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Affirmative action: Pros and cons

By Rachel Potucek


Kansas State University's Krishna Tummala admits affirmative action is a difficult subject. He would know -- he teaches an occasional class on it and is an award-winning public policy writer.

Krishna Tummala"Affirmative action is difficult because it stirs up a lot of emotions," said Tummala, pictured at left, a political science professor and director of the graduate program in public administration. "Rationality can go through the window."

With the Supreme Court recently upholding affirmative action in one decision and striking it in the other, affirmative action can seem difficult not just because it is emotionally charged -- it can be downright confusing.

K-State associate professor of political science John Fliter defines American affirmative action policies as "public or private policies or programs, usually in employment, education and contracting, designed to give special consideration to disadvantaged groups and to enhance diversity."

Affirmative action is not the same thing as a quota system; quotas are "opposed in the United States vehemently," Tummala said.

"Affirmative action involves much more than minority set-asides," said Fliter, pictured below. "It includes everything from enhanced recruitment of minorities to retention policies that encourage minority success in school and employment."

John FliterSome people think affirmative action is only for one or two minorities, Tummala said. In reality, the law does not separate one minority from another. Every minority is protected.

Affirmative action creates a constitutional paradox, Tummala said. "You do something unequal to create equality eventually. The constitution says we must treat all people equally, but affirmative action treats some people unequally, actually more equally. This creates constitutional tension."

This tension is just one of the reasons why many people have opposed affirmative action. Tummala said he wants his students to make up their own minds about the policy, and he provides arguments for and against it in his classes. Aside from arguments claiming reverse discrimination, Tummala said affirmative action could stigmatize people and hurt a person's work environment.

"Some people argue that you shouldn't extend affirmative action to an entire class of people. Just because you are part of an ethnic group, you should not get this preferential treatment," Tummala said. "This argument, however, was not accepted by the courts.

"Another argument against affirmative action is that the moment you protect a class in legal language, you put a stigma on them. People think it is demeaning," Tummala said. "This is something that bothers Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He was once a recipient of affirmative action, and he feels the frustration that people think he is a member of the court just because he's black."

Affirmative action can hurt office work environments because "a person who comes into an administrative position can get an inferiority complex," he said. "They believe the rest of the office will think they got there with help. This leads to unusual behavior."

Despite these drawbacks, Tummala and Fliter argue affirmative action has merit. Tummala said it is the primary legal tool to promote minorities who have been historically discriminated against, and there is a lot of evidence that minorities have been brought into the mainstream and accepted.

"My sense is that it does a good job in promoting diverse student bodies and work forces and providing equal opportunity for at least some minorities," said Fliter. "There is a lot of value in diversity, especially in higher education."

As diversity increases in education and the work force, Tummala wonders when we won't need affirmative action anymore.

"It is impossible to put a date on it," he said. "People supposed the program would self-destruct as everyone would become equal. But it's commonly known that once you create a government program, it's nearly impossible to kill. Once an interest group is created, they strongly defend their turf. Moreover, a society can never reach absolute equality to be able to say that there is no more need for affirmative action."

Fliter and Tummala argue affirmative action should protect economically disadvantaged people as well as minority groups.

"We should bring in additional economic criteria," Tummala said. "There are poor whites and poor minorities, and both are denied opportunities." Fliter, too, suggests affirmative action may have to protect economic classes rather than races as more women and minorities advance socially and economically.

Impact of recent supreme court decisions on affirmative action

Kansas State University political scientists Krishna Tummala and John Fliter say that two recent court rulings about the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policies are not necessarily "landmark" decisions.

"The Supreme Court decisions basically reaffirmed the Court's decision in Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978)," Fliter said. "In the Bakke case, and with the latest decisions, the Court upheld the use of affirmative action in admissions and said that diversity is an important goal."

"Nothing much has changed," Tummala said. "The Court supported Michigan's law school policy by saying schools can use affirmative action when race is a factor, but not the primary factor. Diversity as an important social value is upheld."

The Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy because it looked like "a disguised quota," Tummala said. The undergraduate points system gave minority students 20 points just for their race.

Michigan's law school, however, did not use a point system, and instead tried to reach a "critical mass" of minority students for each class, Fliter said.


Fall 2003