Affirmative Action's Long Record

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Affirmative Action's Long Record

Affirmative Action Special Report

Newspaper article

By: Mann, Judy

Date: November 1, 1995

Source: Mann, Judy. "Affirmative Action's Long Record: Affirmative Action Special Report." Washington Post. (November 1, 1995): F12.

About the Author: Judy Mann was a journalist and writer who worked nearly thirty years for the Washington Post. She began her career at the newspaper as a city reporter, was quickly promoted to day city editor, and then moved to a slot as a regular columnist. She was particularly well known for her impassioned pieces about the gender gap in employment and education, the women's movement and its politics, issues concerning children, and the concerns of women. She was an outspoken and liberal feminist who won numerous awards for her written work. Ms. Mann died of breast cancer on July 8, 2005, at age 61.


The phrase "affirmative action" was first coined by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in a 1965 speech at Howard University. The country was in a period of social upheaval, sparked in large part by the growing civil rights movement. African-Americans were strongly and vocally seeking equality in a nation in which institutionalized racism and racial oppression had been the norm. Affirmative action was initially a means of making positive changes for African-Americans, but the second wave of the women's movement—following on the heels of the growing civil rights movement—brought the concerns of women as an oppressed group to the forefront of public consciousness as well.

Although the term affirmative action had been in existence for about a decade as a way to redress longstanding inequities in the labor, housing, and educational realms (among others), it was given some measure of political power in 1972, when the Secretary of Labor drafted Revised Order Number 4, a document that created a systematic means of enforcing Executive Order Number 4, written in 1970, which prohibited discrimination by any government contractor. The range of contractors is quite broad, encompassing everything from airlines to health care facilities to factories to financial institutions.

At first, the concept of affirmative action was poorly understood, and there was much debate as to whether it mandated racial, ethnic, and cultural quotas for hiring, housing, academic admissions, and the like. Ultimately it was adopted to shift the balance toward neutrality in hiring practices, admissions standards, and housing policies, to name just a few. Historically, white males had been at the forefront of each of those areas, and affirmative action was meant to be a positive means of ensuring more adequate representation of statistically underrepresented groups, such as racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender minorities. The underrepresentation was believed to be due primarily to institutionalized discriminatory policies or politics resulting in lack of access for advancement or equality.

In addition to providing minority or underrepresented groups access to economic, demographic, and political equality, affirmative action was also viewed as a means of re-shaping the appearance of the work-force, academic institutions, and the housing market to reflect the realities of the American population percentages more accurately.


I heard an interesting argument against affirmative action the other day. Put briefly, it boiled down to this: Affirmative action isn't necessary anymore, and besides, it hasn't worked well enough to justify the rancor it is generating.

Overwhelmingly, when people talk about affirmative action, they discuss it in terms of race. But some form of affirmative action has helped every group that has been marginalized since Europeans settled this continent, slaughtered Native Americans and sanctified the rule of white men.

After almost 20 years of litigation, the courts have established a workable framework for affirmative action in which quotas are not permitted but goals and timetables are, people cannot be displaced from jobs, unqualified people cannot be given preferential treatment and any white man who feels he is the victim of discrimination can sue.

The purpose of affirmative action is to redress past and present discrimination and to promote equal opportunities for women, minorities, and people with disabilities. The idea is to create a climate in which merit will prevail. Thus, affirmative action in employment has meant that qualified women are sought and recruited so that they will be in the mix when hiring and promotional decisions are made.

What's been accomplished, and what has not? The elimination of many sex-based barriers in education is one of affirmative action's best success stories. Women now receive about half of all bachelor's and master's degrees. But they receive only a third of the doctorate and "first professional" (medical, law, theology) degrees and continue to lag in math, engineering and the physical sciences. In 1992, for example, women received 15.4 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and 9.6 percent of doctorate degrees in engineering.

Women make up nearly half the work force today, but they continue to be clustered in lower-paying jobs that have traditionally been held by women. In 1991, one in four women who worked was in administration support jobs. Women make up 99.3 percent of dental hygienists but only 10.5 percent of dentists.

The glass ceiling—that invisible barrier that keeps women from breaking through to the top—is everywhere. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission's report issued in March found that 95 to 97 percent of the senior managers in Fortune 1,000 industrial companies and Fortune 500 companies are men. Women are 48 percent of all journalists, but they hold only 6 percent of the top jobs. They are 23 percent of the lawyers but only 11 percent of law firm partners.

Affirmative action has revolutionized higher education, the best predictor of economic success. A study of the Federal Contract Compliance program, which requires larger federal contractors to make a good-faith effort to meet goals and timetables for hiring and promoting minorities and women, found that female employment rose 15.2 percent at those companies and only 2.2 percent elsewhere. Those women were paid better than women at other companies.

