Affirmative action refers to concrete steps that are taken not only to eliminate discrimination—whether in employment, education, or contracting—but also to attempt to redress the effects of past discrimination. The underlying motive for affirmative action is the Constitutional principle of equal opportunity, which holds that all persons have the right to equal access to self-development. In other words, persons with equal abilities should have equal opportunities.
Affirmative action programs differ widely in the extent to which they attempt to overturn discrimination. Some programs might simply institute reviews of the hiring process for women, minorities, and other affected groups. Other affirmative action programs might explicitly prefer members of affected groups. In such programs, minimum job requirements are used to create a pool of qualified applicants from which members of affected groups are given preference.
Affirmative action affects small businesses in two main ways. First, it prevents businesses with 15 or more employees from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, and physical capability in practices relating to hiring, compensating, promoting, training, and firing employees. Second, it allows the state and federal governments to favor women-owned and minority-owned businesses when awarding contracts, and to reject bids from businesses that do not make good faith efforts to include minority-owned businesses among their subcontractors.
The interpretation and implementation of affirmative action has been contested since its origins in the 1960s. A central issue of contention was the definition of discriminatory employment practices. As the interpretation of affirmative action evolved, employment practices that were not intentionally discriminatory but that nevertheless had a "disparate impact" on affected groups were considered a violation of affirmative action regulations. Another central issue was whether members of affected groups could receive preferential treatment and, if so, the means by which they could be preferred. This issue is sometimes referred to as the debate over quotas. Though affirmative action programs came under heavy attack during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the principles of affirmative action were reaffirmed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. But in 1997, California's Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in that state. The resulting legal battles, which were expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, seemed likely to have wide-reaching effects on affirmative action.
Affirmative action has its roots in the civil rights movement. In March of 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which established the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. The order stated that contractors doing business with the government "will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during their employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." The order did not advocate preferential treatment of affected groups but rather sought to eliminate discrimination in the traditional sense.
The legal status of affirmative action was solidified by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation prohibited discrimination in voting, public education and accommodations, and employment in firms with more than fifteen employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act offered a similar understanding of affirmative action as Executive Order 10925, stating that the act was not designed "to grant preferential treatment to any group because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The act's sponsors, Senators Joseph Clark and Clifford Case, emphasized this non-preferential interpretation of affirmative action when they wrote: "There is no requirement in Title VII that an employer maintain a racial balance in his workforce. On the contrary, any deliberate attempt to maintain a racial balance, whatever such a balance may be, would involve a violation of Title VII, because maintaining such a balance would require an employer to hire or refuse to hire on the basis of race."
The Civil Rights Act did not provide criminal penalties for employers that discriminated, nor did the civil remedies established by the act include compensation for pain and suffering or punitive damages. Rather, the act sought to establish a conciliation process by which victims would be restored to the situation they would have had in the absence of discrimination. To carry out the conciliation process, the act created a new federal agency as a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC acts as a facilitator between plaintiffs and private employers and also pressures violating employers to provide compensation, whether in the form of back pay or restitution. The EEOC also provides legal support for plaintiffs should the plaintiffs pursue their grievances in court.
Two important issues became contested in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: whether unintentional or structural discrimination constituted violation of the principle of equal opportunity; and the extent to which preferential treatment should be given to affected groups. These issues came to the forefront during the Johnson administration. In a 1965 commencement speech, President Johnson argued that equality of opportunity required more than simply ending discrimination. Rather, he argued for a more active interpretation of affirmative action that would assure "equality as a result."
In 1966, the U.S. Department of Labor began collecting employment records with breakdowns by race in order to evaluate hiring practices, overturning earlier policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In 1968, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance issued regulations which required, for the first time, that specific targets be set by which the effects of affirmative action programs could be evaluated. The regulations stated that "the contractor's program shall provide in detail for specific steps to guarantee equal employment opportunity keyed to the problems and needs of minority groups, including, when there are deficiencies, the development of specific goals and timetables for the prompt achievement of full and equal employment opportunity." It was in these regulations and analogous measures by the EEOC that the debate over affirmative action quotas had its origins.
Goals and timetables were established by the U.S. Department of Labor using "utilization analysis," which statistically compared the proportion of employed women and minorities in a firm with the proportion of women and minorities in the regional workforce, deriving a measure of what the department called "disparate impact." In the absence of discrimination, it was assumed that these proportions would and should be roughly equal. Since these regulations focused on results and not intent, the structural nature of discrimination was officially recognized. In addition, these regulations provided an official and measurable basis for the preferential treatment of affected groups.
