Paul deLespinasse: The debatable usefulness of affirmative action

A protester holds a sign reading, "End white-male affirmative action," at a protest in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
A protester holds a sign reading, "End white-male affirmative action," at a protest in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Since Nixon's administration, Americans have debated affirmative action.

I asked two students once whether they favored it. One said she did, the other said she didn't. But after I asked them "clarifying questions" it turned out that they actually agreed with each other.

The student favoring affirmative action thought it meant what it originally did: a call for affirmative action to employ people without discriminating for or against anybody on grounds of race.

Affirmative action in its original sense urged employers to advertise their openness to hiring people of any race and encourage minority people to apply. Affirmative action meant recruiting a more diverse group of applicants and giving them all a fair shot at employment. It did not mean that employers should discriminate in favor of hiring minority people,

Paul deLespinasse
Paul deLespinasse

This policy encouraged minority people to knock on doors that had previously not opened when they knocked. This was in the context of new federal law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, according to its supporters, prohibited racial discrimination one way or the other.

The 1964 law would make little difference if minorities didn't know about specific opportunities or, based on unhappy previous experience, hesitated to apply.

The other student, who opposed affirmative action, thought that it meant "reverse discrimination," which more recently had become its official interpretation despite valiant official denials that this was the case. But she was strongly in favor of affirmative action in its earlier meaning.

The students thus both opposed affirmative action in its later sense, and supported it in its earlier sense.

As this case illustrates, the words used to discuss social policy can mean different things to different people. That is why we need to ask "clarifying questions" when discussing social issues. This won't always show that we are in agreement. But it avoids quarrels when we actually don't disagree and helps us understand just what our differences, if any, really are.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, urges lawmakers to approve a measure to place a proposed Constitutional amendment on the November ballot to overturn the ban on state affirmative action programs, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, June 24, 2020. By a 30-10 vote the Senate approved the measure to let voters decide whether to repeal a ban on affirmative action policies in government and public colleges and universities. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Of course it is hard to make everyone happy. My friend Judy Ringle warned me once: "You must learn not to write with such clarity. It annoys people."

Affirmative action in the current — reverse discrimination — sense produces both good and bad consequences, and it is hard to know how to weight them.

Perhaps the strongest argument against affirmative action is that it devalues the successes of minority people. When affirmative action is official policy, a minority person who succeeds may find that success dismissed by people who assume it was not based on merit.

If they run into initial academic or career difficulties — as many people of all races do — they themselves may wonder if they really belong.

This was less of a problem before affirmative action came along. About 50 years ago, I worked for several years with Raleigh Morgan Jr., a University of Michigan linguistics professor who chaired the Michigan Council For The Humanities and invited me to become a member.

Morgan, an African-American, had achieved his positions before affirmative action existed — a big advantage! No one — including professor Morgan himself — could have believed that he had not succeeded on his actual merits.

An argument in favor of affirmative action is that reverse discrimination helps minority people get into the informal social networks that benefit so many careers. And it creates situations in which people of different races come into contact with each other at all levels of organizations. Hopefully, dealing with peers from different races will help everybody stop stereotyping people on the basis of race.

The extent to which affirmative action actually produces these beneficial results is subject to study and evaluation. Personal contact between people of different races may be useful, but thanks to "confirmation bias" it might just reinforce stereotypes all around.

All social policy involves trade-offs between conflicting considerations. Considerable room remains for legitimate disagreement about whether, on balance, affirmative action is a good idea.

— Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Paul deLespinasse: The debatable usefulness of Affirmative Action