Anna Clements: Affirmative Action Revisted

By Anna Clements, Columnist
Published July 31, 2011

Affirmative action has been controversial for years, especially at the University of Michigan. Philosophers here such as Elizabeth Anderson and Carl Cohen, along with sociologist Patricia Gurin, have written books arguing for and against it, considering whether its dangers outweigh its benefits, and investigating what those pros and cons really are. Now that it’s being considered to no longer be prohibited, we can explore its risks and advantages. Will affirmative action, as Carl Cohen indicates, simply manifest as sheer racial preference? Or will it function in a way that enhances the potential of society, as Elizabeth Anderson and Patricia Gurin prophesy, by using integration to break down barriers blocking blacks and other minorities from opportunities?

An education at the University can be viewed as a scarce resource, as Cohen alludes to in his essay in The Civil Liberties Review titled “Honorable Ends, Unsavory Means.” He states that “when a resource is in short supply (such as seats in a university), and some by virtue of their race are given more of it, others by virtue of their race get less.” Viewing education in this way may be helpful in deciphering the social costs and benefits that exist due to the exclusive nature of university admissions in general. However, claiming that “systems of preferential admissions do not integrate, they disintegrate” might not be supported by premises that point to the scarcity of education. Furthermore, it doesn’t support the conclusion that affirmative action is inadvisable.

Anderson examines the compensatory and integrative effects of affirmative action and argues for it based on the latter of the two rationales. Both in the courses she teaches and in her written work, she depicts the ways in which preferential admissions policies deconstruct current barriers to minority advancement, thereby efficaciously promoting a fairer, more democratic society. Segregation is a barrier to democracy; it isolates the various interests of certain groups so that the broader public fails to incorporate them when making decisions. Thus, policies favoring the admission of a wider variety of students into an institution also function to support democracy by diminishing the aforementioned isolation of interests.

The proposal that banned affirmative action for the past five years has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court of appeals; it might well go on to the Supreme Court and be reinstituted there. Therefore, it is crucial that we at the University and among the general public, continue to discuss policies of affirmative action and critically examine the rhetoric supporting and opposing it. Is it a form of discrimination, condemnable under laws and values that reject using personal characteristics such as race and gender in making hiring and admissions decisions?

In “Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan,” Professor Gurin examines the effects that diversity in the student body has on individual students’ learning experiences. She includes a selection of testimonies written by University students on how diversity has affected their learning experiences. Based on those accounts as well as on her own speculation, she concludes that “students’ experiences with racial and ethnic diversity have far-reaching and significant educational benefits for both learning and democracy outcomes, and that these benefits extend to … non-minorities and minorities alike.” Thus, by treating educational diversity as a public good, she demonstrates how affirmative action policies do not just redistribute resources to the disadvantaged, or save certain groups from the segregation that has been imposed upon them due to centuries of racism; but rather, affirmative action has the potential to help every student become a more capable citizen.

Gurin cites University political scientist Profesor Arlene Saxonhouse, who discusses debates that took place in ancient history over diversity’s impact on democracy in her book Fear of Diversity. According to Saxonhouse, Plato argued that a homogenous society is the most beneficial system for an effective democracy to take place within, whereas Aristotle advocates for equal relationships among people of diverse backgrounds as a way to let democracy thrive. In the United States, however, almost nobody would dare assert that diversity is a drawback to an institution. It’s one of this country’s central tenets. How else would capitalism have thrived here for so long if we did not value multiplicity or diversity? In order to have true, functional competition, differences are critical.

I am not writing this in order to out professors’ political persuasions. But it’s important, while in an institution such as this one, to be aware not only of the content that is being taught in courses, but of the backdrop over which the ideas interact. If affirmative action is put into place, what changes will we observe? Is education the resource over which to be fought, as Cohen assumes, or is it a public good, strengthening both communities and the democratic process? Determining how we are to view diversity is crucial in deciding whether and how to institute affirmative action policies.

Anna can be reached at asiobhan@umich.edu.