Equal Opportunity Officers Seek Ways to Defend against Attacks on Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

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. …