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BADASS takes the stage

The debate club opens dialogue on affirmative action

By Alexa Ball
On February 11, 2013

When The Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society debates, everybody wins. Or at least this was the case last Thursday, when the debate team presented a public debate to the Brandeis community about the place of affirmative action in higher education as part of the second annual 'Deis Impact festival, consisting of over 40 events related to social justice in its many forms.
On Thursday, Feb. 7, four members of the team ranked second nationally, Megan Elsayed '14, Veronica Saltzman '16, Rich Weisbach '13 and Alexander Self '13, presented opposing arguments on the necessity and legitimacy of affirmative action, which takes an applicant's minority status into consideration during the application process. Intended to increase the representation of and opportunities for minority communities in higher education and in the workplace, affirmative action has sparked debates about whether or not it is justified or even effective.
Elsayed and Saltzman represented the government side, or the side against the use of affirmative action in higher education. On the opposition, Weisbach and Self defended affirmative action as an effective means of combatting racism and societal inequities. Each side presented its arguments in 10-minute speeches, alternating between sides starting with Elsayed. The audience were then given the opportunity to present their own arguments and opinions, followed by the teams' closing remarks.
Elsayed and Saltzman started with the claim that it is philosophically unjust. "What does this mean?" Elsayed prompted, before continuing on to their supporting reasons. "We think that race-based affirmative action means traits and experiences based solely on race. We think this is unethical because it feeds into a racist narrative," Elsayed said.
Elsayed went on to argue that it makes minorities feel "burdened with the success or failure of their group. They got into the university, and now all of a sudden they don't have to just get an 'A' on an exam, they have to undo slavery," Elsayed challenged.
Secondly, they argued, affirmative action is pragmatically harmful. "It makes people feel pressure to succeed not as a person with a goal, but as a racial identity," Elsayed said. Saltzman agreed, arguing that "we want to perpetuate a society that doesn't just look at race," and that whenever the opposition "looks at race as a factor, they perpetuate the cycle of looking at race as a factor," she said.
In their argument, Elsayed and Saltzman offered alternatives to race-based affirmative action, including a policy that "corrects for people's inability to access college," Elsayed clarified, a policy that does not single out race as the only unbalancing factor.
On the opposition, Weisbach began the argument by saying minorities face both structural and status quo difficulties. When a person's race "actively [hurts] your ability to get in, or your ability to succeed, we think it's fine for the system to check for these things, and we think that's the way society moves forward."
"When society has created a system where they systematically disadvantage certain people, they have obligations to stop the harm," Weisbach argued. According to him, alongside repairing the damage of centuries of repression, affirmative action allows for increased diversity in higher education. This is beneficial, he explained, because "when people learn and can actually talk to people of different races and different cultures, people get better."
Self agreed, arguing that although "maybe in 50 years we will not have a society that judges people based on the color of their skin or their culture. ... That is not the society today," he said. "In society, there is prejudice, and we are the only ones who actually give you a chance to solve for this," Self debated.
Rich countered a point the opposition made about employers discrediting degrees earned by minorities aided by affirmative action, explaining that "not everyone starts at the starting line. Some people start further back, and when they finish at the same time I did, they sure as hell ran faster," he said.
The debate finished with both sides having passionately presented numerous arguments for and against the use of affirmative action in higher education. Each pair exchanged a firm handshake and a smile and came back together as teammates of BADASS, reminding the audience of the larger goal of the debate and the overall mission of the 'Deis Impact festival: to increase awareness and open up a dialogue about issues of social justice.
For this debate, there were no winners. Audience member Clifton Masdea '15 expressed that this event allowed him to "learn more about the issue of affirmative action. It's something that I'm really interested in, and I wanted to learn more about the arguments for and against it," he explained. Now, he said, if he were "ever to debate with someone in the future, I can actually have the facts."
Elsayed explained that public debates, such as this one, allow them to act as "objective actors who are capable of finding the arguments on both sides," she said. Self agreed, adding that it's a way for people "to see harsh topics talked about in a way that they can actually connect with and really identify."
For BADASS, participating in the 'Deis Impact festival presented the opportunity to have the "campus hear about important issues like social justice... Debate is always a valid way of getting two different opposing viewpoints to be heard," debate team member and former president Russell Leibowitz '14 explained.
In regards to choosing the topic of affirmative action, "it was more of a demand that we got from the school. People wanted to hear about it, and we were really excited to talk about it," Saltzman explained. "We like debating things that people want to hear us debate," Elsayed agreed.
Although neither team came away with a trophy, the debate served a much greater cause for the Brandeis community and for society at large. Awareness has armed people with the facts of affirmative action. Thanks to BADASS, a conversation has been started. 

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