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Affirmative Action

5. Redundancy

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In this module, we consider the argument that affirmative action should be declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it is no longer needed, focusing in particular on: (i) the controversial nature of the argument; (ii) two cases that massively entrenched racial inequality – Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); (iii) the reversal of the first of these cases by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, adopted between 1866-70, and the reversal of the second by a series of cases in the 1940s and 50s – Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950), and (most famously) Brown v. Board of Education (1954); and (iv) the slight pushback against affirmative action represented by the judgement in two more recent cases – Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2007) – in which the majority opinion composed by Chief Justice John Roberts ends with the rather glib line: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”


In this course, Dr Matthew Williams (University of Oxford) explores the concept of ‘affirmative action’ in the United States through the question ‘Why have critics asserted that affirmative action should be declared unconstitutional?’ In the first module, we introduce the question itself, before looking in more detail at the history of race relations in the United States and the idea of “unconstitutionality”. After that, in the second module, we think about why the judiciary is the only branch of government in the United States with the power to declare something “unconstitutional”, and how the Supreme Court obtained these powers. In the following four modules, we outline four potential arguments that critics of affirmative action have used to question its constitutionality – first, on the grounds of basic principles of political philosophy such as liberty and natural justice; second, on the grounds that the Supreme Court does not have the jurisdiction to enforce affirmative action; third, on the grounds that federally-enforced affirmative action is no longer needed; and fourth, on the grounds that the ends of affirmative actions are unacceptably vague. Finally, in the seventh module, we provide a brief recap of the question that we were considering and the different arguments that we considered in trying to answer it, before moving on to suggest some avenues for further reading.


Dr Matthew Williams is Access and Career Development Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. His research focuses on the the language of politics, especially how the language of legislation has changed over the previous century. His recent publications include How Language Works in Politics: The Impact of Vague Legislation on Policy (2018).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Williams, M. (2020, December 30). Affirmative Action - Redundancy [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Williams, M. "Affirmative Action – Redundancy." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 30 Dec 2020,

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