Affirmative action is a fairly recent yet significant issue in America today. Affirmative action programs and policies are designed to provide access and equal opportunity to women and minorities in academics and labor. Part of what makes affirmative action a complex issue is a lack of consensus on what it actually is, what it is supposed to do, how it should be implemented, and how to measure its success or failure. There are many factors one must look at when evaluating the current affirmative action policies and when deciding which course of action to take. As your advisors on the issue of affirmative action in the U.S. we have collected information about this issue and presented it as thoroughly as possible. Subsequently, we consider both the arguments for and against affirmative actions policies and we then advise on the best direction to take with this important issue. 

The history of Affirmative Action began quite recently. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a huge transformation for the American society as it, “specifically prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities” (Infoplease). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was created solely to protect the rights of African Americans who under the “Jim Crow” laws were segregated from Whites in schools, in housing, and in the work force. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was later amended to protect the civil rights of all men and women.

1964 was not the first time, however, that affirmative action came up. President John F. Kennedy first introduced the term “affirmative action” when he issued the Executive Order 10925 on March 6, 1961 (Infoplease) which ensured that all applicants are “treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” (In Motion) and was originally intended to protect African Americans. Later, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From that point on, federal contractors were required to expand opportunities for minorities and women (In Motion). Some private, non-contract companies and unions voluntarily adopted affirmative action policies in spirit with the government’s new policies (Telerama).

            The first significant Supreme Court case was the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. Reverse discrimination became the issue, because the school had separate admission policies for minorities. The medical school reserved 16 out of 100 places for minority students (Infoplease). In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the policies set aside for minorities had violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, it also ruled that “race-conscious” policies that benefited minorities were allowed if race was not the only factor considered when accepting students (Telerama).

            While affirmative action policies are largely in the hands of the federal government, the Supreme Court are constantly continuing to shape them. On June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court defended the University of Michigan Law School’s policy, ruling that race can be one of the many factors when selecting students. However, the Supreme Court also ruled that University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions program, “which uses a point system that rates students and awards additional points to minorities, had to be modified” (Info please). Thus, affirmative action policies are sure to be hotly disputed when certain individuals feel that the policies put them at a disadvantage and the Supreme Court will continue to decide the outcomes.

Affirmative action is mainly significant in two spheres: Academics and Labor. Affirmative action in higher education seems to only matter in the highly selective institutions since most state and community colleges are open to all qualified students according to a study which has found that affirmative action practices show no affect in schools below the top quintile (Long 2004). It is important to note that the selection of unqualified candidates is not permitted under federal affirmative action guidelines and should not be equated with legal forms of affirmative action (Mississippi State University).

There are two main ways to institute affirmative action. The first is to have programs that have different test cut-offs for minorities and blacks. The second is less dependent on test scores but relies more on strong competition for qualified minority students by means of incentives. The implementation of Affirmative action has led to a rise of minority students in higher education. For example, in 1960, black enrollment was less than 2% of total enrollment in higher education; it rose to 4% in 1970, 8% in 1980, and in the 1990s was a little under 10% (Therstrom 1999). Similar gains have also been reported in Hispanic applicants (Strategy Unit 2006). A study of the affects of affirmative action has also shown that the probability of acceptance of black applicants has risen from 13% to 42% as a result of the policies (Bok and Bowen, 1998).

Looking at the performance statistics of minority students at undergraduate and professional school levels, we have studies that point out that minority students perform worse than their white male counterparts (Davidson 1997) However, it is worth noting that undergraduate black students perform better at selective colleges then similar blacks at non-selective colleges (Bok and Bowen, 1998). Therefore, it appears that affirmative action has had a positive affect on minority students. Many opponents argue that affirmative action polices will lead to reverse-discrimination toward white students.  According to Bok and Bowmen though, displacement of white applicants by minorities at colleges at even elite schools is not very large because Hispanics and Blacks still only account for 10-15% of all students at these schools (Bok and Bowmen 1998). Even with the use of affirmative action whites still outnumber Blacks and Hispanics in college graduation rates (US Bur. Census, 2004). There is also evidence of higher minority retention rates at schools that implement strong affirmative action forms compared to the weaker ones (Hallinan, 1998). 

            The Supreme Court in Bakke and Grutter concluded that states should have interest in racial diversity in institutions of higher education. There is little research that examines the effects of diversity in such institutions. Some studies suggest that diversity benefits students in their inter-group relations and the ability to understand others’ perspectives (Gurin 1999, Orfield &Whitla 2001). A study at the University of Michigan graduates found that students who had interaction with a diverse group of peers had a greater respect for other ethnic groups, were more likely to have racially or ethnically integrated lives five years after graduation, and more often reported that their undergraduate education had helped them prepare for their current job (Gurin 1999). Another study in which students were randomly assigned a white or minority roommate showed that those students with a roommate who is a minority had more contact and greater comfort with members of other races at the year’s end (Duncan 2003). These studies do show that there is some evidence that shows how diversity might have a positive effect on students’ attitudes but there is no rigorous evidence to fully support this conclusion (Holzer and Newmark 2000a).

