A Modest Remedy
Reviewed by Ellen Spears
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 27-29
In Defense of Affirmative Action, by Barbara R. Bergmann (New Republic/Basic Books, 1996, 213 pages).
“Before we gave up on integration, we should have tried it,” wrote Jack E. White in “Why We Need to Raise Hell,” part of Time’s April 29 cover story on the death of school integration. The same must be said about affirmative action–we should have tried it.
In her straightforward book, In Defense of Affirmative Action, American University economist Barbara Bergmann makes the case for this modest remedy to centuries of white supremacy in the U.S., documenting the nation’s reluctant use of affirmative action and the unlikelihood of achieving fairness without it.
While surveys indicate that most white Americans
see racial discrimination against black Americans today as comparatively minimal, an artifact of the past, Bergmann provides evidence that workplace “segregation by race and sex continues to be the rule rather than the exception.” For example, in a 1989 survey of workers in North Carolina, researchers found 84.7 percent of managers and 86.5 percent of supervisors work only with people of their own sex; 91.5 percent of managers and 86.4 percent of supervisors work only with their own race.
In the years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, although implementation of affirmative action programs was modest and halting, some progress towards equity was recorded. Black men’s wages moved from 69 percent of white men’s wages in 1967, to 79 percent in 1976, but have since relatively declined. Though the inflation- corrected wages of white men have been sliding since the mid-1970s, white men retain the superior position. Wages of black women have improved from 1967 to the present, but have not kept pace with white women. In 1995 white women’s wages were 73 percent and black women’s wages were 63 percent of white men’s wages. Even when statistically adjusted for nondiscriminatory factors, the gap remains.
Carefully argued, backed up by useful data, and enriched by her own research, the resource Bergmann offers adds to the arsenal of any defender of affirmative action. The book charts the sorry performance of selected large U.S. corporations in hiring women and African Americans. Bergmann also takes to task the poor oversight record of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), where a staff of 918 supervises nondiscrimination in 150,000 workplaces with federal contracts which employ one-fourth of the U.S. workforce. The OFCCP wields more power than the primary other government agency charged with examining equal opportunity, the EEOC, which is limited to responding to complaints, only a tiny portion of which are brought to trial each year. Yet, the OFCCP enforcement effort has been understaffed, is poorly managed, lacks vigor, and has few effective ways of encouraging compliance, writes Bergmann. The list of forty-one firms barred from receiving federal contracts since 1972 includes only four major companies–Prudential Insurance, Firestone, Uniroyal, and Timkin Roller Bearing. All four were debarred during the Carter administration, and none longer than three months. And, debarment virtually ceased during the Reagan-Bush years, she points out.
Despite the failure to seriously implement remedial measures and a twenty-year campaign to malign affirmative action by tagging it to quotas and preferences, she finds some good news. In her own research reported in the book, Bergmann finds that only 11 percent of those responding to a scenario about race segregation want no remedy to be drawn. Remedial actions that receive broad support include exhortations to personnel managers to consider blacks (89 percent support) and women (84 percent support) and recruit more black applicants (69 percent agree) and women applicants (52 percent agree). But when asked if personnel managers ought to “try to fill at least 10 percent of the vacancies with women and blacks who have been judged competent,” the support drops to 34 percent of respondents for women applicants and 32 percent for black applicants. Of course, majority support was not the criterion when affirmative action measures were first mandated; only acquiescence was required.
Bergmann picks apart the whole range of anti-affirmative action arguments. She attempts to dismantle the contentions of those who never supported affirmative action and conservative black spokespeople, a la Clarence Thomas, who claim that affirmative action should be discontinued as demeaning to its intended beneficiaries. In her research among black students, “By a majority of 64 percent to 12 percent, the students thought that affirmative action did more good than harm; 24 percent said they believed it made no difference. However, 82 percent thought that its abolition would make it harder for African Americans to get jobs.”
In addition, she argues, precious few alternatives have been offered to affirmative action–and each has limitations: help to the disadvantaged, enforcing the laws against discrimination, education and training, testing, and prayer. Bergmann tackles head-on the now fashionable argument that class-based programs are a fairer substitute for race- or gender-based programs.
While polling suggests the class-based remedies are more palatable, especially to white Americans, the same forces that oppose affirmative action programs are out gunning for the class-based remedies as well. A Congress that has a vindictive approach to aid to families, is hostile to financial aid to schools and students, would like to reduce medicaid and social security, and has only grudgingly passed a meager election-year increase in the mini-
mum wage, can hardly be counted on to vigorously pursue aid to the disadvantaged, or other meaningful alternatives. Besides, as Bergmann and others have pointed out, though such programs are very much needed to cure poverty, they will not, by themselves, end discrimination. That takes a targeted remedy.
Affirmative action is not among the top ten issues that concern U.S. voters, but as it provides a sharp divide between pivotal Democratic and Republican voters, there is every likelihood that it will be used as a wedge in the 1996 elections. Polls suggest that only a minority want to outlaw it. The Feminist Majority Foundation asked voters in 1995 about the California “Civil Rights” Initiative which will be on the November ballot and reads: “The state will not use race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State’s system of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” The results showed 82 percent in support of the deceptive language, which would end affirmative action in that state. Yet, when asked if they wanted to abolish affirmative action, only 29 percent agreed.
In closing, Bergmann comes back to an additional bit of hope that we have to build on: “a majority of Americans do want to live in a country that is fair.”
Bergmann has not limited her advocacy to the book. She is touring the country debating Terry Eastland, author of Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice. Anyone who cares about ending racial inequity ought to have Bergmann’s facts and arguments at the ready–and join her in the debate.
Ellen Spears is managing editor of Southern Changes. She is also working on a research project at the Southern Regional Council on attitudes toward remedies to racial inequity.