Affirmative Action

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Affirmative action works. There are thousands of examples of situations where

people of color, white women, and working class women and men of all races who

were previously excluded from jobs or educational opportunities, or were denied

opportunities once admitted, have gained access through affirmative action. When

these policies received executive branch and judicial support, vast numbers of

people of color, white women and men have gained access they would not otherwise

have had. These gains have led to very real changes. Affirmative action programs

have not eliminated racism, nor have they always been implemented without

problems. However, there would be no struggle to roll back the gains achieved if

affirmative action policies were ineffective. The implementation of affirmative

action was America’s first honest attempt at solving a problem, it had

previously chosen to ignore. In a variety of areas, from the quality of health

care to the rate of employment, blacks still remain far behind whites. Their

representation in the more prestigious professions is still almost

insignificant. Comparable imbalances exist for other racial and ethnic

minorities as well as for women. Yet, to truly understand the importance of

affirmative action, one must look at America’s past discrimination to see why,

at this point in history, we must become more “color conscious”.

History Of Discrimination In America: Events Leading To Affirmative Action. The

Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal.”

Yet America is scarred by a long history of legally imposed inequality. Snatched

from their native land, transported thousands of miles-in a nightmare of disease

and death-and sold into slavery, blacks in America were reduced to the legal

status of farm animals. A Supreme Court opinion, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857),

made this official by classifying slaves as a species of “private

property.” Even after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in

1865, American blacks, other minorities, and women continued to be deprived of

some of the most elementary right of citizenship. During the Reconstruction,

after the end of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868,

making blacks citizens and promised them the “equal protection of the

laws.” In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, which gave blacks the

right to vote. Congress also passed a number of civil rights laws barring

discrimination against blacks in hotels, theaters, and other places. However,

the South reacted by passing the “Black Codes, ” which severely

limited the rights of the newly freed slaves, preventing them in most states

from testifying in courts against whites, limiting their opportunities to find

work, and generally assigning them to the status of second or third class

citizen. White vigilante groups like the Klu Klux Klan began to appear, by

murdering and terrorizing blacks who tried to exercise their new rights.

“Legal” ways were also found for circumventing the new laws; these

included “grandfather clauses”, poll taxes, white only primary

elections, and constant social discrimination against and intimidation of

blacks, who were excluded form education and from any job except the most

menial. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared a key civil rights statute, one that

prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, unconstitutional. And in

1896, Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 [1896]), the Court declared that the

state of Louisiana had the right to segregate their races in every public

facility. Thus began the heyday of “Jim Crow” legislation. In Justice

John Marshall Harlan’s lone dissent, he realized it was a mockery. He wrote,

” We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our peoples above all other peoples.

But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which,

practically, puts a brand of servitude and degregation upon a large class of our

fellow citizens, our equals before the law. This thin disguise of ‘equal’

accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, or

atone for the wrong this day done.” Not until sixty years later, in Brown

v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (347 U.S. 483 [1954]), was Plessy

overturned. Chief Justice earl Warren declared the unanimous opinion of the

court by saying: “We cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment

was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written.” In

today’s world, “separate educational facilities are inherently

unequal.” This decision sparked racial tensions all across America. in

1957, President Eisenhower had to call federal troops into Little Rock,

Arkansas, after the state’s governor forcibly barred black children from

entering white schools. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested and fined, for not

moving to the back of a public bus, setting a pattern of boycotts by black of

bus companies. And a number of “sit in” were being held by blacks in

still segregated restaurants in the South. Responding to those and other

incidents, Congress passed a variety of new laws, including the Civil Rights Act

of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The

Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly titles VI and VII, seem to prohibit any

form of racial discrimination. Affirmative action existed in obscurity for years

before current-day affirmative action was executed after President Lyndon B.

Johnson signed Executive Order 11246. As conceived, current day affirmative

action was to promote greater equality of opportunity by expanding access and

increasing inclusiveness. President Johnson, in his 4 June 1964 commencement

speech at Howard University, addressed the motivation behind Executive Order

11246, which he signed into law a few months after this speech. He said,

“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 that you have been

completely fair.” Adding, he said that the U.S. must have “not just

equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a

result.” (Pinkerton, James P. “Ending Quotas Should Help End

Racism” in Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1995, p. M5) In 1969, the Department

of Labor exposed widespread racial discrimination of the Construction Department

so President Richard M. Nixon decided to incorporate a system of “goals and

timetables” to evaluate federal construction companies according to

affirmative action. This idea of “goals and timetables” provided

guidelines for companies to follow and comply with affirmative action

regulations. During the presidency of Gerald R. Ford, he extended affirmative

action to people with disabilities and Vietnam veterans but there were no goals

or timetables for these two groups. This type of affirmative action required

recruitment efforts, accessibility, accommodation and reviews of physical and

mental job qualifications. President Jimmy Carter consolidated all federal

agencies that were required by law to follow the affirmative action play into

the Department of Labor. Before Carter did this, each agency handled affirmative

action in its own individual way, some were not as consistent as other agencies

were. He created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program (OFCCP) in