                To see the effectiveness of affirmative action we can look at what happens once affirmative action is removed from higher education. California and Washington voters stopped using sex and race preference in state education and employment practices and as a result minority and black application rates fell sharply from previous years in the University of California and University of Washington (Wierzbicki, 2002 and Chambers, 2005). Also, the data on Texas, which approved similar legislation in its districts, clearly showed that lack of affirmative action dropped admittance of Black and Hispanic students from 11 to 8 percentage points respectively even though the school had an outreach program. In addition, at the University of Texas, Black and Hispanic applicants to the same school fell by one fifth and one seventh respectively (Tienda, 2003). This clearly shows that affirmative action polices are still needed to attract, and more importantly, to allow for equal admittance of minority students to selective colleges. 

            Critics of affirmative action argue that college admission should be primarily based on a student’s academic record. This, however, would lead to almost no diversity at top universities because White and Asian students would account for 96-97 percent of undergraduates (Jencks p7-9). Critics also say that the only way to create a color-blind society is to adopt color-blind policies but color-blind college admissions favor White students because of their earlier educational advantages (Mississippi State University). A second problem is that high schools across the nation vary greatly in the level of the education they provide. One national study showed that students receiving A’s in high-poverty schools scored comparably on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills as students receiving a C in low-poverty schools (Puma 1997). Without affirmative action the percentage of Black students at many selective schools would drop to only 2% of the student body (Bowen & Bok, 1998).

            One alternative to race based affirmative action suggested by Kahlenberg at The Century Foundation is a class based program where parents’ education, income, and occupation are used as socioeconomic determinants. Kahlenberg thinks that consideration should be given to net worth, family structure, school quality, and neighborhood quality. Bok and Bowmen found that 86 percent of black students at the selective colleges studied were from middle or high socioeconomic backgrounds (Bok and Bowmen, 1998). Although it is fairly common for the more well-off minorities to benefit from affirmative action, we must remember that the same goes for Whites. It is no secret that colleges prefer wealthier Whites to poorer Whites.

Opponents of affirmative action in the labor sectors state that affirmative action causes reverse-discrimination leading to fewer jobs for white males, that it leads to lower productivity due to hiring of less skilled workers, and lastly, that it just does not work. Affirmative action in the labor sector does lead to a redistribution of jobs away from white males towards females and minorities though the shifts are not large, mainly because the affirmative action sectors are small (Holzer & Neumark, 2000). However, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, there are 1.3 million unemployed Black civilians and 112 million employed White civilians (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Thus, even if every unemployed Black worker in the U.S. were to displace a White worker, only 1% of whites would be affected (Mississippi State University).

Reverse discrimination does not hold much clout since white males have the ability to move into employment in areas that do not use affirmative action more easily than minorities (Holzer & Neumark, 2005). A study also done by Holzer and Nuemark shows a clear correlation between affirmative action polices and redistribution of jobs in which employment of white males was about 18% lower in jobs which used affirmative action compared to those that did not (Holzer 1996). Though there are many studies that were clear to point out that “this [did] not necessarily imply that employment of white males overall is reduced by Affirmative Action, but only that it [was] redistributed to the non-Affirmative Action sector (Holzer & Neumark 2005)”. Even though affirmative action redistributes jobs away from the white male majority the shifts are relatively small.

            In regards to the claim that affirmative action policies lead to lower efficiency and productivity because of the hiring of unqualified workers, Holzer and Neumark found that performance of white females was comparable with that of white males. However, while comparing minorities, they did find weaker educational credentials and as a result some evidence showing weaker performance in the workforce (Holzer and Neumark 1999). Productivity though was not lost in these companies because companies had to use better recruitment techniques such as better screening of applicants, a larger applicant pool, and provide more on-the-job training for their hired employees (Silva and Jacob,1993; Campbell 1996). Other studies in different employment sectors, such as law enforcement and medical services, where on the job performance can be much easily measured, the outcomes were similar to what has been stated above. For example, precincts which hired women and minority officers did not show a worsening crime rate (Lovrich and Steel, 1983). Studies of minority physicians find that there is no correlation to weaker performance compared to their white counterparts, after the doctor has been certified (Cantor 1996; Davidson and Lewis 1997). Based on these studies it seems that there is no decline in productivity when hiring women and only a minor loss, if any at all, in minority workers.

