Affirmative Action



Join Active Minds for an in-depth look at the origins, history, and future of affirmative action in the United States. Born out of the legacy of slavery in the U.S., affirmative action has been a part of our culture for decades. Proponents claim it is necessary to even the playing field given past disadvantages while others argue that it just creates a new uneven playing field. We will examine both these arguments and more as we attempt to understand this complicated and important issue.

Key Lecture Points

  • Affirmative action traces its beginning back to World War II and refers to programs that use racial or gender preferences to provide equal opportunity in education and the workplace.
  • The 1990s saw a series of state referenda to end racial preferences in college admissions. In 2003 the Grutter v. Bollinger case was heard by the US Supreme Court. This landmark decision allows public universities to include racial preferences as part of a “holistic” review of a student’s application for admission.
  • The US Supreme Court heard the arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas on October 12, 2012. This case revisits affirmative action programs in which applicants receive racial preferences. From the questions asked during the hearing, observers believe the conservative Justices are ready to impose new limits on the use of race in making college admission decisions and the liberal Justices are concerned that the court’s previous upholding of the use of racial preferences will be overturned. A decision is expected by late June 2013.
  • Regardless of the decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, addressing the disparity in educational achievement between black and white students remains a crucial issue if we are to insure all American children have equal opportunity for an education and a place in the workforce.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the major Supreme Court decisions that have shaped how affirmative action is currently used in college admissions?
  • Why is the Fisher v. University of Texas case important?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think affirmative action should be continued? Why or why not?
  • Have you or anyone in your family benefitted from an affirmative action program? What did it mean to your family?

More to Explore

For Further Reading

  • Toobin, Jeffrey. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. Anchor, 2008. 480 pages. The author explores the history of the Supreme Court and the current dynamics among the Justices.
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  • Stevens, John Paul. Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir. Back Bay Books, 2012. 304 pages. A personal account of how the Supreme Court works and insights on controversial cases.
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  • Sander, Richard and Stuart Taylor, Jr. Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, And Why Universities Won’t Admit It. Basic Books, 2012. 368 pages. An analysis of affirmative action in higher education.
    Click here to order