1978 to ensure compliance with the affirmative action policies. The first

Supreme Court case to directly deal with affirmative action was Regents of

California v. Bakke (438 U.S. 265 [1978]). Alan Bakke, a white male, was turned

down for admission, even though his test scores and grades were higher that

those of some candidates admitted through a “special” program. Bakke

argued that he was a victim of reverse discrimination because he was white. Four

members of the Supreme Court took the view that admission to a state medical

school must be on a completely “color blind” basis; another four

contended that “a racial criteria may be used by a state for the purpose of

overcoming the chronic minority underrepresentation in the medical

profession.” The remaining justice, Lewis Powel, had the controlling

opinion in the case. Powell agreed in part with both sides. He believed that a

“legitimate justification might exist for using race as a criterion in

medical school admission,” yet he opposed “explicit” racial

classifications. Another landmark case about affirmative action was United

Steelworkers of America v. Weber (433 U.S. 193 [1979]). Unlike Bakke, Weber

deals with a private company who voluntarily creates a affirmative action

policy. Brian Weber, a white worker, was passed over for admission to a training

program in favor for a black worker less seniority. He bought suit under Title

VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court ruled against Weber on

two grounds: 1) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed at relieving the plight

of blacks, not whites 2) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “did not intend

wholly to prohibit private and voluntary affirmative action efforts.”

Affirmative action began to go downhill when Ronald Reagan and later George Bush

came into office. Affirmative action lost some gains it had made and was more or

less ignored by the Republicans in the White House and in Congress. Affirmative

action was silently being “killed” by our federal administrators. But

among this destruction there was one positive aspect, the passage of Americans

with Disabilities Act of 1990. Finally to the Presidency of Bill Clinton. The

Republicans are attempting to scare people into changing their party lines by

misusing affirmative action. They are saying that affirmative action is nothing

more than a quota or reverse discrimination. President Clinton supports

affirmative action, but he clearly states: “I’m against quotas. I’m against

reverse discrimination. I’m against giving anybody unqualified anything they’re

not qualified for. But I am for making a conscious effort to bring the American

people together.” (Speech on September 4, 1995, quoted by Michael K. Frisby,

Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1995, p. A4). Further, President Clinton

added: The purpose of affirmative action is to give our nation a way to finally

address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent, on the basis of their

gender or race, from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve and contribute.

Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the

doors of education, employment, and business development opportunities to

qualified individuals who happen to be members of groups that have experienced

long-standing and persistent discrimination. (New York Times, “Excerpts

From Clinton Talk on Affirmative Action” July 20, 1995, p. A9). Affirmative

Action Today. Affirmative action has had its greatest amount of success in city,

state, and government jobs. Since the 1960s the area of law enforcement

witnessed the greatest increase in minority applicants, and in jobs offered to

minorities. This should be viewed as an extremely positive thing, because prior

to affirmative action these jobs were almost completely closed off to minorities

and woman. The influx has been greatest in the area of government, state and

city, because this type of work is easier for affirmative action to watch over

and regulate. Affirmative action has experienced considerably less success in

integration in big business. This is do to the fact that big business has been

more resistant to affirmative action and harder to regulate. I believe that

increasing minority and female applicant flow would be very easy for a company

to do. They simply need to include minority colleges and universities in campus

recruitment programs, place employment opportunities in minority oriented print

and broadcast media, and retain applications of unhired minority applicants to

be reviewed as a position opens. This would be a great opportunity for

applicants and employers. Affirmative action is also needed to help black women

to compete in today’s corporate world. Black women in corporate America are

still scarce: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s report for 1984,

