Evolution of Affirmative Action

By Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Evolution of Affirmative Action

Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

When President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961, he directed government contractors to "take affirmative action" to ensure that hiring and employment practices were free of racial discrimination. It was the first official use of that controversial phrase, a big step in the nation's evolution from legal slavery to a color-blind society.

But it was President Johnson who - just a year after three civil rights workers had been murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964 - put the heart and muscle into Kennedy's order. He told the graduating class at predominantly-black Howard University in Washington, "You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair....

"We seek not just freedom but opportunity," the author of the "Great Society" declared. "Not just legal equity, but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

The results of that effort have changed the political and social portrait of the United States in ways that are both profound and irreversible. From university campuses to corporate boardrooms, from executive suites to military-service academies and the officer corps, African-Americans and other minorities are much better represented than they were just a generation ago.

Some of that has been by government decree - requirements that public institutions make special efforts to include minorities on payrolls, in classrooms, and in the awarding of contracts. In other cases - as with the recent Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times - it's been part of voluntary efforts to increase diversity through special training programs and rapid advancement. Such efforts - whether seen as an attempt to atone for sins of past discrimination or as a quota system that relies on "reverse discrimination" - have never been without controversy.

But they've also happened over a period when the demographic profile of the United States shifted, when notions of race and ethnicity got more complex, and as diversity and multiculturalism became valuable in their own right - especially among traditionally conservative institutions such as business and the military.

While the Bush administration was arguing against affirmative action in the landmark University of Michigan cases just decided by the US Supreme Court, many of its presumable political allies stood on the other side of the issue. More than 40 Fortune 500 companies - Microsoft, Intel, American Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Eastman Kodak, PepisiCo, and General Motors among them - filed legal briefs siding with the university.

So, too, did retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Adm. William Crowe, Gen. Hugh Shelton, and Gen. John Shalikashvili. "Compelling considerations of national security and military mission justify the consideration of race in selecting military officers," they asserted in their legal brief.

Meanwhile, political leaders around the country see the need to expand opportunities for minorities as well.

In Massachusetts last week, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) created a new Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. "My administration is committed to assembling a state government workforce that reflects the fabric of our community," said Governor Romney.

Enough assistance?

Is 40 years enough time to have pushed affirmative action as a means of ending discrimination? It depends how one defines the action and determines the goal.

According to recent polls, Americans are against "preferences," but they favor "assistance" and "special efforts" to help minorities in jobs and education. They clearly value racial diversity in higher education, and they approve of affirmative action in jobs and education for those coming from "an economically disadvantaged background," regardless of race or ethnicity.

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