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NHSDLC National Championship Topic Brief

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The topic for the 2018 NHSDLC National Championships is:

“Resolved: Universities in the United States ought to use affirmative action in admissions decisions.”

In August 2017, hundreds of American white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia. The riots left three people dead. They served as a sad reminder that extreme racism continues to exist in American society, more than 150 years after the end of slavery.

The Charlottesville riots began on the campus of the University of Virginia, one of the best public universities in the United States. This setting was significant. Universities have long been a battleground for American social issues. Universities bring together thousands of politically-active students and professors, so campuses are often a physical site for political debate and protest.

Universities have another key political role. Attending university is the bridge to the middle class in the United States. Therefore, the admissions policies of universities directly influence the levels of race, gender, and class inequality in U.S. society. Marginalized groups, including African Americans, the poor, and women, have historically faced barriers to attending university, creating a spiral effect of inequality.

In response to this problem, many U.S. universities have implemented affirmative action admissions programs. But some Americans consider these programs to be ineffective, unfair, and even unconstitutional. What is affirmative action, and why is it so controversial?

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action refers to any policy that gives special treatment to individuals from marginalized groups. Affirmative action is used by governments, non-governmental organizations, and companies around the world for many different reasons.

In the United States, the term affirmative action originates from the African American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy ordered that government agencies must "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed...without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." At the time, African Americans suffered from severe discrimination when applying for jobs. Following Kennedy's statement, the term affirmative action was applied to all government hiring programs that explicitly gave African Americans special preferences, to correct for employers' biases. Over time, these programs were broadened to cover women, Native Americans, and other groups that faced discrimination.

In the context of university admissions, affirmative action refers to any favorable treatment given to applicants from marginalized groups. Beginning with Harvard, U.S. universities started using affirmative action in the 1970s. They did so voluntarily—and their motivations varied. Many university leaders were inspired or pressured by the civil rights movement to fight against historical discrimination. They also believed that increasing diversity on campus would enhance the student experience.

Today, university affirmative action policies generally are in the form of a holistic admissions process. As part of this process, admissions officers consider race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender when evaluating each applicant.

However, affirmative action is fiercely controversial. Opponents argue that affirmative action policies are a form of reverse discrimination which penalize white and Asian American students, and unfairly deny opportunities to the most qualified applicants. The federal government has restricted the scope of affirmative action programs, and forbids universities from using strict racial or gender quotas. A few states such as California have even banned affirmative action entirely. President Trump is a strong opponent of affirmative action, as well.

Why does this debate matter?

In 2008, two landmark historical events occurred in the United States. The U.S. economy suffered a major financial crisis, and Americans elected their first African American president, Barack Obama. In the ten years that followed, the two most controversial issues in U.S. politics have been economic inequality and racism. As students will learn, affirmative action is at the heart of both issues.

This topic will challenge debaters to go beyond basic discussion of race, and will help students understand the complex nature of affirmative action, racial discrimination, and economic mobility in America. This debate is not just about access to the world's best universities. It is about America's identity as a land of opportunity.

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