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Equality Beyond Measure: Reconsidering the Legacy of Affirmative Action

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In a nation whose Declaration of Independence boldly asserts each and every citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it should come as no surprise that for many the promotion of equal rights is a crusade without parallel. Very often, this entails going above and beyond securing basic constitutional liberties. Some venture into the realm of governmentally mandated social justice schemes, which invariably boils down to the perceived act of righting past wrongs; not against specific individuals, but historically oppressed groups. These can theoretically be ethnic, gender based, racial, religious, or purely social in nature. In any case, the prospect of rectifying the trials of yesteryear within the confines of the present’s tribulations holds undeniable appeal.

Said appeal was now famously utilized by the federal government to quash discriminatory employee hiring practices during the early-to-mid 1960s. Originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy, the wide reaching program was titled affirmative action. It gained a spectacular amount of steam during his time in office, and that of his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, because of the country’s plunge into the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to affirmative action’s creation, women and racial minorities were frequently, or as a matter of general policy, denied jobs of an equal basis to their predominately European American male counterparts. Arguing on behalf of the African American community, Martin Luther King, Jr. pointedly stated that “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

His request was honored by Johnson in 1965, when an executive order was passed that required minorities to be given priority in the federal government’s hiring process. Public sector agencies of every variety and many privately owned institutions quickly followed. Immense controversy was not far behind and continues to this very day. From prominent liberal arts colleges to small town police departments, gender and racial quotas became standard fare. This waned considerably during the 1990s, however, when it was found that affirmative action perpetuated reverse discrimination. Though it still exists, to be sure, many municipal, state, and federal organizations have extensively revised their respective human resources policies.

It is undeniable that a careful line must be walked to ensure that the pre-Civil Rights Era’s injustices are not repeated against an entirely different demographic. While the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action’s legality in 2003, statewide voter referendums before and after this have repealed it on differing levels. National opinion is decidedly split, with a 2005 Gallup poll showing that fifty percent of the public supports employers hiring on a gender and racial criteria, while forty-two percent hold a view to the contrary. During the same year, another poll was conducted which had sixty-one percent of its male participants claiming that females enjoyed equal work opportunities. Less than half of females, totaling at forty-five percent, were in agreement with this opinion.

I believe that one should be judged solely by his or her own merits for any desired occupation. Whether this be neurosurgeon or night janitor, the measure of individual skill and content of personal character should be held above all else. To merely hypothesize that an untold number have not had terrible prejudices brought against them on gender or racial terms is outwardly bizarre, let alone disgustingly insensitive. However, the problems of the past cannot be rectified in modern times. One can do everything possible to prevent them from recurring, but institutionalizing yet another form of discrimination is most definitely not the answer.

Indeed, this sort of tripe actually reinforces stereotypes; I cannot count the number of times I have heard a successful woman or racial minority be utterly denigrated as nothing more than an affirmative action hire. Such a mentality can only lose prevalence once job applicants are treated in a broadly similar fashion. This might not be the most popular or politically correct course of action, but sometimes tough decisions must be made for the long term. Abolishing legislated bigotry in perhaps the most recent of its incarnations would seem to be a solid step in the direction of a truly egalitarian society.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    The military denies having used AA when it came to promotion (or at least during my career), but what AA did was to elevate minorities (not just black) to higher positions of authority. While this would have been in your view unfair to those who might have been better qualified, there was a very real benefit – not to the one who was elevated to the senior position, but to the minorities among the junior personnel who could see with their own eyes that hey, they could have successful careers, too.

    It is true that many of those junior personnel would have said to themselves that AA was a significant factor in that senior person’s advancement…but at least as many (and probably more) would have been less aware of AA and would have accepted that senior person’s advancement for what it seemed.

    And that was the real secret to the success of AA – the convincing of the younger generation that yes, they could be successful too. This was not just important, but essential, crucial to the overall success of the civil rights movement. Why? Beat a people down for hundreds of years, tell them that they’re second-class citizens (or worse) for untold generations, and when you suddenly set them free and make them equal (at least in the eyes of the law)…and they’ll suffer the same kind of trauma that someone who’s been wrongfully imprisoned all his life goes through once he’s freed and told he was always innocent. When this is applied to an entire people, an entire subset consisting of millions within a population, this trauma doesn’t go away within a decade or even a couple of generations.

