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University News

Forum frames affirmative action

Speakers debated the merits of acknowleding race in college admissions

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The two speakers, Randall Kennedy and Stuart Taylor, Jr., discussed the consequences of the current affirmative action process and the constitutionality of race’s integration in the college admission process.

The Janus Forum and Political Theory Project hosted an energetic debate on the issue of affirmative action in university admission for its annual celebration of Constitution Day in a packed MacMillan 117 yesterday.

Inspired by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on the use of race in the college admission process, the debaters — Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy and journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. — discussed both the constitutionality and the policy merits of college admission affirmative action programs.

Kennedy, who spoke second, justified most college admission policies as effective and constitutionally sound, praising institutions’ constructive efforts to rectify a long era of racial discrimination across the nation.

“Are we talking about racial oppression in ancient Carthage?” Kennedy said. “No — we’re talking about a university system that excluded black people and Latino people within living memory.”

Taylor, on the other hand, denied that the policy’s net effect on society has been beneficial, though he was careful to frame his argument by stating that affirmative action is constitutional.

“I’m not a color-blind absolutist, like Justices (Antonin) Scalia and (Clarence) Thomas,” Taylor said. “I don’t think all racial preferences violate equal protection.”

Citing numerous studies to support his criticism, Taylor argued affirmative action injures rather than aids minority students, citing social costs like minority students’ intellectual demoralization and lack of self-confidence.

“Racial preferences paper over the underlying problem,” Taylor said.

Kennedy, who spoke vivaciously and often in personal terms, drew a line between “invidious” racial discrimination, which he categorized as unconstitutional, and forms of racial discrimination meant to increase diversity and mend the harms caused by long-term segregation.

“I don’t think the Constitution of the United States, properly interpreted, poses any problem for affirmative action as it is characteristically deployed in the United States right now,” Kennedy said.

Almost 300 spectators listened as Taylor and Kennedy sparred. After the debate, audience members posed questions to the two lecturers.

“We’re talking about university admissions here,” said Haakim Nainar ’14, the executive director of the Janus Forum, in an interview with The Herald. “Even though the decision affected other universities, Brown has an interest in what’s going on, and I think Brown students in particular have an interest in what’s going on.”

Visiting Professor Steven Calabresi, who helped arrange the debate, introduced the two speakers with a tribute to the Constitution and its writers, praising its influence as one of the first successful written constitutions in the world.

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