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Last week, the US Supreme Court decided to end affirmative action – a policy that has helped millions of people from underrepresented communities enter top universities and get better jobs. Let’s discuss what affirmative action is, why the supreme court ruled it unconstitutional, and what could happen next!

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  • Race (n) – the idea that people can be divided into different groups based on physical characteristics that they are perceived to share such as skin colour, eye shape, etc.
    • Discrimination on grounds of race will not be tolerated.
  • Diversity (n) – the fact of many different types of things or people being included in something, a range of different things or people.
    • Does television adequately reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the country?
  • Discrimination (n) – treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people, because of their race, gender, sexuality, etc.
    • The law has done little to prevent racial discrimination and inequality.
  • To marginalise (v) – to treat someone or something as if they are not important.
    • Now that English has taken over as the main language, the country’s native language has been marginalized.
  • Underrepresented (adj) – If a type of person or thing is underrepresented in a group or organization, there are not enough of them in it.
    • Hispanics are underrepresented in U.S. political institutions.
  • Preferential (adj) – used to say that something that someone is given is better than what other people receive.
    • Single mothers have been given preferential access to council housing.
  • Representation (n) – the fact of including different types of people, for example in films, politics, or sport, so that all different groups are represented.
    • What is the reason for the lack of female representation on top boards?
  • A level playing field (idiom) – a situation in which everyone has the same chance of succeeding.
    • If the quality of high schools varies so much, how can everyone start college on a level playing field?

Supreme Court Ends Affirmative Action

Last Friday, the US Supreme Court made a decision that will affect millions of young Americans: they ruled that your “race” cannot be considered by universities during applications.

Since the 1960s, many colleges and educational institutes in the US adopted a policy known as affirmative action. I’ll explain more shortly, but it was basically a way to increase the diversity of universities. It was a form of “positive” discrimination.

While this policy has often annoyed and angered many white Americans, it has helped millions of black, Hispanic, and native American students enter top colleges and access the highest levels of education.

The Supreme Court’s decision is the latest in a series of highly controversial rulings. Last year I recorded episodes on the US Supreme Court itself and its decision on the right to abortion (I recommend you listen to them). In fact, on the same day as the decision to end affirmative action, the supreme court also allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers in some cases and ruled against Joe Biden’s policy of student loan forgiveness.

The affirmative action ruling by the court has made headlines across the world. I think there were at least 5 different articles from the BBC about it, the Economist instantly published a debate between two different people, and discussions about affirmative action were appearing all over social media.

So, I thought I would take a deeper look into affirmative action. We’ll look at what affirmative action actually means, the history of the famous policy, the supreme courts decision, and end by asking if the end of affirmative action could be an opportunity for a better solution!


What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is a policy that aims to promote diversity by providing opportunities to people from groups that have been historically marginalized or underrepresented. It focuses on areas such as workplaces, professions, and educational institutions. The goal is to ensure equal access and equal treatment for all individuals, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, or disability.

Certain groups have faced discrimination and prejudice throughout history. This has resulted in their limited representation in parts of society (for example, less women in certain professions or less disabled people at top colleges). Through affirmative action, societies attempt to create a more inclusive environment by giving these groups more opportunities.

One example of how affirmative action works is with colleges. Universities may give preferential treatment to students from underrepresented groups. This means that if two candidates have similar qualifications, the university might prioritize the candidate from the underrepresented group to ensure a more diverse student body. The aim is to provide individuals from historically marginalized groups with greater access to educational opportunities and increase their representation in higher education.

This is actually how I attended university in the UK. Unlike in America (where affirmative action is mainly based on race), many universities in the UK also include social class as a factor. So, when I applied to the University of Nottingham back in 2012, they made it easier for me to enter compared to my wealthier classmates!

Similarly, in the workplace, affirmative action policies may involve setting targets or quotas to ensure a diverse workforce. Companies may recruit and hire individuals from underrepresented groups to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of the population. For instance, if an organization notices a lack of female representation in senior positions, it may decide to promote and support the advancement of women within the company.

The general idea is to create universities and workplaces that represent society. For many different reasons it has been challenging for people of colour, women, disabled people, and other groups to sometimes enter top universities and get the best jobs. Affirmative action aims to end this.

