Morality vs. Mandate: Affirmative Action in Employment
Soni, Vidu, Public Personnel Management
Affirmative action, one of the most significant public policies of the 20th century, can be seen as an attempt to establish a more "inclusive moral convention," which aims at achieving fairness and equality for all members of society. In such a society everyone has the ability to compete for its goods and benefits. Attempting to create a society, workplaces, and educational institutions in which individuals or groups are not stigmatized or excluded from opportunities on the basis of race/ethnicity or gender can be seen as the ethical foundation of affirmative action. The moral basis for affirmative action is found in the tradition of American public administration, anti-discrimination laws, and the principles of organizational justice. To public personnel practitioners, affirmative action has ethical significance from a variety of viewpoints, particularly as it relates to the "merit controversy" and organizational justice issues.
This article argues that affirmative action (AA) is as much a moral issue as it is an anti-discriminatory measure. The focus of this article is to examine the ethical aspects of AA rather than to discuss the anti-discrimination principles of AA as embodied in the Constitution, statutes, and legal precedents. Today, the increased national sensitivity to the rights of minorities does not rely on the moral imperatives that should underlie such a debate, but, rather, the fear of litigation or so-called "political correctness." Viewing AA from a purely legal perspective reduces it to an adversarial proposition with winners and losers. Furthermore, the doctrine of legal protection does not always discourage discriminatory behaviors. In spite of the available legal remedies, discrimination is often under-reported due to reasons such as fear of retaliation, complexities of the legal system, difficulty in supplying the necessary proof, and the psychological and financial costs involved. Focusing attention on the ethical principles of affirmative action divert attention from contentious legal issues and reinforce its fundamental purpose. In addition, an ethical perspective can also help counter the backlash and resentment toward AA policies within organizations.
Ethics of Affirmative Action
Even though AA has been in existence since 1964 in a legal sense, neither the scholars, courts, public officials, nor lay persons have arrived at a consensus about its fundamental purpose, its legitimacy as a public policy, or a reason for its continuation. In the 1990s, due to a widely assumed decline in discrimination, political discourse on civil rights has lost its moral urgency and has simply taken on the rationalized tone of legal decision makers. As a result, policies and practices designed to promote equal opportunity and fair treatment in the workplace are not receiving the kind of attention needed for continued progress toward eliminating workplace discrimination. Theoretically, AA policies were designed to help the system help the victim. In practice, however, the victims still find that they have to fight a system that does not want to help.
The current AA debate involves many ongoing, as well as new, arguments. The opponents argue: (1) AA is no longer needed as we have largely solved the problem of employment discrimination,(2) AA is unfair to white males because they are losing opportunities to women and minorities strictly based on their race and gender, and (3) it promotes inefficiencies in the workplace because minorities and women are hired and promoted to jobs for which they are not qualified. The proponents, on the other hand, argue: (1) discrimination is very much a current, as well as prevalent, issue (2) it is difficult to define merit and it is often used as a pretext to exclude minorities from jobs and higher education, and (3) current discrimination is a result of past historical and social practices and require color and gender conscious remedies to provide access to societal goods, i.e., jobs and education. AA is also attacked and defended on the grounds of utility: for lowering the level of competence in the society, or raising the level of competence in the long run as more of the society's individual potential is tapped; for polarizing society along racial or gender lines, or promoting long-term harmony and tolerance through initially forced familiarity; and through provision of role models that will help preferential treatment unnecessary in the future.
As we approach the 21st century, the rhetoric surrounding AA continues to become more obscure and from time-to-time it even intensifies. The 1990-91 civil rights legislation and current initiatives to end AA introduced in several states, and approved by voters in California, are examples of events that fueled arguments on both sides. A wave of anti-affirmative action initiatives, court rulings (e.g., Hopwood v. University of Texas), and wide spread public antipathy have also sparked renewed interest in raising questions about the "merit" issue and the constitutionality of AA. These developments have created a need to reexamine AA in the context of its current state of evolution, its past performance, and its original moral principles.
Affirmative Action Defined
Affirmative action has been defined and interpreted in many different ways. In contrast to the passive nondiscrimination of equal employment opportunity (EEO), AA means that employers must act positively, affirmatively, and aggressively to remove all barriers, however informal or subtle, that prevent minorities and women from having equal access to all levels of the nation's educational, industrial, and governmental institutions. Contrary to the popular rhetoric, AA does not equal quotas, although an AA plan may include quotas if courts find purposeful systemic discrimination.
Affirmative action can also be understood in terms of two rationales commonly given in support of the policy. Jacobs describes them as the integration and diversity rationales. The first rationale views AA programs as a means of including members of racial, ethnic, or gender groups who have historically been excluded, intentionally or otherwise, from privileged positions or opportunities in American society. According to this argument, AA is a policy instrument designed to bring about greater integration of different segments of society. The second rationale justifies AA as a means of achieving diversity in the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of social, economic, and political institutions that historically have been marked by rigid homogeneity. The goal here is to transform the institutions themselves to reflect the diversity of American society. Both justifications can be explained from ethical perspectives, and taken together, they enable us to fully understand the significance of AA in the workplace.
Affirmative Action and Public Administration Tradition
American public administration theories have moved back and forth between the ideals of establishing scientific or efficiency-oriented organizations to value-based organizations. In the 1960s, a reexamination of the theoretical and philosophical questions about how public administration should be practiced and what values it should emphasize, gave rise to the "new public administration" paradigm. The new public administration stressed the values of democracy, representativeness, and equity. It also challenged the idea of moral neutrality and argued that administrative actions are of ethical as well as political concerns.
Two elements of the new public …
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Publication information: Article title: Morality vs. Mandate: Affirmative Action in Employment. Contributors: Soni, Vidu - Author. Journal title: Public Personnel Management. Volume: 28. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1999. Page number: 577. © 2009 International Personnel Management Association. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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