Is affirmative action a useful and progressive policy—another tool against racism? Or is it merely a well-intentioned idea that’s caused more harm than good?

That was the question debated Thursday night in a Dewey lecture hall, in an event co-hosted by Debate Union and Asian American Alliance (AAA) titled “The Admissions Game.”

Two teams debated the evening’s topic: whether affirmative action is “an effective policy in the advancement of certain minority groups in the U.S.”

Each side had researched the pros or cons of affirmative action and would be presenting their assigned viewpoint.

The pro-affirmative action viewpoint was presented by sophomore and co-president of AAA Leta Yi, with senior and former policy-style debate captain Nick Heitsch. The con viewpoint was presented by senior and former Debate Union president Reefat Aziz alongside freshman and Debate Union member Anthony Pericolo.

Debate Union President Miriam Kohn introduced both teams, and described the format of the debate. Each team would present two arguments, and the debate would close with a rebuttal—also known as a “whip” argument—from each team, followed by floor speeches and auxiliary material from the audience. The evening’s debate focused on affirmative action in higher education, using African-Americans as an example of a minority group.

Yi opened the debate by providing background on the idea of affirmative action. Its purpose, she noted, is to give minority groups the opportunity to compete in arenas where they would ordinarily be at a disadvantage. She noted, as well, that opponents of affirmative action have tended to tout Asian-Americans as a so-called “model minority.” The idea of a “model minority” is a myth, Yi argued, and it is an obstacle to solidarity among Asian Americans.

Access to higher education, Yi argued, is one of the few opportunities for social mobility in the United States. Affirmative action acts to disrupt the racial barriers preventing African-Americans and other minority groups from having access to the most elite colleges.

After Yi had concluded her opening argument, Aziz responded by questioning whether affirmative action has actually helped minority groups, and whether the policy has had unintended negative consequences for minorities.

Not only is affirmative action a reductive policy that reduces college applicants to their race, Aziz argued, it contributes to a trend of minority students dropping out of college because they’re less academically prepared than their peers. Aziz attributed this to financial and academic disparities between predominantly white and minority high schools. He also argued that affirmative action is a sort of “easy fix” for university administrators, who can feel like they have “solved racism” by endorsing affirmative action policies, and don’t feel a need to address other systemic issues.

Heitsch was next to speak, arguing again for the pro-affirmative action stance. He pointed out that affirmative action has the ability to change society’s perception of minorities, by giving them better opportunities to break into white collar fields. He acknowledged the problem of inequality in high schools—but argued that the wider base of minorities who have access to higher education as a result of affirmative action will enable more high school students to pursue college education. He stressed, as well, that affirmative action should be viewed as a step towards a solution, rather than a complete solution in and of itself.

Pericolo responded by arguing that the opportunity to attend college, absent the requisite preparation in high school, is of little use. Students who are admitted to college under affirmative action, he said, are more likely to attend prestigious colleges where they are unlikely to succeed. Underrepresented minorities should instead strive to attend mid-range colleges—which may offer more support and networking—where they will do better.

Following Pericolo’s speech, Yi responded with her final argument. Affirmative action combats “tokenism,” she said, by building a critical mass of minorities at colleges and making them truly diverse. Far from forcing minorities to attend colleges, she added, affirmative action is a program that merely increases their agency. It is, as well, one of the few programs to directly address systemic racism.

Aziz gave the evening’s closing argument, beginning with the accusation that the pro-affirmative action debaters had been blinded by a “white savior complex.” For many people, Aziz said, college is a bad idea, and results in nothing more than financial debt, with affirmative action widening the wealth gap and making it more difficult for minorities to succeed in that regard.

After the conclusion of the debate, audience members were invited to come forward and give short speeches. Some argued for affirmative action, pointing out that low-income and minority students could be hampered in building their resumes because their extracurricular opportunities were more limited than those of white students. Others proposed that affirmative action could be harmful to Asian-American college applicants, who are often held to higher standards than their white counterparts.

Freshman Jamal Holtz said he had heard about the event through his Intro to Debate class, as well as through some of the event’s co-sponsors, the Minority Male Leadership Association and the Black Students’ Union.

“I think the debate was very informative for people who didn’t know much about affirmative action,” Holtz said.

He said that he had done previous research on affirmative action in high school.

Other attendees offered their perspectives as well.

“It was a lot of points I had heard before,” junior Mahir Khan said, but added that it was interesting to hear the affirmative action debate summed up all in one place.

Sophomore Payal Morari also enjoyed the debate.

“I didn’t expect to agree with points from both sides, and at first I was a little conflicted,” she said.

Morari added that she felt both sides came up with “really valid points,” and that she would be interested in attending other debates.

AAA and Debate Union had been planning the event all semester, Yi explained, adding that she herself was debating for the first time.

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me,” she said.



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