In 1983, women made up 9.4 percent of the nation's police force. A decade later, that number rose to 16 percent. Having more women on the force hasn't benefited just women; it has made police more responsive to domestic abuse, according to studies.

Affirmative action has had a major effect on the growth of women-owned businesses, which have increased by more than 57 percent since 1982, providing jobs for white men as well as for women and minorities.

The greatest myth about affirmative action is that it provides preferential treatment to disadvantaged groups. In fact, it is a remedy for the preferential treatment white men have traditionally received and continue to enjoy. In 1993, women made, on average, only 71.5 cents for every dollar made by men. One study found that once adjustments were made for education, experience and other factors, the wage gap was approximately 85 percent. Better, certainly, than the 60 percent gap we saw through the mid–1970s, but nowhere near equal. The gap has closed partly because of a decline in the earnings of less-skilled white men, a factor that is surely contributing to the backlash against affirmative action.

But let us get one thing straight: One group—white men—still is getting the best jobs and the highest pay even though it represents less than half the work force. As long as that's the case, we will need affirmative action to ensure that all of us enjoy a fair chance to achieve success.

White men may be feeling rancor these days, and I guess the best thing to say to them is: "Welcome to the club." Women and minorities have been shut out of jobs and paid less for as long as they can remember: They have been feeling rancor for a very long time.


From a conceptual standpoint, affirmative action was designed to level the sociodemographic and economic playing fields by giving people who had historically been denied such educational, occupational, and housing opportunities, for example, based either on perceptions of who they are and what their potential inherent limitations were believed to be (typically based on urban mythology rather than on actual data), the means with which to acquire the tools and skills necessary for success in any given arena, and to dramatically increase the odds of a positive outcome. Simply putting a person who is unskilled, poorly educated, or unprepared into a novel setting or situation without supports and safety nets is more than likely going to result in failure.

Prior to the inception of affirmative action programs and philosophies, employment decisions, post-secondary institution admissions, and home mortgage applications were, in theory, decided based on a concept referred to as "meritocracy"—the practice of making a decision based solely on merit, rather than on political connections, racial, ethnic or cultural affiliations, or family status. When its tenets are adhered to strictly, meritocracy is thought to afford truly equal opportunity or, at least, to base choices strictly on merit (hence the term). However, as originally conceptualized, meritocracy was only deemed appropriate for white males, typically those with at least middle class means—harkening back to the principles of aristocracy.

Although affirmative action was spoken about by Lyndon Johnson in the middle of the 1960s, it was President Richard Nixon's administration that passed legislation requiring all federal contractors and labor union officials to adopt its principles. The practice quickly spread to college campuses, which had already experienced a watershed of protests against discriminatory admissions practices, which were alleged to be excessively favorable to white middle class males and actively biased against the admission of women and members of racial, ethnic, and cultural minority groups, particularly African-Americans.

At its most fundamental level, affirmative action was intended as a means of making restitution and beginning the process of redressing some of the wrongs and active discriminatory practices historically leveled against minority groups. In practice, it was expected that some degree of extra consideration would be given to minority group members and women in hiring and academic admissions decisions, mortgage lending processes and fair housing availability, and competitive access for successful negotiation of the government contracting process. Affirmative action practices were not meant to give any group special status, to impose quotas in any area, or to select unqualified or inappropriate applicants simply because they are members of a statistically underrepresented minority group. They are not meant to engender reverse discrimination.

As specifically regards women in higher education, a program called Title IX, which was packaged with 1972's Educational Amendments, mandated that academic institutions that received federal funding had to recruit females to submit applications for admission. Affirmative action was reflected in hiring practices through active efforts to place job postings in places likely to be read by women and minority applicants; another was to institute on the job training programs designed to foster occupational advancement.

A central goal of all successful affirmative action programs, no matter what the area of original focus, is to achieve a stable subpopulation, whether of students, contractors, homeowners, or employees, that accurately reflects the diversity of the population at large in terms of gender, race, ethnic and cultural affiliations, and disability status.



Beckwith, Francis, and Todd E. Jones. Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Reverse Discrimination. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Bergmann, Barbara R. In Defense of Affirmative Action. New York, New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Cahn, Steven M., ed. Affirmative Action and the University: A Philosophical Inquiry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Cokorinos, Lee. The Assault on Diversity: An Organized Challenge to Racial and Gender Justice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Curry, George E., ed. The Affirmative Action Debate. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1996.

Guinier, Lani, and Susan Sturm. Who's Qualified? Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2001.

Rai, Kul B., and John Critzer. Affirmative Action and the University: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Higher Education Employment. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.


Beauchamp, Tom. "In Defense of Affirmative Action."Journal of Ethics. 2 (1998): 143–158.

Boylan, Michael. "Affirmative Action: Strategies for the Future." Journal of Social Philosophy. 33 (Spring 2002): 117–130.

Web sites

National Organization for Women. "Talking About Affirmative Action." <> (accessed May 20, 2006).