Affirmative Action

According to Shirley J. Wilcher, the phrase "affirmative action" was used for the first time by President John F. Kennedy during 1961. It was use in his call for action towards greater equality in terms of federal contracting. The President instructed contractors to take "affirmative action" to ensure that applicants be treated equally regardless of race, creed or sex. During the 1960s and the 1970s this is a paradigm widely acclaimed for its attempt to redress injustice of the past. Indeed, at first glance affirmative action does appear to be a good way to achieve greater equality in a society known for its diversity. Nevertheless, as time progressed towards the end of the century, certain shortcomings became evident in attempts to implement affirmative action not only in the workplace, but also in learning institutions. The issue of "reverse racism" has for example become the center of argument against the continued use of affirmative action. This is especially so in cases where highly qualified "non-affirmative action" employees or students are rejected in favor of their less qualified "affirmative action" counterparts. The effect of the issue on politics and courts highlight not only its highly complex nature, but also its controversy.

Affirmative action was officially introduced as a policy by President Johnson during 1965 (Brunner). The reason for its implementation was the fact that civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees did little to alleviate ongoing discrimination within the United States. Johnson's assertions themselves emphasize the fact that there was public pressure to make constitutional guarantees more than mere words on paper; affirmative action was to place equality within society as a concrete reality.

In some ways this was achieved. Education and the workplace received particular attention in that affirmative action policies required active measures to include minorities in work and education opportunities. Opportunities that used to be the exclusive domain of white males became available for women, blacks and other minorities within the country. These include promotions, salary increases, school admissions, scholarships, etc. In terms of achieving greater equality in these domains, affirmative action therefore did achieve some of its aims (Brunner).

Problems however began to arise, as mentioned above, with the emergence of reverse racism. Some work and education institutions for example implemented affirmative action policies by means of quotas. A certain number of minority employees and/or students had to be included in order to ensure a balance of representation. The result in some cases was that highly qualified white persons were excluded from opportunities reserved for minorities. The quotas would then be filled by representatives of minority groups even if they were less qualified for the particular position than white applicants. This is often referred to as "reverse discrimination" or "reverse racism." Opponents of affirmative action argue that this is the very discrimination that equality policies were created to avoid. Minority persons were appointed on the basis of their minority status rather than their mental abilities. Conversely, white persons are discriminated against also on the basis of their skin color rather than anything else.

The complexity of the issue arises from the fact of past injustice. Obviously policies are necessary to ensure equality in the workplace, society and education. Proponents of affirmative action might argue for example that the centuries-long injustice of the past justifies any injustice now suffered by non-minority persons. The favoritism enjoyed by minority groups is seen in this way as balancing what occurred in the past.

The problem with such an argument is that it not only embitters a large sector of society, but also stigmatizes those supposedly being favored and "fairly" treated. Highly qualified white persons for example feel discriminated against and unfairly treated. This is especially the case with the youth, who has no concern with historical injustice, nor perpetrated it. The minority youth also live with a number of rights and policies that was never the case in the past. Affirmative action however fuels the flame of racial segregation by highlighting such issues of the past that no longer have a place in society. This is especially the case in terms of quotas, as mentioned above. Affirmative action policies, according to Brunner, was initially meant as a temporary measure to create a balance of equal rights in society. Racial quotas in places of work and education achieves the opposite.

In reaction to this, politicians such as White House Counsel C. Borden Gray recommended in 1991 that racial preferences and quotas in federal government hiring be terminated Andre, Velasquez & Mazur). This is, ironically, the very opposite of Kennedy's recommendation to implement affirmative action in the political arena.

Perhaps the most important and compelling case involving the affirmative action issue is the one of Allan Bakke, a white male who has been rejected by a medical school for two consecutive years (Brunner). The school has however accepted less qualified applicants representing minority groups. The school's separate admissions policies for white and minority groups, along with its reservation of 16 out of a 100 places for minority students is a typical case of preferential treatment with the use of quotas. The outcome of the case once again emphasizes the complexity of the issue: while the specific case was ruled in Bakke's favor, affirmative action as a general social, workplace and educational policy was upheld as viable and justified.

Another consideration relating to this issue is the workforce of the country in terms of not only fairness, but also of productivity. It is unfair to the general productivity of the country to not offer truly equal opportunities to its entire population not because of, but regardless of specific minority status. If persons of lower qualification or merit receive opportunities because of their minority status, this factor translates to the ultimate workforce and productivity of a country. This means that a person with less skill attains a position where a person with greater skill for the specific position would have performed better and produced more. This has implication for both the country's productivity and its economy. In this way the affirmative action issue has far more serious implications than merely discrimination, equality, or the lack of either.

At the end of the 1970's, after the Bakke case, the issue did indeed become contentious as companies and institutions aggressively promoted the affirmative action ideal. White males, on whom the doors of opportunity were increasingly shut in favor of minority quotas. This resulted in resentment and anger towards the American system, which was considered to always have promoted the ideals of hard work in order to succeed. According to opponents, affirmative action provided free rides to minority groups who "enjoyed" playing the role of victim in the workplace (Brunner).

The complexity of the issue increased and perpetuated tensions and court cases during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2003, another university was involved in a quota case. The Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan's right to use affirmative action policies in its recruitment of students specifically, and the same right for higher education institutions in general. Michigan uses a point system by which it awards additional points to minority applications. The Court justified its ruling by the assertion that minority status is just one of many factors considered by the University's point system, and that furthermore affirmative action policies encourages diversity (Brunner).

It has been mentioned above that affirmative action policies such as point and quota systems emphasize rather than redress issues of unfairness and racial discrimination. Awarding any favoritism to persons because of their skin color is discriminatory. This has negative effects on both the favored and the disfavored. Persons who are favored for their minority status could be made to feel that they have not achieved their respective positions for their merits or talents. They may as a result doubt their ability to perform well, and concomitantly in actual fact not perform well because of this feeling. This is reinforced by the resentment experienced from disfavored groups who feel that their rights have been violated.

If a country is to be truly "color blind" all attempts to distinguish between races should be eliminated. In institutions such as the workplace and education especially, equal opportunities should mean just that - equal without regard for skin color or minority status (Fullinwider). Only then will issues of discrimination be truly laid to rest. As long as aggressive affirmative action policies are upheld, discrimination and segregation will be emphasized and exacerbated.

I believe that affirmative action should be terminated altogether. During the 1960s and 1970s perhaps it could still be justified in terms of past wrongs. Young people growing up in today's world live in a much different society from the one of thirty years or even a decade ago. Racial and other minority discrimination has become much less emphasized. Slavery is a thing of the distant past, and women can choose to have a career, husband, children, or all three, as can men. The social and cultural divides are diminishing as we are learning about each other via…