Affirmative Action

July 28, 2011

Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fight for equality and against discriminatory practice has continued. Although the Act is the nation’s strongest civil rights law, minority groups still lack basic equal opportunities. Affirmative action is a proactive policy used to provide equal opportunities for groups such as women, blacks, and other disadvantaged social and ethnic groups. Before the adoption of affirmative action, women and minorities were not being hired for jobs and were being denied admission into higher educational programs because of their race or gender. Affirmative action is an essential tool in correcting the widespread and wrongful discriminatory practices of this past century, which have kept minorities and women from pursuing higher education and employment opportunities. specifically, affirmative action requires organizations to establish programs that ensure equal access be given to disadvantaged social and ethnic groups.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Executive Order 10925 charged the EEOC to use “affirmative action” to ensure that employment practices did not discriminate. This was followed by Executive Order 11246, which was issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, requiring government contractors to use “affirmative action” in their employment practices in order to increase equality for minorities. Two years later, the executive order was expanded to include women.

Not only was the support of President Johnson essential in ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was also the key figure in the advancement of affirmative action. The strong support from President Johnson eventually led to the adoption of a governmental requirement that all federal programs provide equal opportunity and treatment for minorities. In one speech, President Johnson championed affirmative action by stating, “We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result’ ( Timeline of Affirmative Action Milestones, Brunner).

Although affirmative action had never been embraced with open arms, it was not until 1978 that it was first challenged in federal court. Alan Bakke, a white student, claimed that the University of California Davis Medical School’s affirmative action program discriminated against him because it used a quota system reserving 16 seats for minority students. Consequently, minority students with lower grade and standardized test scores than Bakke were admitted, while his application was denied for two consecutive years. Even though the Supreme Court ruled that the use of quotas was unlawful, it did rule that it was lawful for the school to use race as a factor in the admission process.

The three branches of government have all taken differing views as to the future of affirmative action. For instance, in 1989, the Reagan administration pushed for the Supreme Court to declare affirmative action unlawful. While the Court did not abolish affirmative action outright, it did substantially limit the scope and use of the policy. Most of these rulings were handed down within a 3-month period shortly after Justice Rehnquist became the Chief Justice. The Democrats who were then in control of the Congress responded by attempting to pass legislation in 1990 that would overturn the Court’s decisions, but were unsuccessful in overriding President Bush’s veto. In 1991, a compromise between the Democrats and the Bush administration was reached which prohibited the use of quotas, and allowed legislation to pass that would overturn the Court’s decisions which limited affirmative action. However, during the Clinton administration, a 3-year moratorium on new affirmative action programs was imposed, coupled with a promise not to end affirmative action.

While the federal government grappled with the future of affirmative action, more than a few state governments have pressed hard to eliminate it altogether. In 1997, California passed Proposition 209, which abolished the use of affirmative action throughout the state. Washington and Florida soon followed suit; Washington abolished affirmative action in 1998 with Initiative 200, and in 2000, Florida abolished the use of affirmative action in education. More recently, two cases arising out of the admission policy of the University of Michigan may determine the future of affirmative action. In Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the plaintiffs challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court the use of race as a factor in the school’s admission process. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the United States Supreme Court held that the University of Michigan’s consideration of race as a factor in law school admission was not unconstitutional. However, the awarding of points based on minority status alone in the consideration of undergraduate admissions was found unconstitutional in Gratz v. Bollinger.

These two cases reflect very different schools of thought on affirmative action. Proponents of its continued use argue that affirmative action is responsible for providing minorities with equal opportunity and access. Equal opportunity and access are critical because of the under-representation of minorities and women in higher education, in higher paying employment, and in professional positions. Furthermore, proponents argue that if factors such as athletics, legacies, and other relationships to benefactors are all given special consideration in admission, then a student’s diverse background should be taken into account as well. Opponents of affirmative action argue that if it is wrong to discriminate based on race and gender, then it is equally wrong to use such factors to help an applicant in the selection process because it leads to reverse discrimination against whites. This is because affirmative action programs use preferential treatment and quota systems to give undeserving applicants a free ride at the expense of a better qualified white student. Opponents emphasize that this goes against the grain of the American value of self-reliance.

For women, affirmative action has meant that they now enjoy nearly the same opportunities as men in employment, education, and business opportunities. In 1987, the Supreme Court held that it was lawful for an employer to use affirmative action to increase the ratio of female employees. Although affirmative action has helped women make progress, women still have not realized the promise of “equality as a result” in President Johnson’s speech. Women do not receive equal treatment and parity in the workforce. When compared to men, women earn only 74 cents per dollar; African American and Hispanic women earn even less at 63 and 57 cents, respectively. Furthermore, there is still a gap in professional education programs because only 25% of doctors and lawyers in the country are women, and only 8.4% of engineers are women. Affirmative action programs for women are still widely supported abroad. In 1997, the European Court of Justice held that affirmative action for women is lawful in the private sector and has become the legal precedent for all European Union members.

Affirmative action has been instrumental in providing equal access and opportunities for minorities and women. Although several states have abolished affirmative action, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to immediately follow suit. Now, the future of affirmative action is uncertain. The July ruling expected by the Court will either support its continued existence or abolish it altogether. Whether or not affirmative action has a future in the United States, history has shown the demonstrably positive impact it has had on minorities and women. Today, both groups enjoy opportunities in employment and education that would not have been possible otherwise.

SEE ALSO: Discrimination Suggested

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