    The need for AA now is less than before – Obama’s proof of that. But it is still necessary when it comes to education, for the sections of society who are least educated should receive priority when it comes to educational opportunity. People can decry AA all they want, but AA was a wonderful and richly deserved program – and I saw first hand the reasons behind its success.

  • Cannonshop

    #2 Glenn, What do you think happens to a minority who gets into, say, a Science programme at MIT, using AA to lower the entrance requirements? Do you think he’s going to graduate with an Engineering or Science degree, or do you think he’ll end up dropping out because he was admitted when he wasn’t prepared?

    I know what happens to WHITE kids who get into course work they’re not prepared for-they drop out. The difference is, we can afford failed white kids-aka white trash, they’re not missed, nobody cares, certainly nobody had hopes on these douchebags.

    I can’t say I believe the same is true for Minority kids who get into the programme without the ability to complete-THEIR failure has impacts beyond their own lives.

    Applying AA to things like Tuition and books, like any OTHER scholarship system, helps minorities-but that’s not how AA works, which makes failures of what should have been successes.

    A Degreed Engineer from a State school is going to go further in life, than a dropout from MIT or Harvard.

    I can only say I have a certain agreement with a KIND of Affirmative Action-just not YOUR kind. I want TALENT going through the colleges, regardless of gender or race, and I think THAT is worth putting some state or federal money into it-so long as said talent is, in fact, successful-which is not what you get when you lower entrance standards or grade point demands, which is how AA works in Education.

    If we are to do a thing, we should do what will work, what will help the community as a whole, not what reinforces negative stereotypes and generates failures.

  • Igor

    Joseph, you really are a dreamer!

    “I believe that one should be judged solely by his or her own merits for any desired occupation.”

    Most top executives in corporations, and even other disciplines like education, ascend to positions of power by intrigue, plotting, aggressiveness, etc. Not much has changed since the Borgias.

    Sorry.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cannonshop –

    Take two schools in a city – one in a mostly-white neighborhood, the other in a mostly-black neighborhood. You know as well as I do which one’s almost certainly more affluent. More importantly, you know as well as I do which body of students will have significantly better grades.

    You also know as well as I do that it’s not the kids’ fault – they didn’t ask to go to a school district that (due to the much lower property-tax support) is underfunded and can’t support the same kind of faculty that the other, more affluent district does. And it’s the education of the kids that suffers.

    So once they graduate high school, should these kids who through no fault of their own got stuck in a crappy school district not deserve a break? Or are they somehow less intelligent than the kids from the more affluent section of town?

    Cannonshop, your examples of MIT and Harvard are strawmen, very small exceptions to the rule. But I’ll address the point. If universities took only those who got really good grades and scored high on the SAT, then there’d be very little opportunity at all for those who through no fault of their own were stuck in low-quality, underfunded school districts. You know as well as I do the value of a college education – and a college graduate from a not-so-successful part of town has a MUCH greater positive impact upon his family and friends than does a college graduate from the affluent suburbs.

    Again, Cannonshop, the real benefit of AA is NOT for the person who got the benefit, but on those underprivileged who look at him or her and say to themselves, “hey, he made it – I can make it too!”

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    Affirmative action is an appealing notion in principle, and did serve to redress a balance back in the Johnson era, but it’s several decades past its sell-by date.

    The trick now is to design selection processes (for schools, jobs etc) that eliminate, as much as possible, the possibility of biased decisions based on the ethnicity or sex of the applicant.

    Many public agencies actually do this. Unfortunately, while their hiring processes do successfully minimize discrimination, they also remove a lot of the hirer’s discretion. So what you end up with is not necessarily the best person for the job, but the person who was best at navigating the process.

    Of course, the private sector isn’t immune to this either.

