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Affirmative Action

Affirmative action works. There are thousands of examples of situations where people of color, white women, and working class women and men of all races who were previously excluded from jobs or educational opportunities, or were denied opportunities once admitted, have gained access through affirmative action. When these policies received executive branch and judicial support, vast numbers of people of color, white women and men have gained access they would not otherwise have had. These gains have led to very real changes. Affirmative action programs have not eliminated racism, nor have they always been implemented without problems. However, there would be no struggle to roll back the gains achieved if affirmative action policies were ineffective.


The implementation of affirmative action was America’s first honest attempt at solving a problem, it had previously chosen to ignore. In a variety of areas, from the quality of health care to the rate of employment, blacks still remain far behind whites. Their representation in the more prestigious professions is still almost insignificant. Comparable imbalances exist for other racial and ethnic minorities as well as for women. Yet, to truly understand the importance of affirmative action, one must look at America’s past discrimination to see why, at this point in history, we must become more “color conscious”.


History Of Discrimination In America: Events Leading To Affirmative Action.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal.” Yet America is scarred by a long history of legally imposed inequality. Snatched from their native land, transported thousands of miles-in a nightmare of disease and death-and sold into slavery, blacks in America were reduced to the legal status of farm animals. A Supreme Court opinion, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), made this official by classifying slaves as a species of “private property.”
Even after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, American blacks, other minorities, and women continued to be deprived of some of the most elementary right of citizenship. During the Reconstruction, after the end of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, making blacks citizens and promised them the “equal protection of the laws.” In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, which gave blacks the right to vote. Congress also passed a number of civil rights laws barring discrimination against blacks in hotels, theaters, and other places. However, the South reacted by passing the “Black Codes, ” which severely limited the rights of the newly freed slaves, preventing them in most states from testifying in courts against whites, limiting their opportunities to find work, and generally assigning them to the status of second or third class citizen. White vigilante groups like the Klu Klux Klan began to appear, by murdering and terrorizing blacks who tried to exercise their new rights. “Legal” ways were also found for circumventing the new laws; these included “grandfather clauses”, poll taxes, white only primary elections, and constant social discrimination against and intimidation of blacks, who were excluded form education and from any job except the most menial.
In 1883, the Supreme Court declared a key civil rights statute, one that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, unconstitutional. And in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 1896), the Court declared that the state of Louisiana had the right to segregate their races in every public facility. Thus began the heyday of “Jim Crow” legislation. In Justice John Marshall Harlan’s lone dissent, he realized it was a mockery. He wrote, ” We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our peoples above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts a brand of servitude and degregation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law. This thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, or atone for the wrong this day done.”
Not until sixty years later, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (347 U.S. 483 1954), was Plessy overturned. Chief Justice earl Warren declared the unanimous opinion of the court by saying: “We cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written.” In today’s world, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
This decision sparked racial tensions all across America. in 1957, President Eisenhower had to call federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, after the state’s governor forcibly barred black children from entering white schools. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested and fined, for not moving to the back of a public bus, setting a pattern of boycotts by black of bus companies. And a number of “sit in” were being held by blacks in still segregated restaurants in the South. Responding to those and other incidents, Congress passed a variety of new laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly titles VI and VII, seem to prohibit any form of racial discrimination.


Affirmative action existed in obscurity for years before current-day affirmative action was executed after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246. As conceived, current day affirmative action was to promote greater equality of opportunity by expanding access and increasing inclusiveness. President Johnson, in his 4 June 1964 commencement speech at Howard University, addressed the motivation behind Executive Order 11246, which he signed into law a few months after this speech. 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 are free to compete with all the others’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Adding, he said that the U.S. must have “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” (Pinkerton, James P. “Ending Quotas Should Help End Racism” in Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1995, p. M5)
In 1969, the Department of Labor exposed widespread racial discrimination of the Construction Department so President Richard M. Nixon decided to incorporate a system of “goals and timetables” to evaluate federal construction companies according to affirmative action. This idea of “goals and timetables” provided guidelines for companies to follow and comply with affirmative action regulations.
During the presidency of Gerald R. Ford, he extended affirmative action to people with disabilities and Vietnam veterans but there were no goals or timetables for these two groups. This type of affirmative action required recruitment efforts, accessibility, accommodation and reviews of physical and mental job qualifications.
President Jimmy Carter consolidated all federal agencies that were required by law to follow the affirmative action play into the Department of Labor. Before Carter did this, each agency handled affirmative action in its own individual way, some were not as consistent as other agencies were. He created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program (OFCCP) in 1978 to ensure compliance with the affirmative action policies.


