Affirmative action is the practice of preferential hiring for minorities to ensure that employees in businesses represent population demographics. In the American business world, there is a growing debate about whether affirmative action is effective, or even necessary. This article will concentrate on the history of the affirmative action concept in the United States and illustrate the arguments on each side of the affirmative action debate.
I. How and Why Did Affirmative Action Begin?
II. How Is Affirmative Action Implemented?
III. The Argument against Affirmative Action
IV. The Argument for Affirmative Action
How and Why Did Affirmative Action Begin?
Affirmative action began largely as a result of the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The first person to use the term affirmative action was President John F. Kennedy. His goal was to use affirmative action to ensure that the demographics of federally funded positions represented the nation’s racial demographics more proportionately. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, eight months after Kennedy was assassinated, affirmative action began to spread to realms outside of government. Title VI of the act stated that “no person . . . shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title VII laid out exemptions to this law, stating that, under special circumstances, gender, religion, or national origin could be used as a basis for employee selection. This was the beginning of the type of preferential hiring that we now refer to as affirmative action.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was the first to use the term affirmative action in legislation. In Executive Order No. 11,246 (1965), Johnson required federal contractors to use affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin. Johnson also wanted to extend Title VII into realms outside government-financed jobs.
Johnson’s affirmative action was designed to implement institutional change so that American organizations could comply with the Civil Rights Act. The need for this change was based on the following assumptions: (1) white men comprise the overwhelming majority of the mainstream business workforce. Providing moral and legislative assistance to underrepresented minorities is the only way to create a more equal space in the business place. (2) The United States, as the so-called land of opportunity, has enough economic space for all its citizens. (3) Especially after the Civil Rights Act, the government assured itself, and the citizens of the United States, that public policy was the proper mechanism to bring about equality of opportunity. (4) Racial prejudice exists in the workplace, and it adversely affects the business and academic worlds’ hiring of minorities. (5) Social and legal coercion is necessary to bring about desired change.
One of the most common misconceptions of affirmative action is that it sanctions quotas based on race or some other essential group category such as gender. It does not. This was affirmed in 1978 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, ruled that racial quotas for college admissions violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, unless they were used to remedy discriminatory practices by the institution in the past. In Bakke, white applicant Allan P. Bakke argued that his application to the University of California, Davis’s Medical School was denied due to the university’s use of quotas to admit a specific number of minority students to the medical school each year. In its highly fractious decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Bakke’s application was rejected because of the quota and ruled quotas unlawful. Muddying the waters, however, was Justice Powell’s diversity rationale in the majority decision. The diversity rationale posited that ethnic and racial diversity can be one of many factors for attaining a heterogeneous student body in places of higher education. Thus, while Bakke struck down sharp quotas, the case created a compelling government interest in diversity.
How Is Affirmative Action Implemented?
Affirmative action requires companies to perform an analysis of minority employment, establish goals to create a more demographically representative workforce, and develop plans to recruit and employ minority employees. For most companies that have effective programs, affirmative action extends beyond hiring practices to include maintaining a diverse workforce, periodic evaluations of the affirmative action program, educating and sensitizing employees concerning affirmative action policies, and providing a work environment and management practices that support equal opportunity in all terms and conditions of employment. Many of the biggest companies in the United States today have departments and legal staff s dedicated entirely to ensuring diversity in the workplace.
A multitude of problems inhibit or complicate the enforcement of affirmative action. The bulk of these problems include issues surrounding practices common to the modern business world, stereotypes, and employee preferences. Most of these problems are extremely hard to investigate and often involve serious issues, such as personal relationships or job loss, that make the problem even more complicated.
One of the biggest problems facing U.S. companies today is how to handle affirmative action when downsizing. What role should affirmative action play when deciding who is expendable during downsizing? Rarely do companies plan downsizing strategies that include consideration of workforce diversity. When deciding who to downsize, employers have a great number of factors to consider. These factors include race, gender, seniority, tenure with the company, rank, and personal relationships. There is no standard way of dealing with downsizing because each situation, and each employer, is different. Juggling the aforementioned factors while paying attention to the levels of merit between employees now competing for jobs can become incredibly complicated and pressured.