    What we need to work towards is a process that finds a balance between impartiality and merit.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Glenn,

    I alluded to this in the article, but perhaps I should state it more clearly here; affirmative action was absolutely necessary and yielded positive results during the time of its inception. By the mid-to-late-1970s, however, it had been largely manipulated to achieve purely political ends. This reached its zenith during the early 1990s, which is why needed reforms took place shortly afterward. Nonetheless, I do understand your opinion on the matter. If I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, as you did, and saw an entire race of people or gender held down for totally irrational and unconstitutional reasons, then I would probably be a bit more concerned about ending affirmative action out of fear that the old times might live again. It is a shame that the Equal Rights Act was not made into a constitutional amendment during the 1970s; if it was, then such a fear would be rendered purposeless. Maybe ratification can be had in the future, but I am unfortunately skeptical.

    Igor,

    I was stating a personal view, not an observation of what typically comes to pass in reality. Practically speaking, your depiction of the corporate ladder is, almost needless to say, sound.

    Dr Dreadful,

    It is blatantly apparent that affirmative action has long outlived its usefulness. Devising a system to replace it, one which would ideally be based upon personal merit, is a question deserving of an article, or series of them, in its own right.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    It isn’t solely my experience in my youth in the Delta – it’s my experience in all my travels throughout the U.S. and in many places through the world. The sociological obstacles I described exist everywhere to greater or lesser extent – but those obstacles are always there, and they’re present here in America, today. But as far as I’ve been able to tell, America is one of the very few nations with anything resembling AA.

    The problem with AA isn’t that it’s unfair to the most privileged class – it’s that the very notion of AA grates against the insecurities of those who tend to hold the opinion that by helping others, we’re only hurting them.

  • Cannonshop

    #4 There’s a better way to fix it than thumbing the scales and making failures-because you know what?

    They don’t SAY “look, he made it” when he’s back after the second semester with huge loan defaults and no education. Instead, he’s a fool, and the anti-intellecutal urban culture gets another shot in the arm and reinforcement.

    The problem with Inner City Schools is that they’re INNER CITY SCHOOLS, run by Inner City School Administrators, more often than not incompetent when not utterly corrupt administrators, usually got the job by being good party men administrators, machine politics at its very finest, Glenn.

    Why do you think they oppose (strenuously) Voucher and School Choice initiatives that would allow kids with ambition and brains to ESCAPE the cycle of poverty?

    AA is just WHITE people using MINORITIES to make themselves feel better, it doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, and hasn’t worked the way it’s supposed to, and won’t work the way it’s supposed to.

    Breaking the artificial barriers to advancement comes from breaking down barriers to opportunity-and those barriers more often than not, come from YOUR side of the aisle in this modern world, Glenn-your system is failing, you refuse to acknowledge the failure in the face of every statistical evidence of said failure over the last three generations. If you REALLY want Minorities to have a stake in things, and want them to succeed and be educated and productive, you don’t trap them in systems designed to use them as hostages to the party line, where more often than not, THEIR failure is guaranteed.

    Which is what AA is-a bandaid to pretend that your INNER CITY political system isn’t corrupt past its eyeballs and using these people like toilet paper by sending them through crap ‘schools’ (warehouses, really) then shoving them into higher learning institutions that they’re NOT PREPARED TO FACE. the result, more oftne than not, is their failure, which reinforces, instead of breaking down, the perception of their inferiority not only among your fellow white racists, Glenn, but also among themselves.

    It’s a screw-job, Glenn. Both sides of it-keeping the rotten systems that keep kids in the hole in the Inner City, and then hurling them unprepared into an environment they can’t compete thanks to said rotten education system.

    Give them freedom, give them opportunity-REAL opportunity, from the beginning, not from where their learning curve is flattening out, and the smart ones, the ambitious ones, the hard working ones, the courageous ones will make it-and the rest?

    Well…there’s always next generation for the rest. The key is not to lower standards-because that is FALSE opportunity-it is the opportunity of the shell game, the losing bet, or the lotto ticket-false hope is worse than no hope.

