Equal Opportunity Officers Seek Ways to Defend Against Attacks on Affirmative Action
HOUSTON -- Waning political support for affirmative action poses new obstacles for advocates and equal opportunity officers, leaders of the American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA) said here in April at their annual conference.
Association members, many of whom are affirmative action and equal opportunity officers at public institutions, were urged to educate and organize their employers and the public to defend the policy that many say has helped women and minorities increase access to jobs and education in the past thirty years.
"Our members are looking to us to help them continue to justify their own existence. It was difficult for some people to be able to come to this conference because it was affirmative action, though that is what they do," said Ruth Jones, president of the 1,000-member association and director of equal opportunity at Old Dominion University. Approximately half of the membership works in higher education.
According to Jones, conflicting legal interpretations of judicial rulings on affirmative action programs have placed association members in a difficult position.
"Who do you think the president of a university is going to listen to -- an affirmative action officer or the senior legal counsel?" asked Jones.
Many of the 260 conference participants were reeling from prominent political and judicial setbacks last year -- including the passage of Proposition 209 in California, which bans affirmative action in public institutions, and the Hopwood decision, which bans affirmative action at Texas colleges and universities. Texas is the only state in the nation under a court order that bans affirmative action at public colleges and universities.
Last year's decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was discussed at keynote sessions because some universities outside of the Fifth Circuit are using decision to dismantle their affirmative action programs, even though the court only has jurisdiction over Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
"Every state suddenly thinks it's in the Fifth Circuit," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and one of six keynote speakers at the conference.
Many conference sessions focused on strategies to defend affirmative action -- from how to explain the importance of policy in the workplace to how to organize voters to defeat initiatives and legislation.
According to Jones, affirmative action supports have been lax in educating the public about the issue. "So now." she noted, "people can make it whatever they want it to be. We have to continue to educate the next generation."
The first step toward winning the affirmative action debate is taking back the language, said Barry Shapiro, a regional director with the association and a diversity consultant: "So long as the opposition describes affirmative action as preferences, the best we can do is tie and the worst we can do is lose.
"We need to do our public relations work on the principles of affirmative action." he continued. "Stop the process by which it is mischaracterized by misinformation. And we need to start connecting with groups in our community who have a vital interest in defending affirmative action."
Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a presenter at the conference, said, "To sell affirmative action, we have to tell people that it's not preferential selection and it's not quotas. From my perspective, we haven't done a very good job of that. And we haven't been doing a very good job of explaining the barriers that are erected to keep people from …