Perhaps the most widespread problem facing effective affirmative action practices today is also the hardest to identify and fix and is the most complicated. This problem is commonly referred to as the good old boy factor. The good old boy factor involves nepotism, the employment of friends and family over those who may be more qualified for certain positions. The basic problem behind this type of employment is that the employer’s family and close personal friends most often share the same ethnic background as the employer, thus limiting diversity in certain realms of employment. Ironically, although not termed this, the good old boy factor is, for all effective purposes, a form of affirmative action. However, this type of affirmative action does not require any amount of education, experience, competence, or overall job qualifications for employment. The way to handle this problem is to change the employment practices and values of the highest ranking executives in a company. However, because they are the highest ranking executives, they may not have anyone to whom they answer, and their immediate subordinates are often people hired due to their relationships as well. In reality, white men have been hired for years, and continue to be hired, due to racial and personal preferences.
The Argument against Affirmative Action
Since its inception, affirmative action has constantly faced harsh critics who would like to see the process changed, altered, or disbanded altogether. The critics of affirmative action claim that the practice actually creates unequal hiring practices; is impractical; is unfair to those who, they claim, lose jobs due to the practice; and is even unfair to those who gain employment because they may not be able to do the work. One of the most common misconceptions about those who are against affirmative action is that they are all white conservative men. However, many minorities, even liberal ones, are also opposed to affirmative action, if not as a concept, then to the way it is implemented in the U.S. system. This section will outline some of the major arguments against affirmative action as it is generally applied in the United States today.
The most prevalent argument against affirmative action is that the practice creates reverse discrimination. Those who argue this stance point to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was designed to prevent exclusion of minority groups based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. Those who claim reverse discrimination when arguing against affirmative action claim that white men are now victims of discrimination due to their race and sex.
One of the biggest changes in U.S. society over the past 40 years has been the cultural and judicial insistence on civil rights for every citizen. The most famous impetus for this sociological development was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which produced wide gains in the public sphere for African Americans. Included in these gains was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public realms such as education, housing, and hiring practices. To many Americans, the treatment that African Americans experienced in this nation until this act was passed was unacceptable and unfair. By enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson created, in many citizens’ eyes, an equal playing ground for African Americans. To them, affirmative action went beyond the means and goals of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was excessive because discrimination was now outlawed by the federal government, and African Americans would be on equal footing with whites.
Furthermore, many argue that affirmative action is unfair because those who lose, supposedly the white majority, and those who gain, supposedly all minority groups, are not all victims of the historical process that created past inequalities. They ask, why should contemporary whites have to pay for the inequalities created by past generations before they were born? At the same time, they ask, why should minorities, specifically African Americans, benefit from the socioeconomically subordinate positions their ancestors held in society? In essence, why should whites pay for discrimination that took place before they were born, and why should contemporary African Americans benefit from the suffering of their ancestors, which they have never experienced?
One of the most common arguments against affirmative action that comes from minority leaders is that affirmative action turns people into victims. When expecting the government to take care of minorities and give them preferential treatment, individuals tend to act as if the government owes them something. Some do not consider this progress because it tends to alienate historically underprivileged minority groups from mainstream society.
Another part of this argument is that affirmative action taints minorities in the workplace. When minorities are hired for high-level positions, it is automatically assumed that they received their jobs due to affirmative action. This argument basically claims that individual accomplishments by people from minority groups are virtually impossible because of the cloud created by affirmative action. That cloud, they argue, often leads to assumptions that every minority person in the workplace is there because he or she is a minority and that this person took the job of a white man. This creates stereotypes and ineffective working environments because many minority employees may not be taken seriously.
There are many arguments against affirmative action as we know it today. The arguments are made from various viewpoints and from various political, racial, and economic groups. The opponents of affirmative action are many, and their arguments are multifaceted, with conflicting views prevalent even among would-be allies against this practice.
