In the controversial realms of affirmative action, the largest issue staunchly fought over is whether minorities should be given preferential treatment in the workplace and in the schools. One side declares that those in the minority group need and deserve governmental aid so that they will be on equal footing with the majority group. Opponents of affirmative action point out that setting apart groups based on their race or ethnicity is purely racism and can lead to reverse discrimination. I am against affirmative action for the aforementioned reasons, and would not consider such racism as necessary for creating a healthy society, as proponents would insist. It is my belief that affirmative action today is out of date and is inherently harmful to society.

Affirmative action supporter Stephen Steinberg, in his essay The Affirmative Action Debate, argued that equality in society is not possible without governmental intervention and aid. He asserts “the problem is stated falsely when it is suggested that we must choose between merit or preference, or between the rights of individuals and the rights of groups, or between a color-blind or color-conscious society” (363). Yet while he said that, he supported the very issues he is adamant against by favoring affirmative action. Earlier in his essay he describes the history of affirmative action in the workplace from equal rights for all, to reaching out to select certain minority groups for employment, and to preferential treatment of minorities (360). Of these three, the only one I can fully and strongly support is the first.

When I look at all the aspects of this issue I wonder if we have failed to focus on the correct issue. Affirmative action’s purpose claims to be to alleviate racial tensions, to put minorities on an equal level with majority group, and to help us all to live in a happy, multi-cultural world together. Instead, the opposite appears to have happened. When the emphasis is placed on aiding people with certain skin colors or ethnic backgrounds, affirmative action sets the races further apart than before. Could this be just another form of segregation? The attempts at boosting minorities to the level of the others have grotesquely failed. To raise minorities the government has pushed down the majority group, fueling racial conflicts. In addition, lowering the bar for minorities for admission into jobs or schools has created a harmful atmosphere for them. Because some of them could not originally qualify on merit and skills, many face failure or extra hardship when they get ushered into their job or school. As Charles T. Canady said in his speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D. C., “Preferences do nothing to help develop the skills necessary for the economic and social advancement of the disadvantaged” (43). Meanwhile the majorities receive punishment because of their lack of a specific skin tone or origin. “Entitlements by race, sex, ethnicity and sexual orientation-categories that in no way reflect merit-” Shelby Steele described, “are at the root of the great social evils in American life” (175). It is unfair to reward or turn away applicants because of something that is only theirs by ascribed means. When prospective college students or job applicants are considered, the competition should be solely based on individual merit.

Perhaps when affirmative action first began there was a legitimate purpose and it had beneficial results. However, an idea that starts out as good, when it begins to sour with age, only succeeds in poisoning a society from that point on. In recent years, when affirmative action and preferential treatment were in place, they began to tear down what it had originally built up. The balance was gradually flipped; instead of minorities becoming equal with the rest of society, they began to have dominance in some areas. The emphasis was placed on skin color and background, and employers had to look first at those ahead of other qualifications. Affirmative action became another form of racism-one that was widely accepted by well-meaning citizens, as was slavery in the Old South during our nation’s shameful past. Irving Kristol stated, “Under the flags of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ we are moving deliberately and desperately away from being a color-blind or ethnic-blind society to becoming a society that willfully generates racial and ethnic tensions” (148).

