinct black or white when comparing the two sides of the coin.

While the noble intentions of the strategy are clear, it is easy to see how it can be discriminatory against the white male in an educational setting or the workforce. Reformation of the policy needs to be done to accommodate both sides better, as it is clear that no one will ever be happy with the system that is in place today. Something needs to be done to equalize the disparity between the average black and average white American household, and this is something that can balance it out, as the concept honestly sounds promising. There needs to be less leniency on the quality of work that the chosen minorities display, as performance is more critical than meeting the quota. In the state affirmative action is in now, it is going to continue to produce nothing, but with the right fixes to the system, it will for sure benefit us all.

Work Cited

  • Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: the Education of Richard Rodriguez ; an Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1983.
  • Stepler, Renee, and Renee Stepler. “5 Key Takeaways about Views of Race and Inequality in America.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 June 2016, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/27/key-takeaways-race-and-inequality/.
  • Hegewisch, Ariane, and Emma Williams-Baron. “The Gender Wage Gap: 2017 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 7 Mar. 2018, iwpr.org/publications/gender-wage-gap-2017-race-ethnicity/.
  • Martinovich, Milenko. “Report Finds Significant Racial and Ethnic Disparities.” Stanford News, Stanford University, 17 June 2017, news.stanford.edu/2017/06/16/report-finds-significant-racial-ethnic-disparities/.
  • The Associated Press. “Study of Immigrants Links Lighter Skin and Higher Income.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/us/28immig.html.

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