Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is the nation’s most ambitious attempt to redress its long history of racial and sexual discrimination, however in modern times and approximately forty years after the establishment of this policy, society is plagued with the issues of whether affirmative action is necessary, whether it is a benefit or detriment to society, and why it incites rather then eases the nation’s internal dilemmas after so many years of having been in effect. In the following paragraphs the issues surrounding this debate, such as what is the definition of affirmative action, how and why affirmative action was established to begin with, who is affected by this policy, whether affirmative action is still necessary in today’s society or if such policy should be done away with, and, finally, possible resolutions to this dilemma, will be reviewed, beginning with the explanation of how affirmative action came about.


In March l96I, less than two months after President John F. Kennedy took office, he issued an Executive Order (10925), which established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Its mission was to end discrimination in employment by the government and its contractors. The order required every federal contract to include the pledge that “The Contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The Contractor will take affirmative action, to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” (QUOTE) Here for the first time the government called for “affirmative action.” Soon, thereafter the Civil Rights Act of 1964 restated and broadened the application of this principle with the Title VI, which declared that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground Or race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” But within one year President Lyndon B. Johnson argued that fairness required more than a commitment to impartial treatment. In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, he said:
“You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you’re free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates or opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates …. We seek not…just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
And so several months later President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which stated that “It is the policy of the Government of the United States to provide equal opportunity in federal employment for all qualified persons, to prohibit discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color or national origin, and to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a positive, continuing program in each department and agency.” Two years later the order was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. While the aim of President Johnson’s order was similar to that of President Kennedy’s, President Johnson’s eliminated the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, transferred its responsibilities to the Secretary of Labor, and authorized the Secretary to “adopt such rules and regulations and issue such orders as he deems necessary and appropriate to achieve the purposes thereof.” (QUOTE) Acting on the basis of this mandate, the Department of Labor in December 1971, during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, issued Revised Order No. 4, requiring all contractors to develop “an acceptable affirmative action program,” including “an analysis of areas w within which the contractor is deficient in the utilization of minority groups and women, and further, goals and timetables to which the contractor’s good faith efforts must be directed to correct the deficiencies.” Contractors were instructed to take the term “minority groups” to refer to “Negroes, American Indians, Orientals, and Spanish Surnamed Americans.” The concept of “underutilization” meant “having fewer minorities or women in a particular job classification than would reasonably be expected by their availability.” “Goals” were not to be “rigid and inflexible quotas” but “tar gets reasonably attainable by means Or applying every good faith effort to make all aspects of the entire affirmative action program work.” (QUOTE) Such policies instating preferential treatment required that attention be paid to the same criteria of race, sex, and ethnicity that had previously been deemed irrelevant. Could such use of’ these criteria be morally justified? That is the key question in a debate that has continued for more than three decades. Many agree that injustices have occurred, that their victims deserve compensation, and that strenuous efforts should be made to try to prevent any further wrongdoing while striving to achieve a more enlightened society, yet many also disagree in issues such as determining exactly who has suffered injustice, what is appropriate compensation to them, and which steps should be taken to promote justice and amity. Affirmative action has been a divisive issue in the United States. And with recent attempts by referendum, legislation, and judicial action to change current policies, emotions have intensified. What is most needed now is not increased passion but greater attention to recognizing and analyzing the subject’s complex nature.

