Affirmative action refers to programs designed to assist disadvantaged groups of people by giving them certain preferences. Affirmative action goes beyond banning negative treatment of members of specified disadvantaged groups to requiring some form of positive treatment in order to equalize opportunity.
In the United States, beneficiaries of affirmative action programs have included African Americans and women, as well as Latinos/as, Native Americans, and Asian and Pacific Islanders. In India, members of “scheduled castes” (the lower-status castes) are the beneficiaries. Preferential treatment is also afforded to women in the European Union, “visible minorities” in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, and the Roma in eastern Europe. Some affirmative action programs involve small preferences (such as placing job advertisements in African American newspapers to encourage members of a previously excluded group to apply for a job), whereas others can be substantial (going as far as restricting a particular job to members of disadvantaged groups). A quota is when a job or a certain percentage of jobs is open only to members of the disadvantaged group. Not all affirmative action programs involve quotas, and, indeed, in the United States quotas are generally illegal in most situations. Even without quotas, however, affirmative action has been an extremely contentious issue, for what is at stake is the allocation of a society’s scarce resources: jobs, university positions, government contracts, and so on.
Moral and Political Arguments
Some critics of affirmative action, of course, openly want to maintain the subordinate position of the disadvantaged group. But many critics condemn the discriminatory and unfair policies of the past that have harmed the disadvantaged group and call for the elimination of such policies. To this end, they favor vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, prohibiting discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, and educational institutions. What they do not support, however, are policies that give preferences to the disadvantaged. To give advantages to anyone—even the previously disadvantaged—departs from the important moral principle of equal treatment. In the past, jobs were allocated on the basis of race, gender, or some other morally impermissible characteristic, rather than merit. Now, according to this view, jobs should be given out on the basis of merit alone. Employers should be “color-blind” (or “race-blind”) and “gender-blind”: That is, they should act as if they do not know the race or gender of the applicants. Just as it was wrong to pay attention to people’s race or gender in order to discriminate against them, so it is wrong to be “color-conscious” or “gender-conscious” in order to help them.
Critics of affirmative action point out that discriminating in favor of the previously disadvantaged necessarily entails discriminating against those from advantaged groups, a form of reverse discrimination that is morally unacceptable. This is especially so given that any particular member of a disadvantaged group may not have personally experienced discrimination, and any particular member of an advantaged group may never have engaged in any act of discrimination.
Supporters of affirmative action, on the other hand, argue that while a color- and gender-blind society is an ultimate ideal, in the short run color- and gender-conscious policies are necessary and justified for remedying past and present discrimination. There is no moral equivalence, in this view, between discrimination intended to keep down some oppressed groups and the discrimination intended to help provide equality—to level the playing field—for these victims of past societal discrimination.
Advocates note that various studies (using matched pairs of job applicants, interviews with employers, and other methodologies) reveal the persistence of discrimination, even after its legal prohibition. Antidiscrimination laws alone are insufficient to eliminate discrimination. How, for example, would an unsuccessful job applicant know that she has been the victim of discrimination unless she had access to the application files of her competitors? Moreover, according to affirmative action supporters, even if all discrimination ended, the harm caused by previous discrimination continues into the present. For example, much hiring occurs through word of mouth, personal connections, and referrals. Many colleges and universities give preferences to those whose parents attended the institution. All of these mechanisms reproduce in the present whatever employment or educational imbalances may have existed previously due to discrimination.
Supporters of affirmative action insist that they too value merit, but not the narrow meaning of merit as measured by standardized tests. If merit is correctly defined as being best able to help an organization achieve its goals, it will often be the case that color-or gender-conscious factors ought to be considered. For example, if the goal of a police department is to serve and protect its community, and if in a particular multiracial city with a history of racial tension the police department is all white because of previous discrimination, it may well be that a new black officer will better help the department serve the community than would a white officer who scored slightly higher on some standardized test.