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History of Affirmative Action in the USA

Affirmative Action in the USA was officially started by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. This was at the heart of the civil rights movement in the USA, with people campaigning for greater rights and opportunities for African Americans.

The roots of affirmative action can be traced back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. However, the Act did not explicitly mention affirmative action, as it initially focused on ending discrimination rather than actively promoting inclusivity.

It was in 1965 that affirmative action began to take shape. The concept emerged in response to the persistent inequality and the need for measures to level the playing field for disadvantaged communities. President Johnson understood that ending segregation and ensuring legal equality were not enough to rectify the long-standing imbalances faced by African Americans.

In 1965, Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to take affirmative action to promote equal employment opportunities. This order marked the first step towards implementing affirmative action in the United States. It aimed to increase the representation of African Americans and other marginalized groups in the workforce by encouraging companies that had federal contracts to actively recruit and hire qualified individuals from underrepresented communities.

Over time, affirmative action expanded further. Various executive orders, court decisions, and legislation extended affirmative action to educational institutions, government agencies, and private employers.

Affirmative action policies were implemented to ensure that admission processes in colleges and universities considered race as a factor in order to encourage diversity and address historical disadvantages faced by minority students.

Affirmative Action: Good or Bad?

What are the benefits of affirmative action? And why has it been criticised recently in the USA? Let’s take a look at some of these arguments.

Arguments for Affirmative Action:

One of the main arguments for affirmative action is that it helps to level the playing field and promote equal opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups. By considering factors such as race or gender in college admissions or employment decisions, affirmative action aims to end the discrimination that has held back marginalized communities. It aims to create a more inclusive society where everyone has a fair chance to succeed.

Affirmative action is often seen as a way to foster diversity and inclusion. By actively trying to diversify student bodies and workforces, affirmative action aims to create environments that reflect the broader society and allow people from different backgrounds to contribute their unique perspectives and experiences. This diversity can enrich learning environments, promote cross-cultural understanding, and lead to better problem-solving and innovation.

Advocates also argue that affirmative action is a necessary tool for redressing historical injustices. They believe that centuries of discrimination and oppression have created disadvantages for certain groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. Affirmative action seeks to address this imbalance by providing opportunities to those who have been historically marginalized.


Arguments against Affirmative Action:

On the other hand, one of the main arguments against affirmative action is that it can lead to reverse discrimination. Critics argue that by giving preferential treatment based on race, gender, or other characteristics, affirmative action can unfairly disadvantage individuals from non-targeted groups, such as white or male applicants.

By considering factors like race or gender in admissions or employment decisions, affirmative action can prioritize diversity over individual qualifications, leading to the selection of less-qualified candidates. Critics argue that this can have negative consequences and undermine the quality of education or workforce performance.

Some opponents also argue that it is based on stereotypes as it categorises individuals based on their race or other characteristics. Critics argue that affirmative action may inadvertently reinforce divisions.

Why Did the Supreme Court End Affirmative Action?

After nearly 50 years, the US supreme court has decided that the policy of affirmative action in college admissions is “unconstitutional” – meaning that universities can no longer use a person’s race as a factor in university admissions.

On June 29th, the US Supreme Court made a 6-3 decision in two cases, Students for Fair Admissions v Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v University of North Carolina, that race-based affirmative action programs in higher education violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, arguing that the way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race altogether. He criticized the idea of using race as a “plus factor” in admissions decisions, which allowed universities to use race as a reason to choose one student over another. Roberts argued that the benefits of diversity were not clear or measurable enough to justify using race as a consideration in admissions.

The majority opinion also questioned affirmative action’s defintion of diversity, arguing that grouping together all students from a particular racial category ignores the differences within that category.

Moreover, the ruling accused universities of focusing too much on racial categories rather than considering other aspects of an applicant’s identity, such as their challenges overcome, skills acquired, or lessons learned.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, on the other side of the decision, argued that affirmative action has been an important tool in promoting inclusivity and equality in higher education and American society.

What Could Happen Next?

Now affirmative action has been stopped, what could happen next?

