Affirmative action policies grew out of a need to address the historic discrimination against minorities and women. Since its inception, affirmative action has helped open the door for many minorities seeking gainful employment and higher education. However, the same policies have also spawned charges of reverse discrimination against others and, paradoxically, of harming the very people they were intended to help.
This paper looks at whether affirmative action policies remain relevant today, with a particular focus on racial minorities such as African-Americans and Latinos. In the first part, the paper defines affirmative action, traces the policies' history and examines their goals. The second part is a critical examination of the arguments of affirmative action supporters. The third part studies the arguments against affirmative action by evaluating both the policies' effectiveness and their deleterious consequences for African-Americans and other racial minorities.
In the conclusion, this paper maintains that though they were instituted with the best of intentions, current affirmative action policies are ineffective against addressing racial discrimination and have even had harmful effects on the people they were intended to help. Therefore, affirmative action policies should no longer be used as a major determinant in both employment and acceptance into higher education institutions.
Affirmative Action: An Overview
The term "affirmative action" has multiple but complementary meanings. For Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy defines affirmative action as "policies that provide preferences-based explicitly on membership in a designated group" (cited in Guernsey, 8-9). Affirmative action supporters like Richard Wasserstrom see affirmative action as:
program of preferential treatment...which set aside a certain number of places as to which members of minority groups who possess certain minimum qualifications may be preferred for admission to those places over some members of the majority group who possess higher qualifications" (198).
This classical definition of affirmative action as preferential treatment has since spawned more contentious definitions. Opponents of affirmative action, such as law professor Lino Graglia thus characterizes affirmative action as "a euphemism for discrimination: the granting of preference to some individuals and therefore disfavoring of others on the basis of their race" (47).
In this paper, affirmative action is defined neutrally as any policy or effort to facilitate racial integration in society by developing more opportunities in education and employment to people who have traditionally been at the margins of social, economic and political life due to social perception stemming from their gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, or disabilities.
History of affirmative action
Affirmative action grew out of efforts to rectify past injustices meted against people of minority races and, later, women. The term "minority" is relevant, since recent reports from the Census Bureau indicate that African-Americans and people of Hispanic origin now outnumber white residents. However, for the purposes of this paper, "minorities" will be defined as people of Hispanic or non-Caucasian origin.
Though the policies were rooted in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, and the Civil Rights Acts passed in 1866 and 1875. These laws were the basis for many of the civil rights laws in the 1950s and the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All these policies paved the way for the eventual institution of affirmative action (Jenkins 1999).
The policies that were labeled "affirmative action" were first instituted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a historic 1965 commencement speech at Howard University, President Johnson that the unemployment rates, income, poverty rate and infant mortality of Black people were all much greater than those of white people.
Though he recognized the many gains in civil rights represented by earlier laws such as the Voting Rights Bill, Johnson eloquently pointed at how much remained to be done, saying:
Freedom is not enough...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 you are competing fair" (17).
In the interests of ensuring such a fair competition, President Johnson enacted Executive Order 11246 in 1965. EO 11246 mandated the policies of "affirmative action," which requires federal contractors to "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." Two years later, President Johnson expanded the scope to include affirmative action policies to benefit women.
Goals and types of affirmative action
For law professor Paul Butler, the goals of affirmative action are threefold. The first, as initially recognized by President Johnson, was to remedy past discrimination and to put ethnic minorities on a level playing field.
Butler, however, cites two additional goals of affirmative action - to address ongoing racial discrimination and to promote racial diversity in the workforce and in higher education. To achieve these goals, Butler distinguishes between two types of affirmative action - process-oriented policies and goal-oriented policies (Butler, cited in Williams, 2000).
Under Butler's definition of process-oriented affirmative action policies, employers must ensure that their job openings are advertised widely to reach ensure that interested minority applicants can submit applications. Likewise, college recruiters must take special care to visit high schools with high minority populations, to ensure a racial balance in their applicant pool. Process-oriented affirmative action policies focus on making sure that all applicants are subject to the same tests, skills and interviews, to ensure every candidate receives fair and nondiscriminatory treatment.
Goal-oriented affirmative action goes one step further by giving minority status special consideration once a pool of qualified applicants is established (Williams 2000). For example, when choosing between two equally qualified candidates, a university admissions officer can give a minority applicant extra consideration on the basis of his or her race.
This consideration has given rise to allegations of "reverse discrimination" and preferential treatment. For this reason, goal-oriented affirmative action has become the subject of contentious debate.
Arguments in Support of Affirmative Action
Opinion polls reveal conflicting public perceptions on affirmative action. Most of the polls are worded in the abstract and are designed to elicit strong responses, such as whether racial quotas should give way to merit-based admission procedures.
However, in 1995, a poll conducted by the Harris Institution worded the question in concrete terms. Instead of asking abstract questions on the ethics of preferential treatment, the Harris Poll asked Americans if they supported concrete, affirmative action programs that they knew about in their own workplace. The poll found that 80% of Euro-American workers "strongly support" the affirmative action programs that they know about (Brookings Review 1998). Though the findings do not address whether affirmative action is indeed unfair, this widespread support indicates, at the very least, that affirmative action is not intrinsically undemocratic.
The little-reported Harris Poll bolstered efforts of supporters who argue for the continued need for affirmative action programs.
Their arguments generally fall under four main types.
Arguments based on racial kinship
Arguments regarding racial pride often reveal themselves in calls to "establish role models" and to "break racial stereotypes."
Paul King, the chair of the largest black-owned construction firm in Chicago, for example, cites the need to recognize Black pioneers like opera singer Leontyne Price, former Chicago mayor Harold Washington and Nelson Mandela. King further argues that racial kinship is a necessity in a society where being Black places one at a disadvantage. Therefore, King rejects arguments that African-American people forsake racial kinship or pride in favor of individual achievements. For King, the fact that Black people like Price and Washington "succeed in a hostile environment gives me the moral basis to identify with and take pride in their achievements" (57).
This mentality of racial kinship gives rise to a view that attempts to repeal affirmative action is a personal attack on a person because of his or her race. Identifying attacks on affirmative action as an attack on a group's racial pride clouds the real issues underlying the problems with affirmative action policies.
Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy contests King's view, saying that "neither racial pride nor racial kinship offers guidance that is intellectually, morally, or politically satisfactory" (47).
Instead, Kennedy proposes pride in one's own individual achievements. Using Kennedy's framework, King's racial pride in the achievements of Leontyne Price or Harold Washington solely on the basis of shared skin color as anomalous and misplaced. Such misplaced pride would also detract from a person's quest for his or her own individual achievement.
The different positions of Kennedy and King highlight an important schism in the view on affirmative action policies. For supporters like King, affirmative action fosters a recognition of the obstacles African-Americans continue to face as a whole. To repeal affirmative action policies is therefore an attack on Black individuals like Price, Washington and himself. Kennedy, meanwhile, would view such racial kinship claims as unfounded. Price and Washington's achievements are individual achievements which are not denied by the opponents of…