Teachers' Notes on Affirmative Action / Positive Discrimination

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I am writing this piece on Midsummer’s Day 2003 – later this month the United States Supreme Court will make a decision about AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Should it be legal or not? So what’s all this about then?

These materials should help you introduce the topic and some of the issues surrounding it and then hold a group discussion and set a homework.

We suggest the teacher introduces the topic by reading the section below on "What is Affirmative Action?" and then let the students read Candace Coleman's comments - either printed out or online.

The teacher can the summarise the situation before moving onto a group discussion.

What is Affirmative Action?

We usually use the phrase POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION – but the 2 phrases mean much the same thing.

They both mean what happens when people are positively helped so that they can overcome discrimination or institutional racism ( where society and the economy are so organised that minorities get the worst jobs, wages, housing, education etc even though racism itself might be illegal).

Remember that a successful multicultural society believes in equal opportunities. It also makes sure that equal opportunities actually happen. But remember again, that things like institutional racism may mean that people have to be treated differently rather than the same, if equal opportunities are to happen. Positive discrimination – affirmative action – might be needed.

Summary of the current situation surrounding Affirmative Action in the US

Some white students are challenging affirmative action – that is why the judges at the Supreme Court are getting involved.

These white students say that affirmative action in favour of minorities is actually discrimination against white students. The Guardian carried an article by Gary Younge about this problem. Part of his feature was about Jennifer Gratz – Jennifer is a white student who finished 13th out of 298 and who was also vice-president of her student council. In short, she had good grades and a good CV – and yet her local university turned her down. The university gives points to candidates for a number of things, including ethnic background, and Jennifer missed out. She blames affirmative action, as do a number of other citizens in the USA – and this has brought in the Supreme Court to make a ruling.

By the time you read this, the Supreme Court will probably have made its judgement. This article may not carry the result – so make sure you find out what the decision was. Your class teacher might want to remind you about the debate surrounding identity in Britain today – are we members of ethnic communities as well as just individuals? What are the implications of that for multiculturalism? Then go on to discuss these issues.


Devise a questionnaire to examine both students’ and adults’ views on these matters. Collate your findings and use ICT to present your analysis and your data.

One last thing – here are the findings from the last U.S. census on median household incomes -

$46,305 for whites;
$33,565 for Hispanics;
$32,116 for native Americans;
$29,470 for African-Americans.

The poverty rate runs in similar sequence –

7.7% for whites;
22.8% for Hispanics;
24.5% for native Americans;
23.6% for African-Americans.


Affirmative Action is still legal (until the next challenge!).

iRespect is an education resource for the development of positive tolerance - find out more...