The ruling may result in a decrease in minority students attending top universities. Already, bans on affirmative action in certain states have led to a decline in minority students attending top universities.

Universities may explore new methods to promote diversity, such as increasing outreach efforts or implementing new schemes. Moreover, affirmative action based on wealth and family income could be emphasised to boost diversity and provide opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Elite universities in America also run two other forms of “easy” admission which have been much criticised. “Legacy” admissions (the children and grandchildren of former students) can enter top universities more easily than non-legacy students. And so can student athletes (who often require much lower grades at high school and then play sports full-time at college).

These universities may need to address favouritism for legacy applicants and athletes to create more progressive admissions systems.

The ruling could also influence companies. Many companies supported affirmative action, emphasizing the importance of diversity in education and the workforce. Certain professions, such as law and medicine, already struggle with diversity, and the ruling may make the issue worse.


A Better Affirmative Action

Although it may be difficult, I think ending affirmative action based on race is a chance for the USA to create a new and fairer version of affirmative action based on wealth.

Universities have relied heavily on race and overlooked economic disadvantage in admissions, leading to a disproportionate number of wealthy minority students. In the UK, for example, the most underrepresented group at universities is not who you would imagine – white working-class men. White working-class men are the least likely group to enter top universities!

Universities and professions in the US should focus on socio-economic factors rather than a simple focus on race!

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Final Thought

The recent Supreme Court decision to end race-based affirmative action in college admissions raises important questions about the future of diversity and inclusivity in American universities and beyond. The ruling may lead to a decrease in minority representation at top universities, as previous bans on affirmative action have already shown. Universities may need to explore new methods to promote diversity, such as emphasizing affirmative action based on wealth and family income.

The ruling’s impact may extend beyond higher education to the workforce, as many companies have supported affirmative action. Certain professions, already struggling with diversity, could face additional challenges due to the ruling.

While the end of race-based affirmative action presents challenges, it also offers an opportunity to reimagine a fairer version of affirmative action based on socioeconomic factors.

What Do You Think? Does Your Country Have a System of Affirmative Action? Do You Think Factors Like Race or Gender Should be Included in University and Job Decisions?

Extended Vocabulary List

  1. Challenging – difficult; presenting a challenge or difficulty
  2. Affirmative action – a policy that aims to promote diversity by providing opportunities to historically marginalized or underrepresented groups
  3. Controversial – causing disagreement or debate; highly debated or disputed
  4. Ruling – a decision or judgment made by a court or other authority
  5. Inclusivity – the practice or policy of including or involving people from all sections of society, especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalized
  6. Historical disadvantages – disadvantages or hardships that have been experienced by certain groups throughout history
  7. Reverse discrimination – discrimination against individuals from non-targeted groups as a result of affirmative action policies
  8. Qualifications – the skills, knowledge, or credentials that make a person suitable for a particular job or position
  9. Stereotypes – widely held but oversimplified beliefs or ideas about a particular group of people or things
  10. Unconstitutional – not in accordance with or violating the principles or provisions of a constitution
  11. Admissions – the process of accepting or admitting someone into a college, university, or other educational institution
  12. Decline – a decrease or reduction in quantity, quality, or importance
  13. Outreach efforts – deliberate actions taken to reach out to and engage with a particular group or community
  14. Legacy admissions – preferential treatment given to the children or grandchildren of former students when applying to universities
  15. Student athletes – individuals who participate in sports as part of their college or university education
  16. Favouritism – the unfair practice of giving preferential treatment to a particular person or group
  17. Influence – the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something
  18. Socioeconomic factors – social and economic factors that influence an individual’s or group’s position or status in society
  19. Fairer version – a more just or equitable form or version
  20. Reimagine – to imagine or conceive of something in a new or different way
  21. Equitable system – a system that is fair, just, and impartial, ensuring equal opportunities and treatment for all individuals
  22. Underprivileged individuals – individuals who lack the social, economic, or educational advantages enjoyed by others in society
  23. Inclusivity – the practice or policy of including or involving people from all sections of society, especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalized
  24. Barriers – obstacles or hurdles that prevent or hinder progress or access to opportunities
  25. Higher education – education provided by colleges, universities, and other institutions beyond high school level

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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