  • Cannonshop

    We’re talking about AMERICANS, Glenn-yellowblackbrownpinkred AMERICANS. I want AMERICANS to be successful, I want them to be able to take on all comers in all ways at all times, I give two farts in a sandstorm about the rest of the world, it can burn for all I care, but those kids? they’re our future, Glenn. IF they aren’t succeeding, if we’re not, as a society, doing everything we can to make them successful people, we’re going to fail-we’re already failing, there’s a problem, it’s not in college admissions, because that is the SYMPTOM, not the disease.

    The DISEASE, is a broken school system that graduates kids who can’t spell, can’t read, can’t add, know nothing about science beyond what the TEEVEE tells them.

    You see MINORITIES, I see AMERICANS. This is what’s wrong with ‘identity’ politics, it’s what’s wrong with AA, it’s what’s wrong with this country.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cannonshop –

    Please note that I’ve never even hinted that you have any racist tendencies – I’ve never even thought that. But it’s this part of your rant that so clearly illustrates the gap between you and me:

    We’re talking about AMERICANS, Glenn-yellowblackbrownpinkred AMERICANS. I want AMERICANS to be successful, I want them to be able to take on all comers in all ways at all times, I give two farts in a sandstorm about the rest of the world, it can burn for all I care, but those kids?

    Cannonshop, you and I both want Americans to succeed, but it appears that you don’t want to learn the lessons that the rest of the world have to teach you. People are people are people no matter where you go, and the only differences lay in the local culture and political system. But the people are largely the same.

    In other First-World nations, Cannonshop, there is not so nearly so great a problem in the inner cities. Why is that? Why is it OUR inner cities and not theirs that have so great a problem? It’s because we – and NOT they – have a segment of society that we treated by law as second-class citizens and worse for many generations. That is the difference and the reason.

    Furthermore, you’re ignoring the worst problem of all when it comes to improving the education of kids in the inner city – FUNDING. You get what you pay for, and the inner city schools almost always get less funding per student than the suburbs. And you seem to be pretending that racism isn’t still a factor, but study after study after study shows that it still is. You can’t wish this away, Cannonshop – it’s there and it affects the African-Americans more than anyone else.

    I want them to have just as much opportunity as I’ve had, just as much as you do – but it’s naive to think that they don’t face significant problems that neither you nor I ever faced. It’s like having a bunch of competitors about to run a marathon, and the blacks who are competing have to wear 20-30 extra pounds of weight in order to participate in that marathon. You don’t give them opportunity by saying, “you’re on your own – you’ll adapt and get stronger if we don’t help you.” You give them opportunity by getting rid of that extra weight…and they can’t get rid of that weight by themselves, because that extra weight represents the generations of slavery and Jim Crow, and the racism that continues to this day.

  • http://frivolousdisorder.com/ Frivolous D

    I think this article is a powerful punch to the gut… of the straw man.

    Affirmative action as a policy in government and private sector hiring has almost completely disappeared. This is because a generation of human resource managers have learned how to navigate the Civil Rights Act.

    About the only place where the affirmative action debate still applies is in academic admissions and once admitted, that AA student must still meet the same academic performance criteria as every other student.

    This is to say that affirmative action is hardly the burning social issue of the day. Rather, the “debate” smacks of inflammatory baiting.

  • Cannonshop

    #10 Glenn, money isn’t nearly the issue you’re pretending it is-the budget for a big city school district for one year would run, at lavish levels, the schools I went through from K-12 in the southwest-even if you broke it down proportionally, Inner Cities have ENORMOUS budgets compared to a lot of the midwest/mountain states.

    It’s not money, Glenn. It’s that weird combination of “1984” policies and “Lord of the Flies” realities that exist in Urban districts.

    And That is entirely on the Administrations of those districts. I went to primary school in a school district that had buildings dating to the thirties, books that were anywhere from ten to twenty years old, hand-me-down buses bought used, with ‘maintenance’ done in the jury-rig style. Yet, moving to Washington State for High School, I tested up a grade level after MISSING HALF A YEAR in the hospital for seventh grade.