            Lastly critics of affirmative action do not believe that affirmative action is working. This is a much harder area to judge since these polices have only been a round for the last forty years. However a study done by Leanord 1990 found that employment of black males in federal contractor firms grew about 5 percent faster during 1974-1980 than did white male employment. This time period showed rigorous enforcement of AA policies for the first time since there enactment. Though since that period of time there has not been an improvement in employment rate of black workers to white (Bureau of Labor Statistics). There have also been a number of well-publicized cases in which large companies increased minority employment as a result of adopting affirmative action policies (Mississippi State University). Secondly, the wage difference between males and females has been stable at around 60% from the mid 1970s to the 1980s, while in the early 1990s after adjustment for education, experience, and other factors the adjusted ratio had risen to about 85% (Blau, 1992). While the ratio of an average black workers' earnings compared to that of an average white workers' earnings has increased significantly in the 1940s, and between 1960 to mid 1970s because of the rigorous enforcement, it has declined somewhat since the late 1970s to the early 1990s (Donohue 1991, and Bound 1989). Darity calls this trend simply as “blatant” wage discrimination (Darity, 1998). It is hard to determine the exact effects of affirmative action in the labor market but the data does point out that there has been significant improvement in both the areas of employment and wages for minorities and women.

            Moral claims by opponents of affirmative action include that affirmative action policies lower standards of accountability needed to push students or employees to perform better, that it is condescending to minorities to say they need affirmative action to succeed, that it causes “reverse discrimination,” and that it demeans true minority achievement (BalancedPolitics). We have not found any conclusive data that backs any of these claims. In regards to the claim about a color-blind society, color-blind seniority systems tend to protect White workers against job layoffs, because senior employees are usually White (Ezorsky, 1991). As for reverse discrimination, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, there are 1.3 million unemployed Black civilians and 112 million employed White civilians (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Thus, even if every unemployed Black worker in the U.S. were to displace a White worker, only 1% of whites would be affected (Mississippi State University).

            The vast majority of people favor affirmative action programs. A Time/CNN poll found that 80% of the public felt that affirmative action programs for minorities and women should be continued at some level (Roper Center for Public Opinion, 1995). The public does for the most part oppose quotas, set-asides, and reverse discrimination (Mississippi State University). These racial preferences that violate notions of procedural justice are not part of affirmative action policies (Mississippi State University).

            There are many countries that employ affirmative action policies, including China, Nigeria, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India (Sowell, 2003). India has had such rules longer than any other country, going all the way back to British Rule (Blank, 1995).

In India, affirmative action is considered positive discrimination. The program was written into the Indian constitution in 1947 in an effort to give more benefits to the ‘untouchable’ class, now called the Dalits (Sterba, 2004). Many of the spaces, both in the university system and job market, originally reserved for the Dalits remain unfilled, while the benefits are being used disproportionately by smaller subgroups who have either more money, better education, or some other advantage that enables them to make use of the preferential access to higher education and higher level jobs (Sterba, 2004). Consequently, the most deprived group ends up not being able to take advantage of the ‘positive discrimination’ while the majority of the reserved space goes to those who deserve it least (Seligman, 2003).

            We look at Malaysia because a very different problem arose. There are three major ethnic groups in Malaysia: the Chinese, Indians, and Malays. Despite holding a great majority in the country, the Malays are not as well educated and do not make as much money as the ethnic Chinese. In an effort to keep the majority protected, the Malay government set out to achieve a racial balance in employment, giving formal preference to the Malays (Hedrick-Wong, 2005). This however, did not completely solve the problem, as the Chinese and Indians were still better educated and better suited for the workplace. The Malays then changed the university’s admissions processes to include more Malays and ordered that the Malay language be the only language that was taught in the school system (Hedrick-Wong. 2005). The only effect the preferential policies lead to was an increase in the polarization between the two ethnic groups. Nevertheless, we cannot use these examples as a viable reflection to gauge the success of affirmative action in the U.S. due to the fact that neither country is under similar circumstances (India uses affirmative action based on a “caste” system while Malaysia uses it to help a majority).

            Taking our findings into account, we strongly advise you to keep, if not add to, the affirmative action policies in place. We do suggest that you perhaps put a stronger emphasis on policies that focus on socio-economic background and apply it to both minorities and Whites alike. According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, the majority of people in all segments of the population agree with establishing training courses or policies which raise people’s awareness about fairness in hiring women as well as minorities (USATODAY.com). We therefore recommend instituting these types of courses as much as possible as other training courses that educate the public about the importance and benefits of diversity. 


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