The first Supreme Court case to directly deal with affirmative action was Regents of California v. Bakke (438 U.S. 265 1978). Alan Bakke, a white male, was turned down for admission, even though his test scores and grades were higher that those of some candidates admitted through a “special” program. Bakke argued that he was a victim of reverse discrimination because he was white. Four members of the Supreme Court took the view that admission to a state medical school must be on a completely “color blind” basis; another four contended that “a racial criteria may be used by a state for the purpose of overcoming the chronic minority underrepresentation in the medical profession.” The remaining justice, Lewis Powel, had the controlling opinion in the case. Powell agreed in part with both sides. He believed that a “legitimate justification might exist for using race as a criterion in medical school admission,” yet he opposed “explicit” racial classifications.


Another landmark case about affirmative action was United Steelworkers of America v. Weber (433 U.S. 193 1979). Unlike Bakke, Weber deals with a private company who voluntarily creates a affirmative action policy. Brian Weber, a white worker, was passed over for admission to a training program in favor for a black worker less seniority. He bought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court ruled against Weber on two grounds: 1) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed at relieving the plight of blacks, not whites 2) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “did not intend wholly to prohibit private and voluntary affirmative action efforts.”
Affirmative action began to go downhill when Ronald Reagan and later George Bush came into office. Affirmative action lost some gains it had made and was more or less ignored by the Republicans in the White House and in Congress. Affirmative action was silently being “killed” by our federal administrators. But among this destruction there was one positive aspect, the passage of Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.


Finally to the Presidency of Bill Clinton. The Republicans are attempting to scare people into changing their party lines by misusing affirmative action. They are saying that affirmative action is nothing more than a quota or reverse discrimination. President Clinton supports affirmative action, but he clearly states: “I’m against quotas. I’m against reverse discrimination. I’m against giving anybody unqualified anything they’re not qualified for. But I am for making a conscious effort to bring the American people together.” (Speech on September 4, 1995, quoted by Michael K. Frisby, Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1995, p. A4). Further, President Clinton added: The purpose of affirmative action is to give our nation a way to finally address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent, on the basis of their gender or race, from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve and contribute. Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the doors of education, employment, and business development opportunities to qualified individuals who happen to be members of groups that have experienced long-standing and persistent discrimination. (New York Times, “Excerpts From Clinton Talk on Affirmative Action” July 20, 1995, p. A9).


Affirmative Action Today.

Affirmative action has had its greatest amount of success in city, state, and government jobs. Since the 1960s the area of law enforcement witnessed the greatest increase in minority applicants, and in jobs offered to minorities. This should be viewed as an extremely positive thing, because prior to affirmative action these jobs were almost completely closed off to minorities and woman. The influx has been greatest in the area of government, state and city, because this type of work is easier for affirmative action to watch over and regulate. Affirmative action has experienced considerably less success in integration in big business. This is do to the fact that big business has been more resistant to affirmative action and harder to regulate. I believe that increasing minority and female applicant flow would be very easy for a company to do. They simply need to include minority colleges and universities in campus recruitment programs, place employment opportunities in minority oriented print and broadcast media, and retain applications of unhired minority applicants to be reviewed as a position opens. This would be a great opportunity for applicants and employers.


Affirmative action is also needed to help black women to compete in today’s corporate world. Black women in corporate America are still scarce: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s report for 1984, among the classification “executive, administrative, managerial, and professional, specialty,” there were only 1,474,000 black women 5.9% of the total, as opposed to 22,250,000 white women, 91% of the total number of working women in this category (Cyrus, Virginia. Experiencing Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Second Edition. 1997. p. 122).