    It’s not money, it’s how the money’s used, and it’s the quality of the staff. All I’m saying is this: The present system is a failure, and it’s failing most spectacularly in your precious Urban schools. The only way I see improving the preparation for Urban kids, is to give them the ability and option to get OUT of those Urban Schools, and into schools where they’ll get a damn education…even if it means they have to catch the bus at 0530 in the morning and ride it out for three hours to do it. If you let people get out of those hellpits, they will do a lot better than trying to make them, as you put it, run a marathon with thirty pound weights on their legs because you want to feel better about yourself and you choose to lower the entrance standards to do so.

    MY way takes away the funding for the extra educrats, the ten or twenty some extra ‘assistant principals’, the ‘company car’ etc. etc. etc.-let people send their kids to the best school they can find, and use that public money to pay for that best school they can find, and let the badly run districts adapt or die. Playing politics with kids’ educations, whether in the primary level, or secondary schools, is what got us to a point that we’re graduating kids who can’t read, do math, or understand basic scientific principles.

    i.e. kids who don’t stand a chance of fixing the damage YOUR generation (and mine) have done to this country. We’ve saddled them with a nigh-unpayable level of debt, a currency in a printing-press death spiral, a gutted industrial base, a gutted economic base, long-term debts we can not pay…and an education that is maybe ahead of a couple third-world hellholes where nobody knows how to read and they think the airplane is powered by spirits.

    and it’s only made WORSE if you think sending a kid to a college he or she isn’t prepared for by lowering the entrance standards is going to somehow magically make up for more than a decade of absolute, idiotic, utter, neglect and ‘fad’ dumbassery such as “Self Esteem” and “Sensitivity” projects.

    Fact is, nobody out in the WORLD cares if you feel your ancestors were victimized-they aren’t going to hire you out of pity, and if you fail, you fail.

    And I’ll say it again: an Engineer who graduated from a State School has a better chance of raising themselves and their kin upward in the world, than a kid who flunked out of Harvard or MIT because they got in when they weren’t ready OR prepared to succeed. Educational Affirmative Action is ABUSE of minorities, it only serves ONE purpose-to make rich, liberal, white guys feel better about being rich, liberal white guys.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cannonshop –

    Your ‘educrat’ argument is a strawman and doesn’t begin to address the differences between the funding needs for inner-city and rural schools.

    I agree that it’s not just about money, but any serious examination shows that money plays a huge role because inner city schools face challenges that most rural schools never have to consider:

    – 31% of all students in the United States are concentrated in 1.5% of urban schools with total per person revenues that are only 89% of the average total pupil revenue.

    – Under-funding of urban schools is affected by funding formula including low weights for compensatory education, bilingual or English as a second language programs, and attendance-based foundation programs.

    – Urban school enrollments are made up of 25% or more students who are low income.

    – Urban schools enroll higher rates of immigrant and diverse students, including ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious populations.

    – Urban students are likely to have higher rates of mobility, absenteeism, and poor health. They are also less likely to have health coverage, which decreases attendance and reduces funding based on attendance-based formula.

    As far as my own experience as a Foster parent goes, the schools are mandated to provide full-time one-on-one nursing care for my medically-fragile Foster kids in addition to the facilities they pay for – call it about $8,000/month in personnel and facility costs per special-needs student…and this significantly skews the per-student cost that one sees in schools. Most rural schools cannot provide the services that children like my Foster child require.

    So…yes, money is a big factor, in addition to all the other challenges listed above for inner city schools.

  • Igor

    #9-Cannon contributes evidence for my argument that all commercials should be barred from broadcast TV (and radio, too!)

    “…kids who can’t spell, can’t read, can’t add, know nothing about science beyond what the TEEVEE tells them.”

    Commercial-free broadcast TV would assure that children (and adults!) would have available the best of what humans have created (because the copyrights ran out and they are not owned by a criminal monopoly conspiracy). The perfect environment for reading, writing and science.

    Thus, TV would be returned to the ideal that Philo Farnsworth envisaged when he invented it, instead of the brutal, mendacious propaganda machine that Sarnoff made of it.