Many workplaces and educational institutions consider diversity a positive value, and therefore, according to advocates of affirmative action, favoring applicants who further the diversity of the workforce or student body involves no conflict with the principle of merit. For example, a college applicant from an under-represented minority group might be more qualified than someone with slightly better colorblind credentials when qualification is viewed as including the extent to which the applicant will help the college in its mission of exposing all its students to people from different backgrounds and giving them the experience of interacting with such people. Critics of affirmative action, on the other hand, argue that seeking out applicants with diverse political views would do more for the diversity of a student body than would granting preferences to racial or ethnic minorities.
Critics of affirmative action note that, to decide preferential treatment entitlement, it is necessary to determine the race or ethnicity of applicants. Sometimes the determination is straightforward, but given the prevalence of people with multiracial backgrounds and the ugly history of how racist societies judged which racial category people belonged to, critics charge that it is morally objectionable to assign racial labels to people. Yet without such labels, affirmative action would be impossible. In fact, true color blindness demands that the government not ask for or collect information that distinguishes people by race or ethnicity at all.
Supporters of affirmative action agree that categorizing people by race or ethnicity is morally awkward. However, they note that even minimal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws requires categorizing people. (How can we determine whether a landlord has been discriminating if we don’t know the race of prospective renters?) In an ideal society, there would be no need to gather data on any morally irrelevant category. But when a society has a long history of oppressing certain groups, data broken down by group is necessary if we are to measure and judge our progress in overcoming that past oppression. When a society does not collect information on the differential circumstances of dominant groups and oppressed groups, such action may be a sign not of color blindness but of trying to hide ongoing mistreatment.
Considerable debate exists as to the appropriate beneficiaries of affirmative action. In the United States, supporters of affirmative action hoped that, by expanding the coverage to apply to many minority groups, they would broaden the political base favoring such programs. In practice, however, the wider coverage has diluted, in the minds of some, the moral argument in favor of a program intended to help the most obvious victims of governmental discrimination: African Americans and Native Americans. Some argue that the context matters. Thus, because Asian Americans and women are generally not under-represented among university student bodies, affirmative action admissions for them would now be inappropriate (though they should not be singled out for restrictions). On the other hand, among corporate executives or university faculties, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and women all faced exclusion in the past and remain under-represented today; therefore, in these areas all four groups ought to be beneficiaries of affirmative action.
Some argue that “class-based” affirmative action ought to replace race-based programs, both for reasons of equity (why is the son of a black doctor more deserving of university admissions than the son of a white coal miner?) and to avoid provoking a backlash from poor and working-class whites who might be natural political allies of poor blacks. Many supporters of race-based affirmative action support class-based preferences to supplement, but not supplant, race-based preferences. They note that programs intended to benefit the poor and the working class provoked a political backlash (e.g., “welfare” or equalization of education funding). More important, they argue that race-neutral criteria will still leave minorities—who have been the victims of both class and caste discrimination—under-represented.
The Impact of Affirmative Action
Measuring the impact of affirmative action is difficult and controversial. Some critics argue that worldwide the record of affirmative action has been disastrous, even driving some societies to civil war (e.g., Sri Lanka), but given the history of ethnic and racial conflict in societies where affirmative action has been introduced, it is not simple to isolate cause and effect.
Most U.S. studies agree that affirmative action has redistributed jobs, college admissions, and government contracts from white males to minorities and females, though only to a small extent. A more substantial shift occurred in minority enrollments at elite colleges and universities and in graduate programs, law schools, and medical schools.
Critics claim that departure from the principle of merit led to positions being filled by less-qualified people, with a corresponding loss of quality and efficiency in the economy. Most studies found no evidence of weaker performance by women relative to men in those sectors of the economy with mandated affirmative action. And though substantial evidence exists that minorities have weaker credentials than whites, their actual performance is only modestly weaker. On the other hand, some counterbalancing benefits also occur, such as many minority doctors locating their practices in poor and underserved communities, leading to a gain in the nation’s health care.