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Why should affirmative action be done away with? Supporters of doing away with affirmative action believe in doing so for reasons such as its promoting discrimination, that it provides unfair advantage to otherwise unqualified candidates, the belief in allowing the free market to let the best candidate rise to top, the ideals that the government and constitution are supposed to be color-blind, and the argument that when does the white man stop paying for his forefathers’ mistakes. When affirmative action was first introduced, its primary purpose was to give minority groups the same — or better — chance as their white counterparts. What that meant was that if two entrance candidates were equally qualified on all levels, yet one was a minority and the other was white, the minority would automatically be accepted. There are times, however, when an under-qualified minority wins out over a qualified white male just to meet the necessary quota. Affirmative Action lowers standards in education and the workplace by letting unqualified people get ahead. By the late ’70s, however, flaws in the policy began to show up amid its good intentions. Reverse discrimination became an issue, epitomized by the famous Bakke case in 1978. Allan Bakke, a white male, had been rejected two years in a row by a medical school that had accepted less qualified minority applicants the school had a separate admissions policy for minorities and reserved 16 out of 100 places for minority students. The Supreme Court outlawed inflexible quota systems in affirmative action programs, which in this case had unfairly discriminated against a white applicant. In the same ruling, however, the Court upheld the legality of affirmative action. A backlash against affirmative action began. To conservatives, the system opened the door for jobs, promotions, or education to minorities while it shut the door on whites. In a country that prized the values of self-reliance and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, people resented the idea that some unqualified minorities were getting a free ride on the American system. “Preferential treatment” and “quotas” turned into bitterness and anger. The public began to feel an injustice was being committed, especially in light of the fact that minorities who had also experienced terrible adversity and racismJews and Asians, in particularmanaged to make the American way work for them without government handouts. So then the policy of affirmative action for minorities came to be felt as more of a hand out, instead of earning their place and status in society and as a result being discriminated against for it, which essentially defeats the purpose of the originating discrimination. Anti-affirmative action supporters believe that special rights should not be given to certain groups while others are left out or discriminated against in turn. Anti-affirmative action supporters believe that the most complete solution is also the very clearly stated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which clearly forbade employment discrimination against either sex and against any racial or ethnic group, including white males. Another central issue is while many gifted white and Asian students are affluent, a disproportionate number of gifted students from underrepresented minority groups are severely disadvantaged, and for myriad reasons, do not end up on a track genuinely preparing them for college, and therefore anti-affirmative action supporters believe that affirmative action should be economically based and replaced with a policy that pursues the college preparation of gifted students from disadvantaged communities, or in other words, if you are willing to work to prepare yourself for college, we as a society will provide the resources to ensure that you are prepared. Substantial increases in resources directed toward disadvantaged communities for after-school tutoring programs, accelerated summer school programs in literature, mathematics and science, and bridge programs early on in life would level out the playing field early on and thus, eliminate the need for such policies as affirmative action. The use of racial preferences is like placing attractive wallpaper over a decayed social infrastructure, and a cheap, cosmetic fixes to deeply rooted social problems is not going to solve this complex of an issue.


