Affirmative action debate discusses race-based admissions

Joanne Chuang/Staff

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The Berkeley Forum hosted an affirmative action debate March 5, where participants argued about controversial aspects of race-based admissions.

Affirmative action refers to the granting of special preference to students belonging to minority groups in college admissions. It has been a controversial topic for several decades.

“We come up with topic ideas for really interesting discussions to have. And we discuss which ones we think would be the best for the Berkeley Forum,” Charlie McMurry, president of the Berkeley Forum said. “And one of those topics that we thought is particularly pressing was the topic of affirmative action.”

About 100 people gathered in Wheeler Hall for the event.

John Wilson, a 2019-20 fellow with the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, and Katherine Clayton, a political science Ph.D. student at Stanford University, argued in favor of affirmative action at the event.

They were challenged by Lee Cheng, an attorney and civil rights activist with a history of achievement in business, law and public policy, and Yukong Zhao, co-founder and president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, who argued against affirmative action.

In his opening remarks, Wilson said colleges should consider both achievements and potential in admissions, adding that applying affirmative action is a way to measure potential. He also said affirmative action can “offset the enormous advantages” granted by a “wealthy white privilege background.”

Zhao responded, claiming that affirmative action sacrifices Asian Americans’ interests as a way to cover up the government’s “failure” in improving Black and Hispanic education. Zhao said affirmative action undermines equality, which is “the cornerstone of the American dream.”

“It is a modern-day injustice imposed by American elite class,” Zhao said during the debate.

Clayton used her Ph.D. project’s survey data to support affirmative action. In her survey, students were asked to choose between two candidates, who were the same in every category except race. Clayton said the results show that respondents are in favor of candidates underrepresented in admissions.

The last speaker, Cheng, responded by pointing out defects in the affirmative action program. Cheng said the program was enacted “poorly” and alleged that it causes race-based gaps between applicants.

“There’s nothing wrong with helping people who are disadvantaged. There’s nothing wrong with considering race. It’s how much you consider race,” Cheng said at the event. “It’s not a form on the scale now; it’s a different scale.”

Near the end of the debate, the Berkeley Forum conducted a poll to collect the audience’s responses.

Based on the results, 50% of respondents said they are in favor of affirmative action and 40% of respondents voted against. Ten percent of the audience remained neutral.

“I think it was successful in terms of teaching people things they didn’t know before,” McMurry said.

Contact Joy Ma at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dcjoyma.