In U.S. history, the term affirmative action is of relatively recent origin, and first came into use under the Kennedy administration in 1961, when it ordered federal contractors to speed up the employment of minorities and banned discrimination on the basis of color, religion of national origin. Lyndon Johnson expanded the use of affirmative action in federal hiring and contracts in 1965-66, although the Civil Rights Act simply forbids employment discrimination based on gender, race, religion or ethnicity. Even Richard Nixon supported affirmative action despite his own racism, as revealed on the White House tapes (Cahn 1995). To be sure, his motives were more nefarious in that he hoped to use it as a wedge issue to play working class whites and minorities off against each other as part of his Southern Strategy. Republican politicians have been using it in exactly the same way ever since, and with considerable success. In general, though, their attacks against quotas and 'reverse' discrimination have mostly been applied to blacks rather than to other supposedly favored groups like women or the disabled -- and never to disabled veterans. Throughout the 20th Century, veterans have often received special treatment and preferences from the federal and state governments, whether from the GI Bill, pensions, free medical care at Veterans Administration hospitals, home loan guarantees, and educational benefits. By law, the Disabled Veterans Affirmative Action Program (DVAAP) required all federal agencies to give preference in hiring and promotion to this group, and the Office of Personnel Management must report on its progress to Congress once a year (DVAAP Website 2011). Compared to affirmative action programs for blacks, those benefitting veterans almost never come under political attack. Just the opposite, politicians and presidents generally go out of their way to demonstrate their patriotism by granting special benefits to those who have served and sacrificed for the county in foreign wars. Only the Vietnam generation of veterans, which came home to a hostile public and a divided nation, rightfully believed that they had been slighted and ignored. In this case, deontological arguments about morality and compensatory justice do seem to carry far more weight that they do in the case of blacks and other minorities who have suffered extreme discrimination in the past, and indeed still suffer from it.
From a classical liberal or libertarian perspective -- which goes by the misnomer of conservatism in the United States -- any type of hiring or promotion system should be color- blind and gender neutral, with decisions based solely on individual merit. For those who adhere to this ideology, individualism is the ideal basis of society from both an ethical and a utilitarian viewpoint. William henry even goes so far as to confuse 17th Century Puritanism and Calvinism with this 19th Century liberal ideology of liberalism and laissez faire, writing that "in general, the world is a rational place in which the winners of the whole deserve to win and the losers deserve to lose" (Henry, 1994, pp. 140-41). Leave aside for the moment that Calvinists definitely did not regard the world as rational and were not particularly sympathetic to individualism at all, but American 'conservatives' have always attempted to link their views back to those of the Puritan colonists or the Founders, regardless of whether they ever held views that were even remotely similar to today's Republican Party. Carl Cohen denounced affirmative action and "reverse discrimination" against whites on the same grounds, arguing that the state could not "sacrifice the rights of some blameless non-beneficiaries to advantage others who have not been injured" (Cohen, 1995, pp. 106-07). Perhaps this might have been justified in the days of slavery or legal segregation, but those were abolished long ago, and in any case, American-style conservatives have always opposed granting rights to groups or collectivities -- apart from corporations, of course.
In 1999, the California state supreme court held that that government could not enforce quotas or set-asides based on race and gender, and also overturned state laws requiring that 15% of contracts be granted to businesses owned by minorities, women or disabled veterans. In addition, it adhered to the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that affirmative action was not justified by "general social discrimination" but only a "specific need to remedy past discrimination" (Muhl 1999). Proposition 209 had also eliminated all preferences and affirmative action in education, employment and contracts, but the state courts found that it was permissible for government agencies to have general guidelines to employ more women and minorities when these were underrepresented and for colleges to "recruit, employ, and promote people who are underrepresented in a community college district's labor force" (Muhl 1999). Blacks have always had a much higher unemployment rate the whites, in good times and bad, and in fact their levels of poverty and joblessness are usually double. In fact, this is one reason so many young blacks end up choosing a career in the military as one of the few escape routes out of poverty and segregation. While racism exists in the military, it remains one of the few institutions in American society that actually has managed to function in a racially integrated manner. Meanwhile, most studies that honestly examine the subject show that employment discrimination against young black and Hispanic males in the civilian job market remains much higher than for whites (Bergmann, 1996, pp. 50-51). From a utilitarian viewpoint, affirmative action has hardly cured this type of discrimination, although he has permitted a relative handful of blacks to obtain better employment and educational opportunities than they would otherwise have had.
In the case of disabled veterans, deontological arguments based on ethical and compensatory justice considerations are the most important of all. This is because the one major difference between disabled veterans and women and minorities is that veterans are being given preferences and special treatment for what they did rather than what they are. They were not born veterans as others are born into a certain racial or ethnic group or gender, but rather they chose to join the military, which in wartime carries with it serious risk of death or permanent disability. Preferences in employment are a reward for their service, and since the abolition of the draft in 1972 that service has been voluntary. Since they have made these sacrifices for the nation -- and many have made the ultimate sacrifice -- the nation does indeed owe them something in return. Congress recognized this long ago when it granted pensions and disability benefits to veterans, created Veterans Administration hospitals, as well as housing and education benefits through the GI Bill. Unlike quotas, preferences and affirmative action for minority, no politician would dare demagogue similar programs for disabled veterans, at least not if they still entertained any hopes of being reelected. From a strictly utilitarian point-of-view, there is far less resentment of disabled veterans being given special treatment, and in fact politicians and the public generally fall all over themselves to appear patriotic. In addition, a utilitarian would point out that society is much better off providing jobs, education and housing to veterans rather than risk having a large, discontented group of young people in its midst who are thoroughly accustomed to violence and methods of killing and destruction.
One exception to this was veterans of the Vietnam War, who had higher levels of physical and psychological disabilities than any previous group of veterans, particularly because the level of battlefield medical care had improved significantly from previous wars. Because Vietnam was more unpopular and divisive than any conflict since the Civil War, many veterans believed they were ignored, forgotten and mistreated when they returned home, both by the public and the government. It took many years for them to win benefits for disabilities due to Agent Orange and other herbicides, for example. In this case, of course, most of the young people sent there were not volunteers but draftees, and the functioning of the Selective Service System that granted deferments to middle class young men in college while sending the poor, minorities and working class to Vietnam was another major source of discontent for those who had fought there. They did not have the opportunities to escape the war that their more privileged contemporaries had, which was a kind of 'affirmative action' in reverse.
Human beings are by nature discriminatory creatures, whether in fashion, taste or personal habits, and even in employment, discrimination based on education, appearance, experience and education occurs every day. Only the 1964 Civil Rights Act draws the line at discrimination based on color, gender religion or ethnicity, and it remains the law of the land. Apart from the exemptions the Act gave to religious organizations, for example, employment discrimination is against the law. No one who is disabled or from the lower classes or minority groups need feel guilty about taking advantage of affirmative action whenever the opportunity arises, since the cards are generally stacked against them in most situations. Indeed, the normal system of 'affirmative…