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On February 7, the Columbia Political Union hosted a debate between the Columbia Democrats and the College Republicans on the resolution that colleges and universities should practice race-based affirmative action in admissions decisions. Bruno Baretta, CC ’15 and Austin Heyroth, CC‘15 represented the Democrats, while Will Prasifka, CC‘12 and Taylor Thompson, CC ’14 represented the Republicans.Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in his opening statement, Baretta identified the rhetoric of equality that the United States champions and that affirmative action attempts to actualize. Baretta noted that only 41 percent of black men graduate from high school in the United States, indicating a marked lack of equality in opportunity. Baretta made clear that affirmative action is a step in the direction of closing the wealth gap created between the privileged and minority populations over hundreds of years of history.
Prasifka, in turn, acknowledged in his opening statement for the Republicans that “we all agree there are racial problems,” but asserted that affirmative action is not the proper response to these problems. He identified three arguments often used in defense of affirmative action: diversity, historical wrongs, and integration. He claimed that these justifications are all inherently flawed because they assume certain personal characteristics based on race and ultimately neglect the individual identity.
These opening statements solidified the vocabulary to be used by each side in the ensuing debate. The first question of the debate was whether race-based affirmative action tends to benefit the privileged and whether it is a problem. Answering for the Democrats, Heyroth argued that there is a difference between socioeconomic discrimination and race discrimination and that the best solution is to apply affirmative action to both. Prasifka commented that “what [affirmative action] does is take away your individuality.”
Further into the debate, a recurring issue was the extent to which affirmative action generalizes the experience of a particular demographic and whether a race-based generalization is justified Furthermore, Thompson argued that affirmative action policies “breed complacency among rich white people who think they’ve solved the problem.”The Republicans asserted throughout the debate that affirmative action policies provide an excuse for politicians to cease further engagement with the race problem in America.
On the Democrats’ side, Heyroth noted that “anti-discrimination laws empirically reduce racism” because greater exposure to people of minority groups leads to a better understanding of their individual characters and a decrease in bigotry. He and Baretta argued that, as all debaters agreed, minorities were no less deserving of the education or job attained through affirmative action, but that the policy allows students, employers, and colleagues to better understand the deserving qualities of those who traditionally experience discrimination.
After the debate, President of the Democrats, Janine Balekdjian, CC’13 praised the performance by Baretta and Austin and said,
I thought that the Dems were very insightful, and they did a good job of pointing out the structural issues that make affirmative action important. They addressed not just the problems on the surface, but also the deeper issues.
Thompson, Deputy Director of Public Relations for CUCR, emphasized the similarities between the arguments of the Democrats and the Republicans, noting,
95 percent of what was said in this debate was agreed upon. What we disagreed on is that on a conceptual level, you can’t defeat racism by engaging in the idea of race.
Reflecting on the atmosphere of the debate, Emily Tamkin, CC ‘12, General Manager of CPU, commented,
I was incredibly pleased not only with the content of the debate, but also with the level of the debate. I thought both sides put forth compelling arguments and had clearly done their homework. This debate raised the level of discourse, and I thought that the audience followed suit and contributed similarly.