In the landmark Griggs v. Duke Power Co. case of 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Duke's requirement of high school diplomas or IQ tests for those applying for unskilled jobs. The decision held that "Title VII forbids not only practices adopted with a discriminatory motive, but also practices which, though adopted without discriminatory intent, have a discriminatory effect on minorities and women." The ruling provided a legal foundation for cases of "disparate impact," asserting that employers may not use job requirements that adversely affect women and minorities unless required by what it termed "business necessity." (For example, in the case of serious health or safety threats to co-workers or customers.)
The EEOC was strengthened by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, which enabled the Commission to file class action suits. Under the Carter administration, the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection established the "four-fifths rule." This rule was significant in that it provided an explicit benchmark to determine disparate impact, which had been left vague in earlier U.S. Department of Labor regulations. The four-fifths rule held that firms contracting with the federal government should not be allowed to hire any race, sex, or ethnic group at a rate below four-fifths that of any other group.
Another significant Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action came in a 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Under the University of California at Davis's admission policies, 16 of 100 places were set aside for minority applicants. Allan Bakke was a white applicant who was denied enrollment to Davis's medical school, even though his test scores were higher than the minority students who were admitted. Casting the deciding vote, Justice Lewis Powell held that Bakke should be admitted to the program since Davis's policies constituted a rigid quota, but that, nonetheless, Davis could continue to favor minorities in its admission practices and that it had a "compelling state interest" to attain a diversified educational environment.
The tide favoring affirmative action began to turn in the 1980s during the Reagan and Bush administrations. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan stated, "We must not allow the noble concept of equal opportunity to be distorted into federal guidelines or quotas which require race, ethnicity, or sex—rather than ability and qualifications—to be the principal factor in hiring or education." Through court appointments, hiring and firing decisions, and budget cuts, the Reagan administration sought to end affirmative action as it had evolved since the Johnson administration. Between 1981 and 1983, the budget of the EEOC was cut by 10 percent and the staff by 12 percent. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance was hit harder yet, with budget cuts of 24 percent and staff cuts of 34 percent during these same years.
Two important Supreme Court rulings in the late-1980s also acted to substantially weaken affirmative action. The 1988 case Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust overturned the landmark 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power Co., shifting the burden of proof in employment discrimination cases from employers to plaintiffs. In the 1989 case Wards Cove Packing Companyv. Antonio, the Court ruled that a plaintiff could not simply show disparate impact to prove discrimination, but must demonstrate that a specific employment practice created the existing disparity.
In an effort to fight the dramatic rollback of affirmative action, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Act returned the burden of proof to employers in disparate impact cases, requiring employers to prove that employment practices that resulted in disparate impact were "job related"' and "consistent with business necessity." The act thus overturned the Supreme Court's rulings in Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust and Wards Cove Packing Company v. Antonio . In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 addressed issues of unlawful harassment and intentional discrimination, allowing minority and female victims of intentional discrimination to be awarded up to $300,000 in compensatory damages in addition to back pay and restitution.
In 1994, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated one of the largest affirmative action programs ever. The FCC voted unanimously to set aside 1,000 of 2,000 new radio licenses for small businesses, women, and minorities. These licenses are for businesses serving the rapidly growing number of users of pocket-size telephones, fax machines, pagers, and hand-held computers. Small companies owned by women or minorities could receive up to a 60 percent discount on the cost of these licenses, which federal officials estimated have a total market value of $10 billion. One of the concerns expressed about the FCC ruling is that it will enable the rise of companies that are only nominally headed by women or minorities. This could occur as a result of the acquisition provisions of the ruling, which allow up to 75 percent of the equity and 49.9 percent of the voting stock of a small firm to be acquired by a larger firm, and yet the small firm still qualifies for licensing discounts.
Despite such efforts, the mid-1990s saw affirmative action programs continue to be rolled back by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, as well as by state legislatures and court decisions. Critics charged that affirmative action was a form of "reverse discrimination," meaning that by favoring minorities and women it discriminated against white males. In addition, they argued that affirmative action sometimes prevented companies from hiring the best available worker, and in so doing caused resentment toward minority workers on the job.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which banned preferential treatment on the basis of gender or race in public employment, education, and contracting in the state. In effect, the measure eliminated affirmative action programs in California, except as necessary to comply with federal law. Although civil rights groups quickly blocked the measure with a court injunction, it took effect in August 1997 when the injunction was overturned on appeal. It was widely believed that if the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Proposition 209, many states would follow California's lead and make dramatic changes to their affirmative action programs.
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SEE ALSO: Racial Discrimination