Academic journal article Policy Review

Beyond Quotas: A Color-Blind Vision for Affirmative Action

Academic journal article Policy Review

Beyond Quotas: A Color-Blind Vision for Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

The term "affirmative action" is dangerously ambiguous. To some it means simply public policies that afford individuals opportunity without discrimination. To others, it means the use of preferences in public life to assist groups on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or sex. Not surprisingly, many people oppose the preferences that constitute this second kind of affirmative action. But those who support preferences exploit the term's ambiguity to mask their agenda and claim broader support for it than they really have. Liberals as well as conservatives have criticized the institutionalization of preferences based on race, ethnicity, and sex that now honeycomb employment, contracting, and college admissions. These preferences can be blatant or subtle, but the basic problem is the same: Someone is gaining, or not gaining, some benefit because of his race, ethnicity, or sex. Call it whatever you like, but it's discriminatory, it's wrong, and it ought to be opposed.

Those of us who criticize preferences need to do a better job, however, of explaining the kind of affirmative action we favor. This includes not only aggressive anti-discrimination efforts, but also positive, race-neutral initiatives to create and publicize economic and educational opportunities for everyone willing and able to compete for them. What follows is an attempt to articulate the basis of a color-blind vision for affirmative action in government policy.

Rooting out Discrimination

When it first entered common usage in the 1960s, the term "affirmative action" meant aggressive nondiscrimination. Government agencies promised to take positive steps--that is, "affirmative" action--to ensure that neither they nor the contractors they hired discriminated. Discrimination against minorities, especially blacks, had been going on for years, and was deeply embedded in many places. Simply deciding not to discriminate would not be enough; that decision had to be announced, publicized, advertised, posted, codified, and enforced, over and over again, until everyone knew that the old way of doing business was no longer acceptable.

President Kennedy first used the term in the context of racial discrimination when he signed Executive Order No. 10,925 in 1961. The executive order read, "The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

This core meaning of affirmative action is still embedded in the law. The main guideline relative to affirmative action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in private employment, states, "Affirmative action often improves opportunities for all members of the work force, as where affirmative action includes the posting of job vacancies. Similarly, the integration of previously segregated jobs means that all workers will be provided opportunities to enter jobs previously restricted."

This definition is completely consistent with the principle of color-blindness imbedded in the Constitution. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989) that it is perfectly permissible for a city "to prohibit discrimination in the provision of credit or bonding by local suppliers and banks." In a recent decision overturning a county's race-conscious set-aside program, a federal court of appeals declared: "The first measure every government ought to take to eradicate discrimination is to clean its own house and to ensure that its own operations are run on a strictly race- and ethnicity-neutral basis. The County has made no effort to do that. Nor has the County passed local ordinances to outlaw discrimination by local contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, bankers, or insurers. …

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