The arguments for affirmative action are somewhat different and have changed over the course of this practice. As a new type of anti–affirmative action ideology has developed, affirmative action advocates have answered the challenge.
The Argument for Affirmative Action
The historical origins of the argument for affirmative action are obvious. Throughout U.S. history, white men have dominated nearly every aspect of the social landscape. Affirmative action was developed in tandem with civil rights advancements to open more fully opportunities for minority citizens. The arguments supporting affirmative action have now taken the form of debunking myths and exposing truths that indicate problems and misconceptions in the arguments opposing affirmative action.
The biggest and most obvious argument in support of affirmative action challenges the notion of reverse discrimination and beliefs that job markets are closed to whites when competing with minorities. Proponents of affirmative action are quick to point out that, even though minority groups have achieved great gains, they are still underrepresented in the workforce, specifically in white-collar jobs. For example, African Americans and Latinos make up approximately 22 percent of the U.S. labor force. In comparison, they make up only 9 percent of U.S. doctors, 6 percent of lawyers, 7 percent of college professors, and less than 4 percent of scientists (Jackson 1996). Proponents of affirmative action are quick to point out that the labor force does not mirror an equal employment system. The number of age-eligible employees does not correlate to the percentage employed. If the system was equal, then employment figures should not be as lopsided as they are.
This argument also suggests that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not solve the United States’ racial issues; it simply hid them. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and even today, African American and Latin American U.S. citizens are proportionately poorer than their white counterparts. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened spaces in the public sphere, but it did not provide concrete economic or financial means for success among minority groups.
Affirmative action backers also argue that diversity is good for society as a whole. Owing to the hiring, promotion, and economic advancement of minorities, diversity has started to seep into more realms of American life. In essence, diversity is becoming more mainstream than it was in the past. Because of this increased diversity, prejudices held about various minority groups have become less prevalent. Partially due to mainstream diversity, the United States is becoming more culturally affluent and accepting. Prejudice is no longer acceptable in most realms of U.S. society, and affirmative action offices and practices create environments in which diversity is accepted, learned, and experienced.
Pro–affirmative action advocates also argue that affirmative action has helped foster the development of minority role models as more and more minorities enter professional and political positions. Furthermore, their entry has led to the development of a raised consciousness among the American citizenry about issues such as racism, rape, immigration, and poverty that before were invisible to mainstream U.S. society.
Affirmative action advocates argue that, contrary to popular opinion, affirmative action is still necessary. The research being done by advocates shows very clearly that there is still a major discrepancy between the United States’ population demographics and its social and economic characteristics. This discrepancy is most prevalent in the workplace and education, where affirmative action has been used the most. Not only do the advocates back their claims of inequality, they show how, in many ways, minorities in this country are hardly better off than they were when affirmative action was first implemented. They argue that affirmative action measures should be increased because of a lack of effectiveness and because of the token affirmative action that many firms use today. For all effective purposes, token affirmative action is affirmative action with quotas. In token affirmative action, the quota usually equals one. Companies will hire a token minority and appoint him or her to a public position to eliminate any doubts concerning the organization’s diversity. It is often the case that beyond these token appointments, minority groups are underrepresented in all other sectors of the organization.
Affirmative action advocates have also argued that affirmative action is good for all people involved because it increases workplace diversity and expands traditional ideas. It not only helps individuals obtain positions previously unavailable to them, but it also helps create a broader sense of the world within individuals and within organizations. In essence, it forces people to broaden their horizons.
Affirmative action has become a very controversial topic. Opponents suggest that affirmative action causes reverse discrimination that hurts white men and, in fact, is detrimental to minorities who are placed because of it. Furthermore, they believe that the practice of affirmative action contradicts the basic civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Advocates believe that discrimination still exists and that affirmative action gives minorities a chance to work, which affects every aspect of their lives. The debate will continue until minorities are represented in every job class and type.
William M. Sturkey
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