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Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been the topic of debate for many years. It has been controversial because it has been said to be a form of reverse discrimination. This paper will discuss the purpose behind affirmative action, as well as, its various strengths and weaknesses. Also, this paper will look at the following issues surrounding affirmative action such as the incompetency myth ( are companies hiring less qualified people?), the impact on employment (what has changed in the work place?), the impact on women (how has their lives changed?) and the impact on employment law (what documents back up affirmative action?). Lastly, a discussion of affirmative action on an international scale, and what international documents have to say about the topic. The purpose of this paper is to bring to light all the issues, and then make an educated statement of whether affirmative action is a worthwhile activity or if there is a better solution.

Affirmative action or positive discrimination can be defined as providing advantages for people of a minority group who are seen to have traditionally been discriminated against. This consists of preferential access to education, employment, health care, or social welfare. In employment, affirmative action may also be known as employment equity. Affirmative action requires that institutions increase hiring and promotion of candidates of mandated groups. (Rubenfeld, 1997, p. 429)
The purpose ofAffirmative Action is a simple one, it exists to level the playing field, so to speak, in the areas of hiring and college admissions based on characteristics that usually include race, sex, and/or ethnicity. A certain minority group or gender may be underrepresented in an arena, often employment or academia, in theory due to past or ongoing discrimination against members of the group. In such a circumstance, one school of thought maintains that unless this group is concretely helped to achieve a more substantial representation, it will have difficulty gaining the critical mass and acceptance in that role, even if overt discrimination against the group is eradicated. For this reason, more effort must be made to recruit persons from that background, train them, and lower the entrance requirements for them. (Goldman, 1976, p. 179) Proponents of affirmative action argue that affirmative action is the best way to correct a history of discrimination against a minority group. In the view of advocates, affirmative action may be seen as redressing an otherwise unfair balance of historical wrongs and institutionalised disadvantages. (Goldman, 1976, p. 181) An affirmative action program is a management tool designed to ensure equal employment opportunity. A central premise underlying affirmative action is that, absent discrimination, over time a contractor’s workforce, generally, will reflect the gender, racial and ethnic profile of the labour pools from which the contractor recruits and selects.