    People who want to watch commercials (to feed their addiction, I suppose) can watch it on cable TV. Which they will pay for.

  • Cannonshop

    #13 Glenn, the area of Colorado I grew up in, most of the kids I went to school with spoke spanish at home, and you either learned how or you got to be by yourself after school.

    But that still doesn’t touch on the argument, does it? We both agree that urban schools are a mess, and I’d be likely to see the money available increased-but not without some safeguards against waste, fraud, and abuse, and not without letting people move from failing schools to schools that aren’t failing, or aren’t as likely to fail, without first demanding that said folk move their residence.

    but even THAT doesn’t really address the core issue of this article.

    Affirmative Action isn’t working the way it is supposed to work, in fact, it’s hurting the people it’s supposed to be helping. Flat out. Failing, Glenn.

    Raise the standards in K-12, particularly in the Inner Cities, and you’ll get more minorities into better colleges with a better chance of getting a degree that doesn’t come with a paper hat and “you want fries with that?”.

    Bush had it completely backward, (what can you expect-he’s not exactly a shining success story his own self), we don’t need standardized testing with multiple choice answers. If you REALLy want to raise the standards, eliminate the multiple-choice test and make everyone do essay questions on EVERY test. It’s a lot harder to cheat, sell answers, or ‘teach to the test’ if it’s not a row of soundbites marked in sequential order that a monkey could do.

    Enforce Grading: because face it, the world doesn’t care if you gave a good effort, it cares if you get the right answer. Esp. with science, math, and engineering career groups. Kid won’t know he needs help, parents don’t know it, if nobody TELLS them.

    Self Esteem is bullshit when it is handed out like the purple ribbon at a current schools’ ‘field day’. Self Respect builds Self Esteem, self respect is built by accomplishing things, not by being told you’re wonderful even when you can’t spell your own goddamn name or do basic 4th grade math (in high school).

    If you won’t work hard you SHOULD fail. Flunk kids who don’t cut it, hold them back a year, whatever it takes. social promotion promotes failure and failure doesn’t lead to success in College, or in life. at the same time, promote based on achievement-if that 4th grader is doing 7th grade work, put his ass in the 7th grade-at least then, he’s not going to be so bored you need to dope him up to keep him still.

    Finally…

    Stop Lowering the STANDARDS. It doesn’t help anyone do anything other than some Rich White Liberal guys feel better about being rich and white. Your marathon comparison fits more than you realize, and more with MY argument than your own-you don’t throw someone into an ironman triathalon when they’ve been allowed to live as a couch potato for ten to twelve years-it’s inhumane to put someone into that position, especially with a lie about ‘fairness’ that IS a lie. It’s NOT fair-to the person you’re trying to promote-to put them into a position where they have to compete without being adequately prepared, no matter WHAT your quota numbers or idealistic dreaming tell you. It’s WRONG to do that. An engineering degree from Bumphuque State Ag&Mech College will open more doors than being a dropout from MIT or Colorado School of Mines will. ’cause it’s that whole “Dropout” thing, and the huge student loan debt that comes with it-debt that is unlikely to be paid and will be a millstone around the guy’s neck for the rest of his adult life.

    NOT GOOD, Glenn. Good, doing good, that is, would be finding ways to get talent into schools they have a prayer of finishing, regardless of reputation or ‘ivy league’ status-because a Degreed Engineer can get Licensed, can find work in his field, can move his family out of the DMZ Urban hell he grew up in, to a better life elsewhere…and that’s kind of what America was supposed to be about, if I recall correctly.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Holy Moses!

    I was just reading over this article and noticed that somehow, a very important part of the first sentence in paragraph three was left out. It is as follows: “As noted by David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim in the “Modern Culture” edition of their “Intellectual Devotional” series, his request was honored by Johnson in 1965….”

    I am not sure how I missed including that. It was in the first typed version of this piece, strangely enough. Oh, well. Kidder and Oppenheim’s affirmative action page has information that can easily be found in other publications. Nonetheless, the authors managed to concisely summarize affirmative action’s history, and ought to be recognized for their efforts.