Affirmative Action: It's Still Needed

By Shelton, Hilary O. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action: It's Still Needed


Shelton, Hilary O., The World and I


Do we still need affirmative action programs today? Absolutely, YES! If we are still committed, as a nation, to equal opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, gender, nationality, or handicap, we must have time-proven programs in place, providing a structured approach to full inclusion by all members of our vastly diverse population.

Affirmative action is necessary because discrimination is still very much a part of our country and our institutions. Some believe that equal opportunity programs such as affirmative action are no longer needed because discrimination no longer exists or because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provides the necessary protections against discrimination.

Unfortunately, there are many misperceptions about exactly what affirmative action programs are set up to do, how they work, how successful they have been over the years, how fair they are, and how misrepresented these programs have been, both intentionally and unintentionally. Let me help address many of the myths, misunderstandings, distortions, and, in some cases, intentionally disingenuous interpretations of what affirmative action actually is and does.

What is affirmative action

Affirmative action can be defined, in short, as any effort taken to fully integrate our society by expanding educational, employment, and contracting opportunities to the multitude of gender, ethnic, national origin, and handicapped-condition groups that have been and remain locked out of full economic, social, and/or political participation in our country. Present-day affirmative action programs were born out-of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Executive Order 10925, which created the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity.

There are scholars in the civil rights community who argue that affirmative action's roots can be traced back to the Civil War amendments. In either case, modern-day affirmative action programs based on flexible "goals and timetables" were established at a White House conference convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson shortly after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

President Johnson convened this conference of over 300 CEOs of major U.S. corporations to pose the question, "Now that we have signed antidiscrimination provisions into our nation's laws and created safeguards to prevent voter discrimination, how do we integrate our nation's workplaces, schools, and economic institutions?" The CEOs responded in corporate business terms by recommending to the president that the nation employ common corporate practices of flexible "goals and timetables," the same effective way the business community approaches everything from "merger acquisitions" to "market takeovers."

The CEOs noted that this approach allows companies to plan ways of more fully integrating our society. In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 to see that this same approach was expanded to our educational institutions and our federal, State, and local contracting practices. Unfortunately, detractors of affirmative action have also distorted its meaning and principle.

Rewriting history

Opponents of affirmative action have rewritten history and clearly ignored present realities in their eagerness to eliminate present programs. They argue that affirmative action programs are no longer needed in education. They claim that the vestiges of racial and gender discrimination are dead and buried, yet the same discriminatory practices in college admissions are locking out promising young people from professional careers and productive lives.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, the NAACP and other civil rights and education organizations argued that many of our national standardized tests were "culturally discriminatory." As a result, adjustments were made to address our nation's commitment to cultural diversity based on principles of inclusion and full participation rather than segregation.

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