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"Affirmative Action: The Questions To Be Asked,"

by William L. Taylor May/June 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

... The questions to be asked include the following: Has affirmative action worked? Is affirmative action still needed? Is affirmative action unfair to others; does it undermine the merit principle? Are the social costs of affirmative action too high? What would be the cost to society of abandoning affirmative action?

Has Affirmative Action Worked?

... Much evidence shows that affirmative action is one of a cluster of national policies that enabled minorities and women to make substantial economic and educational gains during the 1970s and 1980s. These gains have occurred across the spectrum of occupations-in police and fire departments and other public service occupations, in manufacturing and trucking, in the construction trades, in service occupations, in managerial positions and in the professions....

For example, in police departments, the numbers of black police officers went from 23,796 in 1970 to 63,855 in 1990. Black representation in fire departments rose from 2.5% in 1960 to 11.5% in 1990....

Black representation also increased dramatically in other key industries during the period 1970-90. For example, the number of electricians went from 14,145 to 43,276; bank tellers from 10,633 to 46,332; health officials from 3,914 to 13,125; and pharmacists from 2,501 to 7,011....

There can also be little question that affirmative action policies of colleges and universities and the creation of more minority scholarship opportunities, along with federal programs providing greater access for low-income students to institutions of higher education through loans and Pell grants, have played a large role in the major increases in minority college enrollment that we saw during the 1970s and 1980s....

A recent RAND Corporation study - Student Achievement and the Changing American Family, Kirby, Berends and Williamson (1994)-reports that the largest gains in student performance in elementary and secondary schools from 1970 to 1990 were made by minority students. Indeed, according to this study and others, 40% or more of the academic gap between black and white youngsters was closed during this period.
That is remarkable progress. Among the contributing factors, according to the RAND study, is the fact that the number of black parents with college degrees or experience quadrupled during the two decades, so that now about 25% of black parents have college degrees or experience. (Hispanic-American parents have made similar, although less dramatic, educational gains.) The occupational and income gains made by black parents during this period have also contributed to the formation of stable, middle-class families and to the achievement gains of children. Affirmative action has played an important role in all this....

We should not fail to note that the RAND study and others like it provide powerful evidence that affirmative action policies do not dilute the merit principle. As the achievement gap between minorities and whites is closed, what we are witnessing is increased productivity for individuals and for the nation.

Is Affirmative Action Still Needed?

While affirmative action has contributed significantly to a closing of the gap attributable to discrimination, minorities and women still face barriers in seeking jobs, education and housing. Evidence of the continuing legacy of discrimination can be seen in the number of employment discrimination complaints filed at the Equal Opportunity Commission (over 91,000 last year); the litany of Justice Department cases cited by Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations last month; the testing studies conducted by the Urban Institute and the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington summarizing the overall prevalence of discrimination encountered by minority job seekers; conclusions of the Glass Ceiling Commission's report, which include, among other things, finding that 97% of senior managers at Fortune 1000 industrial corporations are white males, and that only 5% of senior management at industrial and service companies are women, virtually all of them white....

Is Affirmative Action Unfair to Others?

The notion that affirmative action somehow constitutes "reverse discrimination" ignores the fact that courts have taken pains to balance competing interests in shaping affirmative action remedies. The rules of affirmative action have been worked out over two decades, and the parameters of the policy have been set by the Burger and Rehnquist courts....

Evidence of misapplication of the policy is minimal (as is demonstrated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's data that only 1.7% of race-based charges received by the EEOC are made by white males filing on the basis of race, as well as by the recent study of court cases and other data conducted by Professor Alfred Blumrosen of Rutgers, which found that "reverse discrimination" cases accounted for a tiny percentage of some 3,000 reported employment discrimination cases between 1990 and 1994), and certainly is not cause to junk the policy.

What Would Be the Cost to Society of Abandoning Affirmative Action?

Abandoning affirmative action policy is bound to do damage to the economic status of minorities and women.... Abandoning affirmative action would also likely divide us even more into a society of "haves" and "have nots."

Certainly we all aspire to become a "color-blind" society in which judgments are made, in Dr. King's memorable phrase, on the contents of one's character rather than the color of one's skin. But who in this room or this Congress or this nation can say with a straight face that we have reached the point in our society where the great bulk of our citizens are color-blind, where race does not matter, where children do not suffer disadvantage because of their race or national origin?

If we cannot truthfully make these statements, then abolishing or curtailing affirmative action would be akin to
throwing away one of the major cures while allowing the disease to continue unchecked.

William L. Taylor a PRRAC Board member, is a Washington, DC lawyer who advocates for poor and minority children. He teaches education law at Georgetown Law School.

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