Opponents argue that affirmative action is harmful to its supposed beneficiaries by creating a “mismatch” between the skills of minority employees and students and the skills that their positions require. For example, one study found that affirmative action reduced the number of African American lawyers because minority students admitted through affirmative action did worse in law school (and then drop out or fail the bar exam) than they would have if they had gone to easier law schools where they had not received admissions preferences. Critics of this study challenge it on methodological grounds, finding that affirmative action actually increased the number of African American lawyers. Also contradicting the mismatch hypothesis is the fact that blacks who attend elite colleges and universities (where affirmative action is most prevalent) have higher graduation rates and greater future success than do those who attend less competitive institutions.
Another way in which affirmative action is said to harm beneficiaries is psychologically, on the grounds that those admitted into schools or jobs on the basis of preferences are likely to suffer in terms of self-esteem or ambition. Others view them as not really qualified, and worse yet, they may view themselves that way as well. Supporters of affirmative action reply that white men did not feel undeserving during the years of open discrimination, even though they earned their credentials in a contest where many of their competitors were severely handicapped. Although some minority individuals may wonder whether they got their position based on color-blind credentials or because of preferences, unemployment and lack of promotion are surely more serious blows to anyone’s self-esteem. As for stigmatization, stereotyping the abilities of subordinated minorities and women long predated affirmative action. Limited survey data suggest that blacks (male and female) and white females at firms with affirmative action programs do not have any lower scores on various psychological variables than their peers at other firms and that blacks at affirmative action firms have more ambition than blacks at other firms.
History of Affirmative Action
In the United States, legislation was passed in the aftermath of the Civil War to affirmatively assist African Americans, but with the end of Reconstruction, race-conscious measures were enacted exclusively for the purpose of subordinating blacks. Much of the ensuing struggle for civil rights involved attempts to remove legal impediments to equal rights; these efforts culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The first official use of the term affirmative action was in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, requiring that federal contractors not only pledge nondiscrimination but also “take affirmative action to ensure” equal opportunity. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson promulgated Executive Order 11246, establishing the Office of Federal Contract Compliance to enforce affirmative action requirements. In a speech at Howard University, Johnson explained the rationale for such programs: “You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line, and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.'” In 1967, Executive Order 11246 was expanded to cover women. The 1969 “Philadelphia Plan” under President Richard Nixon required government contractors to set numerical goals for hiring minorities, particularly in the construction industry where blacks long experienced exclusion from labor unions.
Court challenges to affirmative action resulted in rulings that often left the question unsettled. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, a divided Supreme Court ruled that a medical school could not set aside a fixed number of seats for minority applicants, but it could use race or ethnicity as a plus factor in admissions. The next year, in United Steelworkers v. Weber, the Supreme Court allowed private companies to enact affirmative action programs for the purpose of overcoming traditional patterns of racial segregation. And in 1980, in Fullilove v. Klutznick, the Supreme Court upheld the setting aside of 10 percent of government public works funds for minority-owned businesses. A decade later, however, a more conservative court narrowed the scope of permissible affirmative action; while agreeing that strict color blindness was not required, the court—in City of Richmond v. Croson in 1989 and Adarand Constructors v. Pena in 1995—held that affirmative action programs must serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to meet that interest.
In 1996, voters in California passed Proposition 209, outlawing race-conscious programs in any state institution, thus ending affirmative action in the state’s college and university system. At California’s top universities, black enrollment declined from 6.6 percent in 1994 to 3.0 percent in 2004. In two cases decided in 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger and Granz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court affirmed that race or ethnicity could be considered as one admissions factor among many others, provided that it was not done in a mechanistic way.
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- Bowen, William G. and Derek Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River: The Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Boxill, Bernard R. 1992. Blacks and Social Justice. Rev. ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Crosby, Faye J., Aarti Iyer, Susan Clayton, and Roberta A. Downing. 2003. “Affirmative Action: Psychological Data and the Policy Debates.” American Psychologist 58(2):93-115.
- Eastland, Terry. 1996. Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice. New York: Basic Books.
- Ezorsky, Gertrude. 1991. Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Holzer, Harry J. and David Neumark. 2006. “Affirmative Action: What Do We Know?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 25(2):463-90.
- Kahlenberg, Richard D. 1996. The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. New York: Basic Books.
- Livingston, John C. 1979. Fair Game? Inequality and Affirmative Action. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
- Thernstrom, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. 1997. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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