among the classification “executive, administrative, managerial, and

professional, specialty,” there were only 1,474,000 black women 5.9% of the

total, as opposed to 22,250,000 white women, 91% of the total number of working

women in this category (Cyrus, Virginia. Experiencing Race, Class, and Gender in

the United States. Second Edition. 1997. p. 122). Another area affirmative

action addresses is preferential hiring programs. Many times people of color

have been excluded from hiring pools, overtly discriminated against, unfairly

eliminated because of inappropriate qualification standards, or have been

rendered unqualified because of discrimination in education and housing. Court

decisions on affirmative action have rendered illegal those qualifications that

are not relevant to one’s ability to do the job. They have also mandated hiring

goals so that those employed begin to reflect the racial mix of the general

population from which workers are drawn. There is no legal requirement to ever

hire an unqualified person. There is a mandate that in choosing between

qualified candidates, the hiring preference should be for a person of color when

past discrimination has resulted in white people receiving preferential

treatment. Sometimes people and companies argue that affirmative action means

the best qualified person will not be hired. However, it has been demonstrated

many times in hiring and academic recruitment that test and educational

qualifications are not necessarily the best predictors of future success. This

does not mean unqualified people should be hired. It means basically qualified

people who may not have the highest test scores or grades, but who are ready to

do the job may be hired. Employers have traditionally hired people not only on

test scores, but on personal appearance, family and personal connections, school

ties and on race and gender preferences, demonstrating that talent or

desirability can be defined in many ways. These practices have all contributed

to a segregated work force where whites hold the best jobs, and people of color

work in the least desirable and most poorly paid positions. Affirmative action

policies serve as a corrective to such patterns of discrimination. They keep

score on progress toward proportional representation and place the burden of

proof on organizations to show why it is not possible to achieve it. Opponents

of affirmative action want to see the “most qualified” people be

hired, regardless of sex, race, age, etc. However, a person’s experience should

be taken into consideration during the hiring process and if certain groups are

blocked from competeing, when they are finally allowed to compete they may have

every other qualification, but will lack what they were blocked at competeing in

the first place (Cyrus, p. 265). While companies continue to permit

discrimination in the hiring process they are overlooking a very staggering

reality. According to a Workforce 2000 study by the Hudson Institute for the

U.S. Department of Labor., it is estimated that 85% of the 26 million net new

American workers in this decade will consist of women, minorities, and

immigrants. The companies that refuse to share power with those discriminated

against may be shooting themselves in the foot, compared to the companies who

choose and promote a more diversified workforce {Cyrus, p. 463). Another

argument raised against affirmative action is that individual white people,

often white males, have to pay for past discrimination and may not get the jobs

they deserve. It is true that specific white people may not get specific job

opportunities because of affirmative action policies and may suffer as a result.

This lack of opportunity is unfortunate; the structural factors which produce a

lack of decent jobs needs to be addressed. It must not be forgotten that

millions of specific people of color have also lost specific job opportunities

as a result of racial discrimination. To be concerned only with the white

applicants who don’t get the job, and not with the people of color who don’t, I

believe, is also showing racial preference. But how true is it that white male

candidates are being discriminated against or are losing out because of

affirmative action programs? If one looks at the composition of various

professions such as law, medicine, architecture, academics and journalism, or at

corporate management, or at higher-level government positions or if one looks

overall at the average income levels of white men one immediately notices that

people of color are still significantly underrepresented and underpaid in every

category. People of color don’t make up the proportions of these jobs even

remotely equal to their percentage of the population. They don’t earn wages

comparable to white men. White men are tremendously overrepresented in almost

any category of work that is highly rewarded except for professional athletics.

According to a 1995 government report, white males make up only 29 percent of

the workforce, but they hold 95 percent of senior management positions (Sklar,

Holly. Chaos or Community?:Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad

Economics.Boston. South End Press. 1995. p. 115). Until there is both equal

opportunity and fair distribution of education, training and advancement to all

Americans, affirmative action for people of color will be necessary to counter

the hundreds of years of affirmative action that has been directed at white

males. It cannot reasonably be argued that white males are discriminated against

as a group if they are overrepresented in most high status categories.

Affirmative action is not a cure all. It will not eliminate racial

discrimination, nor will it eliminate competition for scarce resources.

Affirmative action programs can only ensure that everyone has a fair chance at

what is available. I believe, the larger question should be to ask is why are

there not enough decent paying, challenging and safe jobs for everyone? Why are

there not enough seats in the universities for everyone who wants an education?

Expanding opportunity for people of color means expanding not only their access

to existing jobs, education and housing , but also removing the obstacles that

cause them from obtaining their goals. I believe, affirmative action is the best

shot they have in order to achieve their dreams.

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