Affirmative action debate highlights divisive approaches to topic of racism in American institutions

By Brendan Deady

(Collegian File Photo)
(Collegian File Photo)

The “Opposing Views on Affirmative Action” debate hosted by the University Union in the Student Union Ballroom Tuesday night pitted two distinguished academics against each other over a contentious topic that is still being deliberated at the highest levels of the American legal system.

Peter Wood, a former tenured member of the anthropology department at Boston University, argued that the benefits of affirmative action are distributed unevenly among various minority populations, and that the policy is unintentionally discriminatory toward non-minority populations. His opposition, Randall Kennedy, a Michael R. Klein Harvard Law professor, argued in favor of affirmative action but said the policy is an imperfect solution to an underlying problem of racial injustice in the United States. University of Massachusetts associate political science professor Dean Robinson moderated the debate.

Both speakers had 20 minutes to provide opening statements before taking student questions. Kennedy spoke first and summarized some arguments in favor of affirmative action, but also took the opportunity to criticize the prevailing justifications for the policy.

Kennedy said the most prominent rationalization for affirmative action discussed within the Supreme Court is that diversifying higher education institutions leads to a broader spectrum of perspectives. While he partially agreed, he argued that elevating this opinion as the sole rationalization for affirmative action ignores the responsibility to make amends for the country’s history of racial injustice.

“(The idea of affirmative action) has to do with the idea of remedy, rectification, restitution and redressement. There is a need to have a policy that gives a boost to people who have been historically marginalized, oppressed and excluded from society’s major institutions,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said this need for restitution is largely ignored in the debates ongoing in the Supreme Court and are only addressed euphemistically. He said affirmative action also benefits minorities who still face invidious discrimination and that anti-discrimination laws are woefully under enforced.

Wood opened his speech by agreeing that an appalling history of racial discrimination exists and that racism is still very much a present issue today. He said while affirmative action is a policy that rises from good intentions, it is ineffective at best and counterintuitive at its worst. He added that only a very small sector of minority populations see a benefit from the policy and argued that more attention should be paid to the root cause of inequality and disproportionate rates of crime that plague minority populations, namely, the disintegration of the African-American family structure and the lack of social programs for minority populations.

Wood said affirmative action ends up hurting the supposed beneficiaries of the policy by mismatching students of color to institutions they would not normally be qualified to attend. The altered standards for admission place students at a risk to underperform at esteemed universities, and puts them at a higher risk for dropping out and accruing burdensome debt, he said.

According to Wood, affirmative action policies force minority students to overachieve to prove they belong in college based on their merit and not their skin color. Wood referenced a passage in Justice Clarence Thomas’ biography that alluded to this need to overcompensate.

Wood also said affirmative action contradicts the core qualities of truth and equality that are supposed to be part of systems of higher education.

He concluded his opening remarks by stating the true beneficiaries of affirmative action are the bureaucrats within administrations who are using the push for diversity as a vehicle to advance their own careers and solidify their standing within institutions of higher education.

After their opening remarks, the participants responded to a series of questions that addressed the prevalence of institutional racism, the effectiveness of affirmative action and whether adopting colorblind policies in society is a plausible approach.

Wood compared the approach of affirmative action to the Flint, Michigan lead crisis, saying solving the problem of high levels of lead in water cannot be done by adding more lead to the water. He said that affirmative action attempted to solve discrimination by discriminating against non-minority groups. He added that the policy benefitted minority individuals who already come from privileged backgrounds.

Kennedy said affirmative action is not reverse racism. On the question of colorblind policies, Kennedy told the audience to recall that the Constitution was technically a colorblind document that oversaw decades of slavery and legalized racism. He agreed that there are downsides to affirmative action policies, as with all social policies, but abandoning the practice ignores existing instances of inequality.

Wood advocated for affirmative action to be replaced with a focus on strengthening the foundation of families within the black community. Kennedy said affirmative action serves a legitimate and beneficial purpose. He would only consider ending affirmative action if it could be ensured there would be a top-tier kindergarten through grade 12 educational system across the board that would eliminate the inherent biases of America’s educational system.

“But we all know that isn’t going to happen at this time,” Kennedy said.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @bdeady26.