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This section will be outlining the weaknesses of affirmative action or the arguments against it. Affirmative Action is supposed to be a program designed to end racism, but isn’t it really justifying racism by its own actions. Its policies judge people solely on skin color and gender. That is discrimination in itself. Is discrimination the solution to resolving past discrimination? No, it’s not. No program can be considered good when it hurts others. Affirmative Action tried to help minorities and women, but in the process, reverse discrimination has taken place. Now, white males are discriminated against. This can not be an affirmative program if there is a form of discrimination involved. Instead of choosing a candidate for a job or for school admission, because of one’s color or gender, it should be because of their talents and abilities. The best any colored male or female should be selected for the job, or to get accepted into school. Why should some people get special preferences over others? It just isn’t correct. There should be no special treatments, and no special preferences given to people. Everyone has the opportunity to advance in this day and age; you just have to take the initiative. (Nascoste, 1987, p. 294) One criticism of Affirmative Action is that it discriminates against people based on race and sex, and thus is simply a different form of racism and sexism, that legal discrimination based on birth characteristics is racism regardless of whom indulges in such behaviour. (Nascoste, 1987, p. 297) A different argument against affirmative action states that the minorities who are under-represented are not as capable as the dominant groups. This argument has rarely been made openly in the past half-century. Proponents of this argument point out that even though affirmative action polices have been in place for 40 years the number of Black and Latino college students remains below their proportion of the total population. (Coate, 1993, p. 1229) Some view the disproportionate percentages of different races in schools and jobs as a reflection of minority cultures. Some cultures emphasize education and academic achievement less than others; for example, one might argue that education is highly prized in some Asian countries. Another criticism of affirmative action asserts that these programs encourage economic discrimination in favour of wealthier members of minority groups, since such programs, at least the American versions, do not consider either social or economic class. Critics claim Affirmative Action proponents promote selecting a middle-class minority group member over a better qualified working-class member from the majority group. This is contrary to claims of social justice made by supporters. It also causes racism towards the preferred group among those excluded because they are members of a group not selected for Affirmative Action benefits. This can be seen to be both counter-productive and unfair. This problem is present in many college admission programs, especially ones adopting so-called need blind admissions policies. Thus affirmative action can be seen as promoting middle class minorities at the price of further handicapping poor non-minorities. (Nascoste, 1987, p. 299)
There have are also many arguments in favour of affirmative action that shows its strengths. Affirmative Action is a program of opportunity; it is not a program of discrimination. This is the major argument people use in defending Affirmative Action. However, white males claim they are now discriminated against because of this program. There are accusations that minorities get hired just for the sake of filling a quota. However, Affirmative Action’s mission has never been about hiring less qualified workers, but about opening up equal opportunity and ensuring that equal opportunity with equal results. In fact, in a Bureau of National Affairs Employment Discrimination Report, most court cases concerning white males being turned down for a job are found not to be because of Affirmative Action, but because of a lack of qualifications and shortcomings. (Holzer & Neumark, Sept. 2000, p. 492) Affirmative Action has allowed women and other minorities to gain access to higher education and professional jobs. Many people would not be where they are today without this program. It is a program which has made the society more racial aware, and as a result, more equal. Diversity is desirable and won’t always occur if left to chance. Part of the education process is learning to interact with other races and nationalities. Many students live very segregated lives up until the time they start college. Thus, opinions of other races and nationalities are based on stereotypes. Interaction allows students to learn that persons of the opposite race are people too, more or less just like themselves. Since this diversity is desirable, we want to make sure colleges represent a wide range of backgrounds. Unfortunately, without affirmative action, this diversity is much less likely to occur. Its possible schools with become segregated like in past decades. Elite schools may become increasingly dominated by majority students. Diversity is so important; we can’t leave it to chance. (Reed, 1983, p. 339) Students starting at a disadvantage may need a boost. Minority students, generally speaking, start out at a disadvantage in their college or job application process. They usually come from lower income families and have less opportunity to go to private schools as white students. Some inner city youths must also live their childhoods in high crime, drug-infested areas. Sincere, hard-working minority students are every bit as capable as white students, but because of these disadvantages, they may not have the same paper qualifications. Affirmative action evens the playing field a bit. (Reed, 1983, p. 340) Affirmative action draws people to areas of study and work they may never consider otherwise. Whether its men being brought into nursing, women brought into technology fields, or minorities brought into Ivy League schools, it is always desirable to bring people to areas of study or work that they may not have considered otherwise. The more we change stereotypes, the less we’ll need affirmative action in the future. (Reed, 1983, p. 345) Some stereotypes may never be broken without affirmative action. For decades blacks were considered less capable than whites. It took affirmative action to give blacks the opportunity to show they are ever bit as capable. These and other stereotypes have started to change and will continue to change with the help of affirmative action. (Reed, 1983, p. 346) Affirmative action is needed to compensate minorities for centuries of slavery or oppression. The first several centuries of the U.S.’s existence saw whites enslave and oppress blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities. Minorities gave decades of unpaid labour, had land taken from them, were subject to brutal punishments, and were denied most of the fundamental rights provided by our Constitution. Affirmative action simply provides a way to compensate the descendants for the wrongs done to their ancestors. (Reed, 1983, p. 348)
Among the stereotypes of affirmative action is the myth that it will lead to hiring incompetent people. However, the opposite seems to be true, as companies are just forced in finding the best women or minority person in the field as opposed to hiring a person of equal abilities who happens to be a white male. The “stigma of incompetence based on affirmative action is the discounting of a beneficiary’s qualifications as a basis for selection and the assumption that the individual was hired only because of his or her group membership. The discounting principle suggests that affirmative action provides onlookers with a plausible explanation for a hiring decision that is independent of the hiree’s qualifications for the position, so that his or her qualifications are subsequently discounted as having been an important factor in making the decision. Since qualifications are typically so crucial in selection decisions, the perception that they did not play a central role is likely to lead to an assumption that the individual in question is not competent.” (Heilman, Block & Stathatos, 1997, p. 604) There is a trend that on-the-job competence will eventually override the stigma of being incompetent.

