On Monday, February 23rd, Legal Methods Professor Starla Williams
appeared on WITF 93.3’s Radio Smart Talk program
to address the future of affirmative action. Describing her experience, Professor Williams said, “I enjoyed myself. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to talk about the legal issues surrounding affirmative action. Very often, when people talk about affirmative action, they’re coming at it from an emotional standpoint.”
Matthew Woessner, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Penn State’s Harrisburg Campus joined Professor Williams and Smart Talk host Craig Cohen on the program. Cohen opened the program by asking if Barack Obama’s election as President represented a shift towards a leveling playing field that would eliminate the need for affirmative action.
Woessner opened the discussion with a brief introduction to the origins of affirmative action, saying, “In essence, it’s an effort to correct past wrongs, but it has evolved into a policy of promoting diversity – quite a different notion.” Cohen asked Professor Williams whether or not a sense of how long the ‘temporary’ measures of affirmative action were supposed to be in place. “No, I really don’t think that there was a sense,” noted Professor Williams, adding, “I believe that ‘temporary’ meant a way of achieving equal opportunity, and again, how do you measure your success? How do you know you’ve achieved that equal opportunity?”
Asked about whether or not evidence suggests that we have reached a level playing field, Professor Williams asserted, “The data suggests that we have not yet reached that level playing field, and that some form of diversity and inclusion is necessary,” before adding, “Diversity is a value. It’s a value in business, it’s a value in education, and it’s a value that certainly America embraces.”
Topics discussed included the fairness of affirmative action, whether or not future affirmative action policies should be based off of economic factors rather than race, and whether or not the qualifications of an individual who benefited from affirmative action could be compromised. Both Professor Williams and Professor Woessner agreed that professional and educational qualification prevents unqualified people from compromising quality of service, but Woessner argued that some minorities might benefit from affirmative action and then be unable to succeed in law school or medical school, which does not further the ultimate objective of affirmative action programs. Professor Williams responded by noting that many students, regardless of whether or not they benefit from affirmative action, fail to succeed in law school for instance and, thus, rates of success or failure among racial or ethnic groups are no indication of the value of affirmative action policies.
Woessner continued to suggest that affirmative action should be based on socio-economic status rather than race, saying, “I think the beauty is, if you abolish consideration of race, and you achieve many of the same goals by reaching out to economic groups that are disadvantaged. I think that would have a wonderful effect on race relations because it would recognize that we are reaching out to people of need on the basis of where they are in society, not on the basis of something as superficial as skin color.” He added, “I think the election of Barack Obama has demonstrated that most Americans don’t give a whit about race, that they are willing to elect and embrace a black President.” Professor Williams disagreed, noting that Obama possessed qualifications, including a Harvard Law degree, because of opportunities afforded him, and that not all young black men enjoy equal opportunity to achieve. Professor Williams concluded by stating that the future of affirmative action requires an effort to eliminate racial disparity and achieve racial equity in multiple sectors of American society.
The discussion moved on to Supreme Court decisions in the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, a consideration of business hiring practices, and the idea of moving away from all privileged classes in college admissions, including legacy.
To listen to the entire discussion, visit Radio Smart Talk’s website