Racism exists today in scattered individuals, but as a whole statistics show that our nation is doing moderately well. A poll from 1997, which outlined racial relations in the United States, discovered that three-quarters of blacks and two-thirds of whites had close friends of each other’s race. Those who did not have such friends may have lived in non-culturally diverse areas of the U.S., such as the Midwest, and had no opportunities to make diverse friends. Apparently race relations were not only secure on the personal level, but also the political level. When the question “Would you be willing to vote for a black person as president?” was asked, the results were that 93% of whites surveyed said they would compared to 91% of blacks who were asked that question (Gelles and Levine 338). In the same survey, blacks were asked if they thought they were treated less fairly than whites. 45% of blacks said they thought there was discrimination in the workplace, 46% said it was present in stores downtown or in malls, and 60% claimed that police were discriminatory. If the first two polls appeared to show racial relations as healthy, then what explains the injustice described in the last poll? Anne Wortham, in her essay Victimhood Versus Individual Responsibility, came up with a suggestion. She emphasized a difference between actual and symbolic victims of racism, stating that the latter comprised a group she described as “the stance of victimhood or the self-as-victim image” explaining that these perspectives “are a threat to the values that are necessary for the relief of those who are disadvantaged” (83). She went on to explain how the originally disadvantaged keep themselves in that position by viewing themselves as being separate and squelched. With such a perspective, they may end up viewing themselves as much more discriminated against than they really are. For example, if a white store employee is rude to a minority customer or a white police officer pulls over a black teenage male, the minority members may assume such actions were based on their skin color. Such assumptions, with no evidence to support them, lead to a deeper ingrained mental victim status. Actual discrimination does exist, but Wortham believes that it is far less prevalent than minorities believe. Affirmative action, along with its efforts to label certain racial groups as disadvantaged, may be counterproductively creating a false sense of discrimination and separation in minority members. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, during his time as the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, indignantly cried, “I’m tired of blacks being thought of only as poor people, people on welfare, people who are unemployed. That’s the only way the Jesse Jacksons and the other black leaders talk about black people. To them we’re all a monolith. Well, they are not talking for the 80 or 90 percent of black people in this country who have never been on welfare or in jail” (Wortham 90-91).

If affirmative action and preferential treatment for minorities magnifies and aggravates racial tension, then they must not be the answer to having diverse and integrated workplaces and schools. We have to look at the problem a different way to discover the real issue. We know that the majority group often dominates the top schools and positions in society. Is this because of racism? It must be first pointed out that because about four-fifths of the population of the United States is considered white (Gelles and Levine 315), the number of whites in a job or school will almost always be larger than other groups. Even considering the statistics, other races are being so-called underrepresented in high, visible positions. This is partially because of money; the more income and wealth people have, the longer and better schooling they will most likely be able to achieve, and the greater the chance that they will be able to get to the top of the social ladder. While minorities tend to be lower in the hierarchy for a variety of reasons, 48% of those in poverty here in the United States are white (Gelles and Levine 292). Affirmative action would give a boost to poor minorities (along with rich minorities) but would ignore half of the poor population. I suggest that our main problem is not in the racial realm; the real issue is poverty that affects people of every background and of every skin color. While stratification is inevitable (unless you want to live in a pseudo-classless society such as communist Russia where everyone was equal-equally disadvantaged, that is), the bottom layer does not have to be as low as it is now. As the saying declares, a rising tide lifts all boats. When our economic and educational systems are improved on all levels, everyone will benefit and there will be no preferential discrimination or racism worked into the system.

I suggest a two-fold plan for the future of America. Our first priority should be to improve our nation’s schools by bringing much more control to the local level and to the parents of the students. An improved educational system, coupled with individual effort, will give citizens equal opportunity to enter into competitive schools and jobs. Secondly, employers and schools should not ask the race of applicants so that those in both the minority and majority groups will not be discriminated against because of the color of the outer one-sixteenth of an inch of skin that has created so many tensions in the past. As Shel Silverstein said in his poem No Difference, “We all look the same when we turn off the light” (81). We have to treat each other that way if we expect to achieve any progress.

Works Cited

Canady, Charles T. “America’s Struggle for Racial Equality.” The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. 1 Oct. 1997. Rpt. in Affirmative Action as “Affirmative Action Harms Society.” Ed. Bryan J. Grapes. San Diego: Greenhaven. 2000. 38-46.

Gelles, Richard J., and Ann Levine. Sociology: An Introduction. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.

Kristol, Irving. “The Tragic Error of Affirmative Action.” Wall Street Journal 1 Aug. 1994. Rpt. in Interracial America: Opposing Viewpoints as “Affirmative Action is Reverse Discrimination.” Ed. Bonnie Szumski. San Diego: Greenhaven. 1996. 144-48. Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends. San Francisco: Harper, 1974.

Steele, Shelby. “Social Evils.” The New York Times 13 Mar. 1994. Rpt. in Interracial America: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Bonnie Szumski. San Diego: Greenhaven. 1996. 175.

Steinberg, Stephen. “The Affirmative Action Debate.” The UNESCO Courier Mar. 1996. Rpt. in Essays from Contemporary Culture. 4th ed. Ed. Katherine Anne Ackley. San Diego: Harcourt. 2001. 359-63.