They are two words that engender considerable debate in political and social settings. Affirmative Action. It has been at the center of gubernatorial and presidential politics over the last two decades and made its way into the appointments process for the federal judiciary. It has also acquired “litmus test” status as proponents and opponents use it to qualify their support for candidates for elective office. In no small manner it has become a value-laden term replete with imagery and symbolism that cuts to the heart of our nation’s fundamental belief system.
Affirmative action is a lighting rod that quickly sends supporters and detractors into frenzy. Perhaps no other issue, with the exception of abortion, draws such sharp distinctions among policymakers and pundits. Once introduced in any political dialogue, the result is usually a debilitating confrontation between opponents, absent of any objective analysis of the merits of affirmative action as public policy. Thus, there is often little opportunity to have a dispassionate discussion. The real question is “Why?”
On face value it is difficult to understand how there can be such strident opposition to a set of policies designed to “mainstream” segments of our society that have been denied opportunity on the basis of race or gender. The evidence is quite overwhelming. In the private sector, the scarcity of racial minorities and women in decision-making positions is glaring. While the ranks of senior management in some organizations is more diverse, a closer examination reveals that minorities are often relegated to roles that have little impact upon the company’s bottom line. Therefore feeding into racial stereotypes that discount the qualifications and worth of people or color; primarily Blacks.
The elevation of Black executives to senior positions in corporate America, though a positive development, only further highlights the larger absence of people of color and women in the corridors of power in corporate America. Likewise, the fact that a handful of Blacks, Latinos and women serve as Directors on multiple corporate boards speaks volumes to the reality that the inner sanctum of our market economy is still the exclusive domain of white males.
A similar environment persists in academia, which has become a primary battleground over affirmative action. Still, the facts do not seem to warrant the level of anger and opposition that these policies generate on college campuses. Our nation’s colleges and universities, public and private, remain predominantly white. The exception being Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and their continued existence suggests that barriers to entry to white institutions continue to exist. This is also true when the decision to attend an HBCU is voluntary, for the barrier may not necessarily be structural but could simply be a hostile environment.
Clearly, it would seem to be in the nation’s interest to take full advantage of the intellectual capital of its citizens. Failure to do so, particularly on the basis of racial or gender bias is inefficient from an economic perspective. Why then, does affirmative action produce such a negative reaction?
One reason is that a “Horatio Alger” mythology has become implanted in the American psyche. And this belief intersects with a need to affirm principles of equality and justice embedded in the very documents that define our democracy – the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Society has bought into the myth that the pathway to success is based solely on merit, and when faced with evidence to the contrary, engages in fault finding to explain individual incidents of failure. This is particularly true when the subject is a minority who claims to have been discriminated against. Institutional impediments, that create group effects, are discounted outright as it rubs against the notion of individualism and self-initiative. Thus, the failure of a minority or woman to succeed is a personal failure attributed to some shortcoming of the individual.
Perhaps the most obvious, though seldom admitted source of opposition is borne out of racist beliefs. Often the debate around affirmative action is cast in coded language where terms such as “merit”, “qualifications”, “credentials”, and “experience” substitute for Black, Latino or women. It allows racist opposition to suggest “reverse discrimination” by implying that whites are being displaced by undeserving minorities who are the beneficiaries of unfair policies in the workplace, in government procurement and on college campuses.
Another factor is the role of the media in distorting the facts surrounding affirmative action. This is not to suggest some grand conspiracy but simply that there is a collective viewpoint borne out of the narrow experiences of individuals who determine what is read, heard, and viewed through media. One clear example is the manner in which the media began to use the term “racial preferences” and “quotas” to describe affirmative action. In spite of the fact that by simple definition, the latter is not the former, the use of this descriptor has planted an image in the minds of many whites. Thus, affirmative action has come to be identified as a punitive policy that unfairly supplants qualified whites. The underlying need for affirmative action as a remedy to address discriminatory practices is discounted because the real victim is the innocent white who has been penalized.
The irony is that countless public opinion polls suggest widespread support for affirmative action across racial groups. It is only when pejorative language – “quotas”, “racial preference” - is used is there a pendulum swing in the other direction. It appears that much of the opposition to affirmative action is grounded in misinformation. If so, there is a window of opportunity to reverse the media effect by a targeted campaign of public education.
Given the level of discord over affirmative action, how can it be sustained? There is a clear need to bring the debate back to its roots. In spite of several not so favorable court rulings, affirmative action is still a permissible remedy. Even the Bakke and Croson rulings, though limiting, make clear that affirmative action has its place. Supporters must counter critics with a steady drumbeat of facts to dispel the notion that whites are being unfairly displaced. At the same time every effort must be made to differentiate opposition based upon ignorance from that based upon racism or sexism. The latter must be exposed and discredited. The former must be educated and transformed.
The media must also be aggressively challenged on the manner in which it translates this issue for public consumption. For too long, supporters of affirmative action have allowed the media to determine the “language” and “definition” of the issue. And once the rhetoric of reverse discrimination dominated the public discussion, without being challenged, there was little opportunity to set the course straight. Supporters of affirmative action must take the initiative to use the media to refocus the public and decision makers on institutional practices and barriers that unlawfully deny opportunity to minorities and women.
The current environment may be ripe for such a recalibration of the terms of this debate. The present focus on accountability as a result of corporate excesses may provide the opportunity to refocus the nation’s thinking on this issue. It is a small leap from discussions on fiscal accountability to issues of law, ethics and morality as it pertains to the treatment of minorities and women in the employ or in contract with private firms and governments.
As the nation’s demographic profile increasingly reflects a population in which minorities are a plurality, and eventually a majority, private firms will have to adjust accordingly or risk losing market share. Perhaps the most effective motivator for change will be the bottom line.