It is widely believed that the American society is a "melting pot" where members of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities eventually mold into the mainstream, becoming full-fledged citizens of the country. The reality, however, is much more complicated. While it is true that America offers many opportunities to all its citizens, there is a history of discrimination against minority groups that affects the American society even today. African-Americans were confined to the shackles of slavery for three hundred years and for another hundred years of institutionalized discrimination, while other minority groups and women had to struggle hard to win civil rights and make the American society more egalitarian. The American society has progressed to the point where most citizens believe that everyone should be entitled to equal rights regardless of one's race, color, gender, ethnicity, or religion. And it is because of this belief in equality, the society has implemented various affirmative action programs since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s to remedy the wrongs of the past and allow minority groups to have equal opportunities in education and workplace. So, there is no doubt that affirmative action programs began with good intentions in mind.
But the way affirmative action has been implemented caused various social problems since then. For example, affirmative action targeting racial minorities and women often privilege already privileged racial minorities and women at the expense of underprivileged white males, leading to a kind of "reverse discrimination." Affirmative action therefore needs to be reformed to better cater the needs of all underprivileged groups, including white males. One way to do this could be affirmative action that targets class, rather than race and gender. And since racial minorities and women are relatively poorer than whites, class-based affirmative action will still help racial minorities and women, while not ignoring the needs and aspirations of underprivileged white males.
The debate over affirmative action is a social conflict but is a form of conflict where perception matters more than the behavior. Social conflict is defined as a "perceived divergence of interest, or a belief that the parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously" (Pruitt and Rubin, 2003, p. 4). Viewing affirmative action as a conflict of perception allows us to use Pruitt and Rubin's "strategic choice model, which specifies five basic kinds of behavior that are available when people get into conflict" (p. v.). The first kind of behavior people resort to in times of conflict is contending, when one group tries to impose one's preferred solution to the other. The second kind of behavior is yielding, when one compromises and lowers one's aspirations to reach a settlement. The third and fundamental behavior is problem solving, in many cases pursuit of an alternative that allows both groups to satisfy their aspirations. The fourth kind of behavior is withdrawing, that is choosing to leave the scene of conflict. And the fifth kind of behavior is inaction -- that is, doing nothing. Pruitt and Rubin call these behaviors "strategies" and argue that the successful settlement of a conflict calls for the implementation of a combination of these strategies. And the important ones that can be applied for solving the affirmative action conflict are contending, yielding, and problem solving. Pruitt and Rubin call these three "coping strategies in the sense that each involves some relatively consistent, coherent effort to settle conflict" (p. 3, emphasis original).
The debate over affirmative action is a conflict of perception than behavior. But the conflict may take the form of behavioral conflict and lead to a serious problem involving physical violence and perhaps even a civil war unless it is settled. So, withdrawing and inaction are not viable options when it comes to dealing with affirmative action debate. Rather, contending, yielding, and problem solving are necessary as each of these strategies help us settle the problem. Therefore, this paper first looks at the contending positions. We will look at why advocates and critics of affirmative action try to impose their preferred solution on each other. In other words, what are their contending positions? Then we will see that there are weaknesses in the positions of both parties and it is important that both parties yield. And finally, the paper will call for an alternative solution that can satisfy the aspirations of both groups.
There are many definitions of affirmative action. A broad and elastic definition describes it as "a phrase that refers to attempts to bring members of underrepresented groups, usually groups that have suffered discrimination, into a higher degree of participation in some beneficial program. Some affirmative action efforts include preferential treatment, others do not" (Rosenfeld, 1991, p. 42). Affirmative action, for instance, may impose quotes and goals, such as requiring that a school or a company admits/hires a certain percentage of minority groups. The purpose of affirmative action is to remedy the discriminatory practices of the past and is clearly distinguishable from the form of discrimination based on race or sex. Rosenfeld explains: "whereas the racist presumably wants to disadvantage his victims because of the latter's race, it is not the principal objective of the vast majority of proponents of affirmative action to place whites at a disadvantage because of their race" (p. 43, emphasis original). So, while the consequences of affirmative action may lead to discrimination, its intended goal as well as rationale is quite different from overt discrimination based on race or sex. Another broad definition of affirmative action was proposed by Sterba (2009) who describes it "as a policy of favoring qualified women, minority, or economically disadvantaged candidates over qualified men, nonminority, or economically advantaged candidates respectively with the immediate goals of outreach, remedying discrimination, or achieving diversity, and the ultimate goals of attaining a colorblind (racially just), a gender-free (sexually just), and equal opportunity (economically just) society" (p. 32).
The term "affirmative action" entered legal language in the United States when President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order 10925 which made it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on the latter's race, color, creed, or national origin. That order, however, could not immediately solve the problem of inequality. Many civil rights advocates therefore called for affirmative action programs that would guarantee equal opportunity to members of underrepresented groups. The rationale for affirmative action was explained by Martin Luther King Jr. "Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror," he said. "The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up" (cited in Wise, 2005, p. 16).
Affirmative action programs were later implemented following a series of Executive Orders issued by Lyndon B. Johnson who defended the program in one of his speeches in the following way: "You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. . . . Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in -- by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man" (Johnson, 1965). President Johnson signed the Executive Order 11246, mandating that "each executive department and agency shall establish and maintain a positive program of equal employment opportunity" (Sterba, 2009, p. 16). Johnson later issued another Order that targeted sex discrimination, and the Nixon Administration introduced quotes and goals.
The scope of affirmative action has been broadened -- and restricted -- through a series of Supreme Court decisions. For example, in Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971) case, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the rights of African-Americans under title VII of the Civil Rights Act were violated by the Duke Company. But a later Supreme Court with different members overturned this decision. The most important Court decision addressing education was the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). A California student petitioned to the Supreme Court that he had been denied admission because of the university's target range for minority students. A majority of the judges ruled that the Davis medical school's use of quotas to diversify student population was in violation of the Civil Rights Act as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Some judges dissented from the majority ruling, and the effect of the Bakke decision was to allow affirmative action…