Affirmative action has also had many impacts on employment. Affirmative action can incorporate and influence a wide variety of activities by employers. “These include outreach or special recruitment efforts, changes in screening practices, changes in hiring, pay, or promotion standards and special assistance programs to members of protected groups who are hired.” (Holzer & Neumark, Jan. 2000, p. 241) Holzer & Neumark say there are two ways to think about affirmative action and how to interpret the policy; the first is “to create inducements for employers to use search methods that are non-traditional for them but enable them to find qualified women and minorities. This method might be more expensive but would lead to the hiring of equally qualified people. The second method involves hiring slightly less qualifies individuals and then bring their skills up to par.” (Jan. 2000, p. 243)
Affirmative action appears to be successful in terms of boosting the hiring of women and minorities, although when used in hiring it results in a higher likelihood of less qualified or under qualified hires. Employers using affirmative action do, however, appear to take some steps to help these workers, using formal evaluation systems and providing more training. Coupled with more intensive screening, the ultimate effect appears to be that current performance of women/minority employees at establishments using affirmative action is as high as that of otherwise comparable workers. (Holzer & Neumark, Jan. 2000, p. 253)
The effects within the work place seem to be positive in the long run, even if an employee is slightly less qualified they are quickly brought up-to-date and are able to contribute as much as their qualified counterparts.

The impacts of affirmative action have been very significant on women in general especially women of minority groups. “In the context of the overall labour market, affirmative action appears to have played a relatively small role in increasing opportunities for white females, whereas it did increase opportunities for black females.” (Leonard, 1989, p. 64) The supply of women in the work force has increased drastically and as a result there have been more women to choose from when hiring allowing equally qualified women to gain employment. (Leonard, 1989, p. 66) While there has been a positive effect of affirmative action in hiring, salaries and rank of employees is also affected. While some women’s salaries have increased there are many instances where women are still paid less then males of an equal status. (Loeb, Ferber ; Lowry, 1978, p. 220) The majority of families depend on the income of women. When Affirmative Action opens up education, employment, and business, families and communities have greater economic security. Business leaders understand that affirmative action is necessary to develop a strong workforce. Women and people of color have a lot to offer their communities. Affirmative Action helps insure that everyone gets the chance to contribute. Affirmative action has opened doors that have been traditionally closed to women and minorities and has helped them make advances in education and employment. Today, affirmative action continues to help combat gender/race discrimination in countries where women haven’t yet achieved full equality. Affirmative action ensures that qualified individuals of all races and genders have equal opportunity to compete for positions. Affirmative action not only levels the playing field for women and minorities but also brings diverse perspectives into fields that have been dominated by white men. (Loeb, Ferber & Lowry, 1978, p. 225)
There are many impacts that affirmative action has had on employment laws in the countries that implement them. In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms lays out the boundaries of affirmative action in Section 15, which deals with equality rights. According to sub-section (1), every individual is equal before and under the law, enjoys equal protection and benefit of the law, without discrimination, notably discrimination based on sex. The idea of affirmative action programs is introduced, since “sub-section (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability” (s. 15(2).). In the field of mobility rights, affirmative action programs are also regarded as lawful when in favour of individuals socially or economically disadvantaged if the rate of employment in the province where they live is below the rate of employment in Canada. Also, section 24(1) states that anyone whose rights and freedoms have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain remedy. Section 1 states that “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”, which means that the Canadian courts and government has seen that the practice of affirmative action is a reasonable limit to impose upon the general public. In the United States, affirmative action programs are used to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to members of specific groups, such as minorities and women. The policy was implemented by federal agencies enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two executive orders, which provided that government contractors and educational institutions receiving federal funds develop such programs. (Nacoste, 1987, p. 292) Both countries use affirmative action as a way to promote certain groups of people in the work force and both have also used these programs to implement legislation regarding the issue.