Another area affirmative action addresses is preferential hiring programs. Many times people of color have been excluded from hiring pools, overtly discriminated against, unfairly eliminated because of inappropriate qualification standards, or have been rendered unqualified because of discrimination in education and housing. Court decisions on affirmative action have rendered illegal those qualifications that are not relevant to one’s ability to do the job. They have also mandated hiring goals so that those employed begin to reflect the racial mix of the general population from which workers are drawn. There is no legal requirement to ever hire an unqualified person. There is a mandate that in choosing between qualified candidates, the hiring preference should be for a person of color when past discrimination has resulted in white people receiving preferential treatment.


Sometimes people and companies argue that affirmative action means the best qualified person will not be hired. However, it has been demonstrated many times in hiring and academic recruitment that test and educational qualifications are not necessarily the best predictors of future success. This does not mean unqualified people should be hired. It means basically qualified people who may not have the highest test scores or grades, but who are ready to do the job may be hired. Employers have traditionally hired people not only on test scores, but on personal appearance, family and personal connections, school ties and on race and gender preferences, demonstrating that talent or desirability can be defined in many ways. These practices have all contributed to a segregated work force where whites hold the best jobs, and people of color work in the least desirable and most poorly paid positions. Affirmative action policies serve as a corrective to such patterns of discrimination. They keep score on progress toward proportional representation and place the burden of proof on organizations to show why it is not possible to achieve it.


Opponents of affirmative action want to see the “most qualified” people be hired, regardless of sex, race, age, etc. However, a person’s experience should be taken into consideration during the hiring process and if certain groups are blocked from competeing, when they are finally allowed to compete they may have every other qualification, but will lack what they were blocked at competeing in the first place (Cyrus, p. 265).


While companies continue to permit discrimination in the hiring process they are overlooking a very staggering reality. According to a Workforce 2000 study by the Hudson Institute for the U.S. Department of Labor., it is estimated that 85% of the 26 million net new American workers in this decade will consist of women, minorities, and immigrants. The companies that refuse to share power with those discriminated against may be shooting themselves in the foot, compared to the companies who choose and promote a more diversified workforce {Cyrus, p. 463).


Another argument raised against affirmative action is that individual white people, often white males, have to pay for past discrimination and may not get the jobs they deserve. It is true that specific white people may not get specific job opportunities because of affirmative action policies and may suffer as a result. This lack of opportunity is unfortunate; the structural factors which produce a lack of decent jobs needs to be addressed. It must not be forgotten that millions of specific people of color have also lost specific job opportunities as a result of racial discrimination. To be concerned only with the white applicants who don’t get the job, and not with the people of color who don’t, I believe, is also showing racial preference.


But how true is it that white male candidates are being discriminated against or are losing out because of affirmative action programs? If one looks at the composition of various professions such as law, medicine, architecture, academics and journalism, or at corporate management, or at higher-level government positions or if one looks overall at the average income levels of white men one immediately notices that people of color are still significantly underrepresented and underpaid in every category. People of color don’t make up the proportions of these jobs even remotely equal to their percentage of the population. They don’t earn wages comparable to white men. White men are tremendously overrepresented in almost any category of work that is highly rewarded except for professional athletics.


According to a 1995 government report, white males make up only 29 percent of the workforce, but they hold 95 percent of senior management positions (Sklar, Holly. Chaos or Community?:Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics.Boston. South End Press. 1995. p. 115). Until there is both equal opportunity and fair distribution of education, training and advancement to all Americans, affirmative action for people of color will be necessary to counter the hundreds of years of affirmative action that has been directed at white males. It cannot reasonably be argued that white males are discriminated against as a group if they are overrepresented in most high status categories.


Affirmative action is not a cure all. It will not eliminate racial discrimination, nor will it eliminate competition for scarce resources. Affirmative action programs can only ensure that everyone has a fair chance at what is available. I believe, the larger question should be to ask is why are there not enough decent paying, challenging and safe jobs for everyone? Why are there not enough seats in the universities for everyone who wants an education? Expanding opportunity for people of color means expanding not only their access to existing jobs, education and housing , but also removing the obstacles that cause them from obtaining their goals. I believe, affirmative action is the best shot they have in order to achieve their dreams.