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Affirmative Action

September 1995

From the Rutgers University controversy in New Jersey to the anti-affirmative-action referendum in California, the debate over policies to counteract discrimination has been much in the news of late. Affirmative-action policies have come under fire from all sides, not only from those who claim they're little more than 'reverse racism,' but from some minority groups as well, who argue that they actually promote racism by fostering stereotypes of incompetence and rob minorities of hard-earned credibility.

To contribute to the discussion, we're revisiting three past Atlantic articles that examine the debate over affirmative action from distinctly different perspectives. The first is Stanley Fish's 1993 article, "Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black." Fish, a professor of Law and English at Duke University, argues for the preservation of affirmative action and refutes the primary arguments often invoked against it.

As a counterweight to Fish's defense of affirmative action, we're offering "A Question of Fairness," Juan Williams's 1987 profile of then-chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Clarence Thomas. Unlike Fish, Thomas is opposed to affirmative action on the grounds that it helps only those already on the road to success, while simultaneously enforcing the stereotype that blacks and other minorities are inherently less competent than whites. During his tenure at the EEOC, Thomas was widely criticized by minority groups for his opposition to quota-based policies and class-action suits and was accused of being party to an attempt to "roll back civil rights." Is Thomas correct in thinking that affirmative action does more harm than good?

Thomas's reasoning runs counter to that of the former Harvard dean and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. In his November, 1977, article "The Issue Before the Court: Who Gets Ahead in America?" Bundy asks whether race should be taken into account by schools during the admissions process. Written just before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of The Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke, Bundy's article examines the white defendant Allan Bakke's claim that he was wrongfully denied admission to the Medical School of the University of California at Davis because of its racial-quota-based affirmative-action policy. In "The Issue Before the Court," Bundy takes the position--ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court--that it is legitimate for an educational institution to forego racial neutrality in admissions in the interest of promoting racial integration in the institution as a whole. Almost twenty years after the Bakke decision, many of the arguments Bundy makes are being brought back into question. Do these arguments still hold water? Do the policies fulfill their intended purpose--or do they instead do harm to those they're meant to aid? Should affirmative action be preserved?

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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