Academic journal article International Journal of Economic Development

Social Policy: Affirmative Action

Academic journal article International Journal of Economic Development

Social Policy: Affirmative Action

Article excerpt


Empirical research, summarized here, clearly establishes that racial and ethnic minorities continue to experience substantial discrimination in employment. However, this discrimination is often subtle and unconscious. Because discriminatory practices are so intertwined with apparenth-neutral employment practices, affirmative action remains an important means of combating them. Properly designed, affirmative action can benefit employers and non-protected employees as well as the minorities directly covered.



An earlier version of this paper was presented as testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary, California State Assembly, on May 4, 1995. It is based on research supported by the Rockefeller Ford, John D. and Catherine D. MacArthur, Nor-man, Russell Sage, and Public Welfare foundations. However, all findings and conclusions are those of the author.

This paper reviews research on racial/ethnic discrimination in employment conducted by my colleagues and myself at the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington in Washington, D.C. and other non-profit, non-partisan research organizations. It makes five key points relevant to debate on the controversial issue of affirmative action:

* A substantial amount of racial/ethnic discrimination still operates in the American labor market today;

* "Reverse" discrimination against non-minorities occurs relatively rarely;

* Much of today's discrimination involves subtle cognitive and interpersonal processes;

* When properly implemented, affirmative action remains an important too for addressing these problems; and

* Affirmative action can represent a "win-win" development which benefits employers and white males as well as women and minorities.

This paper discusses each of these points in turn.

Despite Great Progress, Employment Discrimination Has Not Been Eliminated

The first question our research has addressed is: To what extent does racial/ethnic discrimination still operate in the American labor market in the 1990s?

During the past decades, literally thousands of research studies have been conducted on this question by labor economists and other social scientists.(1) The clear consensus of this literature is that a tremendous amount of progress has been made since the days, prior to passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. when "Jim Crow" laws, personal prejudice, and social custom firmly maintained widespread segregation of employment by race and ethnicity.

These studies also reach consensus (although not unanimously) that the job of erasing the present impacts of these past patterns is not finished. Specifically, racial/ethnic minorities:

* remain under-represented in higher-level occupations and over-represented in lower-level occupations; (2)

* often do not command the same wages as non-minorities for performing the same work; (3)

* often do not receive the same payoffs for acquiring educational credentials; (4)

* on average experience greater unemployment than equally-qualified nonminorities; (5) and

* experience higher rates of job dismissal. (6)

In the statistical studies underlying such conclusions, researchers are careful to consider differences between minority and non-minority workers in education, experience, skills, and other job-relevant qualifications, which account for some of the observed differences between minorities and non-minorities in labor market success. However, technical and data problems often limit researchers' ability to control such factors, so that estimates of the extent of remaining discrimination remain controversial.

To avoid such problems by examining discrimination directly, my colleagues and I employ a research method called "testing" or "auditing." We send out pairs of research assistants to apply for actual job openings listed in the "help wanted" section of newspapers or at a random sample of companies listed in the telephone "Yellow Pages. …

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