Why is affirmative action still necessary? It’s necessity comes from the fact that the playing field is far from level and the need to protect disadvantaged minorities is still as critical as it was years ago. Despite the enormous gains made by the civil rights and women’s rights movements women and people of color still face unfair obstacles in business, education and even in every day society. Many minorities are not offered economic and social opportunities that white males are, such as their consistent status in roles such as heads of state and other powerful positions that minorities rarely have the opportunity to partake in. “White men hold 95% to 97% of the high-level corporate jobs. And that’s with affirmative action programs in place. Imagine how low figures would be without affirmative action.” (QUOTE) The years of oppression are still felt in today’s society through the discrimination against races and against gender. “For every dollar earned by men, women on a whole earn 74 cents, African American women earn 63 cents and Latina women earn 57 cents.” (QUOTE) According to the Census Bureau, only 25% of all doctors and lawyers are women. Less than 1% of auto mechanics are women. And women are only 8.4% of engineers. “Black people continue to have twice the unemployment rate of White people, half the median family income, and half the proportion who attend four years or more of college (see Figure 1 below) (QUOTE).” “And, without affirmative action the percentage of Black students on many campuses would drop below 2%.” (QUOTE) This would effectively cut off Black access to higher education and limit progress toward racial equality. Supporters of doing away with affirmative action believe that if certain minorities, such as Jewish and Asian Americans can rapidly advance economically despite the hardships in their ancestry, then African Americans should be able to do the same, however this comparison ignores the unique history of discrimination against Black people in America. Considering that the Jim Crow Laws and the barbaric practice of lynching existed well into the ’60s, and that other forms of racism in housing, employment, and education persisted well beyond the civil rights movement, conservatives impatient for blacks to “get over” the legacy of slavery needed to realize that slavery was just the beginning of racism in America. As historian Roger Wilkins has pointed out, Blacks have a 375-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100 involving legalized discrimination, and only 30 involving anything else (Wilkins, 1995). Jews and Asians, on the other hand, have immigrated to North America — often as doctors, lawyers, professors, entrepreneurs, and so forth, and are also more readily accepted into society and due to their features, and more able to function as part of the White majority as a result. To expect Blacks to show the same upward mobility as Jews and Asians is to deny the reality that Black people have faced for years and continue to face on a daily basis. Advocates of doing away with affirmative action also cite the reason that it fights discrimination with discrimination and creates reverse discrimination, primarily against white males, however this notion uses the same word — discrimination — to describe two very different things. Job discrimination is grounded in prejudice and exclusion, whereas affirmative action is an effort to overcome prejudicial treatment through inclusion. Of 3000 federal court decisions in discrimination cases between 1990 and 1994, only 100 involved claims of reverse discrimination; only 6 of those claims were found to be valid. (QUOTE) Additionally, in stating that it the policy of affirmative action discrimnates, so do other widely-accepted policies, such as Veterans often revceiving preferential treatment in workplaces and on campuses which usually benefit men more than women. The children of alumni get preferential treatment over others in admission to college. Friends help friends and acquaintances get jobs. Affirmative Action helps open doors for women and people of color who often don’t have those connections. On the other hand, women experience yet another form of discrimination, which is why an additional amendment was added, and often times, a discrimination far more powerful than that of race, as even within a race a woman may be unfairly judged and treated. Women are discriminated against through stereotypes in that they cannot match the power or mental ability of men. Anti-Affirmative Action supporters tend to state that the policy undermines the self-esteem of women and racial minorities, however, although affirmative action may have this effect in some cases, interview studies and public opinion surveys have found that such reactions are rare. For instance, a recent Gallup poll asked employed Blacks and employed White women whether they had ever felt that others questioned their abilities because of affirmative action (Roper Center, 1995c). “Nearly 90% of respondents said no (which is understandable — after all, White men, who have traditionally benefited from preferential hiring, do not feel hampered by self-doubt or a loss in self-esteem).” (QUOTE) In fact, affirmative action may actually raise the self-esteem of women and minorities by providing them with employment and opportunities for advancement, making them feel better about themselves and their ability to function as a vital role of society. There is also evidence that affirmative action policies increase job satisfaction and organizational commitment among beneficiaries. And, yet, the majority of families depend on the income of women, especially in a society where single-parent families are more common-place and the woman is usually the one performing the single-parent responsibilities. When Affirmative Action opens up education, employment, and business, families and communities have greater economic security. Business leaders and heads of state understand that affirmative action is necessary to develop a strong workforce, which is why affirmative action has not been done away with and why in many legal battles the legal system is divided. Women and people of color have a lot to offer their communities. Affirmative Action helps insure that everyone gets the chance to contribute.


The debate about affirmative action has grown more murky and difficult as the public have come to appreciate its complexity. Many liberals, for example, can understand the injustice of affirmative action in a case like Wygant (1986): black employees kept their jobs while white employees with seniority were laid off. And many conservatives cannot come up with a better alternative to the imposition of a strict quota system in Paradise (1987), in which the defiantly racist Alabama Department of Public Safety refused to promote any black above entry level even after a full 12 years of court orders demanded they did. The Supreme Court Justices have been divided in their opinions in affirmative action cases, as well; partially because of opposing political ideologies but also because the issue is simply so complex. The Court has approached most of the cases in a hesitant fashion, focusing on narrow aspects of policy rather than dealing with the matter overall. Even in the Bakke case, the closest thing to a landmark affirmative action case, the Court was split 5 to 4. In the last decade the tide has turned against affirmative action, and two states, California and Washington, have gone so far as to do away with it. Yet the questions of fairness and racial equality remain troubling for most of those not at the ideological poles of the issue. Affirmative action remains an ambitious attempt to redress its long history of racial and sexual discrimination, however in modern times and approximately forty years after the establishment of this policy, society is plagued with the issues of whether affirmative action is necessary, whether it is a benefit or detriment to society, and why it incites rather then eases the nation’s internal dilemmas after so many years of having been in effect. In the following paragraphs the issues surrounding this debate, such as what is the definition of affirmative action, how and why affirmative action was established to begin with, who is affected by this policy, whether affirmative action is still necessary in today’s society or if such policy should be done away with, and, finally, possible resolutions to this dilemma. Affirmative Action is the bridge between changing the laws and changing the culture. The radical right wing would have us believe that women and people of color earn less because we don’t work as hard or we’re not as smart. That simply isn’t the case. Laws have changed, but discrimination persists. Affirmative Action only opens doors, women and people of color have to walk through those doors by themselves.

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