Affirmative Action is a complex and confusing topic that often incites passionate views in one direction or another. But when the dust settles, there is some room for consensus about the benefits of affirmative action and some diverse views about what affirmative action policy should look like going forward. Below, the four of us take on this hot button issues.
Before beginning, it is important to address some background on affirmative action policies. First, it is no single law or action. Affirmative action policy is the cumulative result of decades of executive orders, legislation, and court decisions. Second, affirmative action, as legally applied, does not mean hiring a less qualified minority over a more qualified non-minority. As lawfully applied, it means choosing the minority in a situation where remaining candidates are equally qualified. The idea is that taking this proactive approach to lifting minorities in a particular area will help unravel the low ceiling that has existed, in some cases, for centuries. Third, affirmative action is often looked at as a pro-African-American policy. That is an oversimplification at best and ignorant at worst. The policy can benefit all races and genders depending on the job, location, and other contexts. A white male applying for a job in Atlanta, Georgia may, in fact, benefit from affirmative action.
Without going any deeper into affirmative action itself, there are growing questions as to whether affirmative action needs to be reformed to fit today’s society. Certainly, it has changed over time. The most recent significant change came under President Clinton with the elimination of quotas. That is, having a set number of employees of a certain gender or race.
Today, there is increasing support of reforming affirmative action to take class into account. That may mean a system based exclusively on class or one that joins class, gender, and ethnicity to provide a more complete picture of an applicant for a job or school. President Obama has even suggested he believes affirmative action should have a class-based component. As he asked during his campaign, why should his daughters benefit from affirmative action when they are better off than working class whites?
When multiple applicants for a job or school are equally qualified, then the determination should be made based on those groups most at a disadvantage in today’s society. This effectively helps to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty. The question is does race today provide sufficient indication as to who is at a disadvantage in today’s society? Certainly, in my view, it does not. While it is an important component, it is but one of a few factors that should be taken into account including race, gender, and class – totality of the circumstances.
Few issues in our country are more fraught with missteps, ignorance, and utter hopelessness as the issue of race relations. We have struggled with this issue since the first settlers arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Since then, we have had slavery, Jim Crow and the Black Codes, racial violence, riots, and more. The real turning point came when President Lyndon Baines Johnson (my favorite American President ever, but that is a topic for another day) signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
From that law, we have attempted to deal with the imbalances caused by a system of white privilege by instituting a policy of affirmative action. It has largely been a success, as more minorities have found educational and occupational opportunities than ever before. The beneficiaries of this policy, however, are not who you may think. It is white women that have benefitted from affirmative action the most. If you do not believe me, look the average pay differentials between ethnic/gender subgroups. In 1970, Black men made 69 cents for every white male dollar, while white women made 58.7 cents (information courtesy of the 2007 Current Population Survey). In 2006, Black men made 72.1 cents per white male dollar, a 4.5 percent improvement. White women made 73.5 cents per white male dollar, an increase of 25.2 percent. If you look an affirmative action program such as Title IX, the primary beneficiaries of that policy have been women in suburban school districts, who are predominantly white. The media recognizes this as well, since I have never seen a news story about Title IX that involved a racially diverse athletic program.
I use these examples to show that this is a program that has worked for everyone, and not just minorities. While some will say that affirmative action should take a different form than the one that we currently have, I must respectfully disagree with those people. For as long as prejudice, racism, and sexism has the power to keep people from getting jobs, getting into the school of their choice, or simply fulfilling their goals in life, this policy is necessary. Our nation is made better when we all do better, and affirmative action has played a crucial role in doing just that.
I guess the lasting image or memory regarding affirmative action that I have is reading a quote from former President Lyndon Johnson (I believe) in which he justified the policy as allowing a runner who has been running a race for X number of years with his shoelaces tied together to catch up to the others. Obviously minorities and women are the runners who have been disadvantaged in this analogy. Well when you put it that way….
Then again, California and Michigan have apparently put in constitutional amendments banning affirmative action in their states. Ideally, the world should operate as a meritocracy. An individual’s race or gender should be irrelevant in almost all aspects of life, their qualifications or merits should stand alone and speak for themselves. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and I am not foolish enough to claim we do.
So let’s go ahead and say that affirmative action has a place in America. My concern now becomes knowing whether or not the policy is being applied in a positive manner. We’ve seen examples from court cases where points systems or quotas being used have been ruled unconstitutional (rightly so). The purpose is and ought to be a means of assuring equal opportunities, but it is incredibly difficult to prove one way or another that this is what’s happening.
I know remarkably little about affirmative action, and quite honestly do not harbor much interest or affection for the topic. From my rudimentary point of view, it’s a policy which in general probably provides more positives than negatives. So sure, affirmative action, keep up the (good?) work.
To begin with a cliché, I completely believe the issue of affirmative action is like so many political issues, where there is no clear solution that is “fair” to everyone. Many conservatives such as Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich argue for the elimination of all affirmative action programs, but I won’t go that far.
I believe there is value in some types of affirmative action programs and others need to be reconsidered. At its core, I hope that someday there will be an elimination of all affirmative action programs, but I don’t think the United States is there yet. Also, when I discuss affirmative action, I mean giving a preference to someone based on race. More expansive descriptions of affirmative action include the poor and gender.
Affirmative action in a university setting, I believe, is acceptable if examined under a close eye. Compared to other races, blacks tend to be underrepresented or come from school districts with fewer resources to prepare their students for the rigors of college. Using affirmative action in accepting students to college is an acceptable use of the tool. However, I think blanket monetary scholarships for minority students should be reconsidered. I believe that changing this focused to a need-based system for distributing scholarships would better fit to solve society’s challenges. I think everyone should have an equal chance of thriving at a college or university, but the funding should be based off of need, not off race.
In a business setting, unfortunately there many challenges, and I think that affirmative action in a work setting should be eliminated. I have a fundamental disagreement with a business purposefully leaving a number of positions open to give a facade to allow a company to appear racially diverse. A person should be hired on their education, experience, and other aspects that they can contribute to a company should all be considered in the hiring of someone to a company.
In other countries, affirmative action is considered illegal in England, France, and Japan. Affirmative action was first mentioned in President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 in 1961. The United States’ society has changed drastically since 1961, nearly 50 years ago. Our policies should reflect today’s society rather than a society of 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, when this policy was formed, segregation was the norm and the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet passed. For our society to fully move past these horrific times in our past, we need to begin to move away from affirmative action in a racial sense and form policies to help all of those who need society’s help to reach their full potential.