Affirmative action is also taking a stand on the international scene. Across the world countries are jumping on the band wagon. With the help of the United Nations and conventions such as the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was the first legally binding international document prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative steps to advance the equality of women. The World Bank is also a major player in spreading awareness around the world and providing education. For example the World Bank supports “a women’s affirmative action program in Gambia raises awareness about the needs and concerns of Gambian women and their role in development and also provides funding for the training of Gambian women farmers”. (Lockheed, 1998, p. 7) Lockheed also discusses the World Bank and its participation in women’s entrepreneurship in Africa, keeping Bangladesh girls in school, increasing the amount of female teachers in Pakistan and rural schools for girls. (1998, p. 7) The World Bank has taken a strong stance in establishing affirmative action programs around the world. The words affirmative action does not appear in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation document for contemporary human rights discourse. The declaration does, however, contain two intellectual anchors for affirmative action. First, the declaration repeatedly endorses the principle of human equality. Second, it declares that everyone has the right to work, to an adequate standard of living, and to education. The declaration does not command that all will share equally, but it does suggest strongly that there are minimum levels of employment, education, and subsistence that all should share. If a nation finds that citizens of one race-or sex or religion-endure a markedly inadequate standard of living, then, the declaration suggests, it has an obligation to uncover the cause of, and respond to, that endurance. Affirmative action programs are being introduced because of their effectiveness of getting women and minorities into the work force around the world.

In conclusion this paper has shown both the positive and negative views of affirmative action. It is my own opinion that the positives outweigh the negative points. In my view it has made many positive changes in our society. As the number of single women who are raising families rises, they will need the resources to properly raise their children. Another reason I believe affirmative action benefits society is the diversity that is exposed to an otherwise rigid environment, by mixing values and opinions with others from all walks of life it makes people more aware and adapted to social situations. By forcing companies to seek out the best women and minorities they are not selling themselves short but are seeking to find the best. Incompentency as a stereotype may not disappear in the work place but by hard work it can be overridden. As our laws change in our own nation and around the world to accommodate affirmative action programs I believe that it will become common place and more accepted in the future. Overall the implementation of these programs has seen more benefits than drawbacks upon society.
Works Cited
Coate, Stephen. (1993). Will Affirmative-Action Policies Eliminate Negative Stereotypes? The American Economic Review, Vol. 83, No. 5, 1220-1240.

Goldman, Alan H. (1976) Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 5, No. 2, 178-195.
Heilman, Madeline E, Caryn J. Block & Peter Stathatos. (1997) The Affirmative Action Stigma of Incompetence: Effects of Performance Information Ambiguity The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3, 603-625.

Holzer, Harry J.& David Neumark. (Jan. 2000) What Does Affirmative Action Do? Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, 240-271.

Holzer, Harry J.& David Neumark. (Sept. 2000) Assessing Affirmative Action Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, 483-568.

Leonard, Jonathan S. (1989) Women and Affirmative Action The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 3, No. 1, 61-75.

Lockheed, Marlaine. (1998) International Perspectives on Affirmative Action in the 1990s Educational Researcher, Vol. 27, No. 9, 6-7.

Loeb, Jane W, Marianne A. Ferber & Helen M. Lowry. (1978) The Effectiveness of Affirmative Action for Women The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 49, No. 3, 218-230.

Nacoste, Rupert W. (1987) Affirmative Action in American Politics: Strength or Weakness? Political Behavior, Vol. 9, No. 4, 291-304.

Reed, Rodney J. (1983) Affirmative Action in Higher Education: Is It Necessary? The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 52, No. 3, Persistent and Emergent Legal Issues in Education: 1983 Yearbook, 332-349.

Rubenfeld, Jed. (1997) Affirmative Action The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 107, No. 2, 427-472.


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