Talking Points: The Truth about Affirmative Action

Talking Points: The Truth about Affirmative Action


Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 pp. 24-25

The recent round of struggle over the future of affirmative action can be traced to events in California in the early 1990s. An anthropologist in the California university system, Glynn Custred, had been trying to focus public attention on the issue out of a conviction that affirmative action would force California down the road of racial strife. Custred believed that since the press was ignoring affirmative action, his only hope for a public debate was through a citizen initiative (which ultimately became California’s Proposition 209). He gained an ally for his viewpoint in William Rusher, a journalist who wrote about Custred’s efforts in his syndicated column. This led to the issue being taken up by William F. Buckley, Pat Buchanan, and other conservative pundits. The turning point came in 1994 when leading Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and Pete Wilson embraced opposition to affirmative action, compelling Bill Clinton to order the first-ever presidential review of affirmative action.

Since then, Republicans have become the majority in both houses of Congress and have continued to oppose affirmative action. Their arguments have been ideological, and full of distortions, fears, mischaracterizations, and myths. They demonize affirmative action as a system of “quotas” and “preferences” designed to give unfair advantages to unqualified minorities and women, with full knowledge that casting it in this way is the best strategy to generate public opposition. These tactics have been effective not simply because the public gives into such appeals, but because affirmative action is wrongly cast as a set of policies which violate Americans’ sense of fairness.

Republican opposition is a calculated effort to reap political rewards rather than engage an honest debate about the future of affirmative action. Race is being used as a partisan wedge. Evidence of this strategy can be seen in a document entitled “Language of the Twentieth Century: Affirmative Action,” created by Luntz Research Companies and used by the Republican Party to coach members on how to couch debate on the issue. According to the document, “Affirmative action is one of the most ideologically polarizing issues on the political map. A good communication effort makes this issue a real winner for most officials.”

Supporters of affirmative action have been often slow to respond and less effective in shaping the current public debate than their opponents. For the future of affirmative action to be debated on its merits, the public needs facts. What follows is a review of the leading myths about affirmative action, accompanied by talking points which reflect the reality. The information was compiled by the American Association of University Women with supplemental information from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Bureau of National Affairs.

Myth: Affirmative action gives minorities and women preferences. Reality: Affirmative action does not require preferences. Nor do minorities and women expect or assume that they will be given preferential treatment. Race, ethnicity, and gender are only a few of the factors considered when reviewing qualifications of job applicants, those seeking admission to institutions of higher learning, and contractors seeking federal contracts.

Myth: Affirmative action means quotas. Reality: This is perhaps the most disingenuous approach used by critics of affirmative action, leading to the erroneous notion that employers are required to hire a fixed percentage of minorities and women regardless of qualifications. Quotas are specifically outlawed by OFCCP regulations implementing Executive Order 11246, which state that “Goals must not be inflexible quotas which must be met, but must be targets reasonably attainable.” But affirmative action provides opportunity for minorities and women. Federal contractors with fifty or more employees are required to establish flexible goals and timetables to close any gaps between the proportion of minorities and women in the labor pool and those in the workforce. Contractors are only required to make a “good faith” effort and face no legal sanctions for not reaching the goals and timetables. Race, ethnicity, and gender are only a few of the factors taken into consideration. An unqualified person cannot legally be chosen over a qualified one.

Myth: Affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination. Reality: “Reverse discrimination” is very rare. A 1995 analysis of 3,000 discrimination cases by professor Alfred Blumrosen of Rutgers University Law School for the U.S. Department of Labor revealed affirmative action does not lead to “reverse discrimination.” Blumrosen found that of the 3,000 discrimination cases filed, only 1 to 3 percent of them involved claims of reverse discrimination. Of these, most of the complaints were unfounded and involved white males who erroneously assumed that if a minority or a woman got the job, it was because of race or sex and not qualifications.

Myth: Unqualified people are hired and promoted for the sake of affirmative action. Reality: It is illegal for affirmative action plans to compromise valid job or educational qualifications. Such plans must be flexible, realistic, reviewable, and fair. The Supreme Court has found that there are at least two bases for voluntary affirmative action by employers under Title VII: (1) to remedy a clear and convincing history of past discrimination, and (2) to cure a manifest imbalance in the employer’s workforce. Affirmative action programs strive to hire the most qualified individuals, while achieving equality of opportunity.

Myth: Affirmative action is not needed anymore. Reality: Although there have been gains in employment, entrepreneurship, and higher education by minorities and women, these groups still lag far behind white males. This is especially true in the nation’s largest companies where African Americans hold .6 percent, Hispanics hold .4 percent, Asians hold .3 percent, and women hold 3-5 percent of senior management positions. In addition, minorities and women earn roughly 70 percent of what white males with equal qualifications in the same job earn. Minorities are less likely to go to college than whites, and although women make up nearly half of the student population at many institutions of higher education, they receive only 11 percent of the science and math degrees awarded and are less likely to earn advanced degrees than white males. Affirmative action is the only way to ensure equal opportunity for minorities and women.

Myth: Affirmative action guarantees success based on race, ethnicity, or gender. Reality: Affirmative action does not guarantee outcomes. It only ensures equality of opportunity for those who have been historically denied access to jobs and education because of the race, gender, or ethnicity. Beneficiaries of these policies must still perform at the same level expected of everyone else in society.

Myth: Affirmative action programs that aid the economically disadvantaged-this is needs-based programs-are enough to address discrimination. Reality: Discrimination is not limited to the economically disadvantaged population. Minorities and women also face discrimination as they climb the corporate ladder and are stalled by the “glass ceiling.” In 1995 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Glass Ceiling Report revealed that white males make up less than 45 percent of the workforce, but hold 95 percent of the senior management positions in Fortune 2000 companies. Needs-based affirmative action would not overcome the barriers that minorities and women face in the workplace, especially at higher levels.

Myth: Because we already have anti-discrimination laws like Title VII, we do not need affirmative action. Reality: Anti-discrimination laws are designed to address the problem after the fact through the courts. Affirmative action is designed to be corrective and proactive, helping to make amends for past discrimination and preventing it down the road. Affirmative action is a far less costly and less disruptive means of ending discrimination.

Myth: Underrepresentation of minorities and women in the corporate world (or other high-paying jobs) is not due to discrimination. Reality: There are other factors that account for the lack of minorities and women in the corporate world, but discrimination is the principal reason. Therefore, past and present discrimination must be dealt with. A study of the 1982 Stanford MBA graduating class found that in 1992, 16 percent of the men were CEOs compared to only 2 percent of the women. Twenty-three percent of the men became vice presidents, while only 10 percent of the women did. Barriers to employment and promotion still exist and affirmative action is the most effective means by which to overcome them.

Myth: Affirmative action does not have a place in government contracts. Reality: The government created federal procurement programs to counter the effects of discrimination that created barriers for minority- and female-owned businesses. Only qualified businesses can have contracts. Federal procurement programs are still needed because minorities and women receive only 8 percent of the $200 billion in government contracts. Without affirmative action, the share of contracts awarded to minorities and women would fall greatly.

Myth: The earnings of women are depressed because women work fewer hours per week and have more interruptions over their working lives than men and not because of discrimination. Reality: The wage disparity data most often cited comes from the Department of Labor and the Census Bureau and pertain to year-round, full-time, permanent workers. The data does not compare full-time male to part-time female workers, nor does it compare permanent workers to part-time or contingent workers.