The question is simple: Does affirmative action work? The attempt
to answer it, however, has created a tangled mass of executive
orders, legislative actions, and judicial decisions from
Massachusetts to California.
Into this setting comes one of the first comprehensive surveys of
affirmative-action data, yielded by dozens of research studies done
over several decades. Its conclusion: Affirmative-action programs
have been moderately successful, and the trend toward rolling them
back is a "costly and dangerous experiment."
The study, by Harvard sociologist Barbara Reskin, comes at a
crucial time. In recent years, affirmative action has suffered a
backlash propelled by charges that it has generated its own abuses,
such as reverse discrimination. Indeed, California has already
banned affirmative-action programs in state employment and public
universities (in 1996), and Washington State will vote this November
on whether it will do so. All told, some 25 states are considering
legislative or ballot measures aimed at rolling back affirmative
In her survey, Ms. Reskin found that:
* Racial discrimination in employment remains widespread.
* Though enforcement of affirmative-action programs is weak, such
policies have lessened racial bias in the workplace.
* Neither whites as the dominant racial group nor meritocracy as a
workplace principle is suffering to any significant degree because of
affirmative action, despite perceptions that they are.
* The debate over affirmative action has been inflamed by
opposition to numerical race or gender-based quotas and preferences
in hiring - even though such tools are rarely used. When they are
used, they comply with tightly defined, temporary conditions set by a
court to remedy proven violations of the law.
Action and reaction
The real problem of affirmative action is "too little, not too
much," says Reskin, who unveiled her study last week at the American
Sociological Association's annual meeting here.
Critics, however, are not about to reverse field. "It's against
much of the real world to assert that no discrimination in favor of
minorities is taking place," said Michael Rosman of the Center for
Individual Rights in Washington.
Ward Connerly, the architect of California's dismantling of
affirmative action, said too often programs that start with
defensible goals and timetables "create a mind-set" that leads to
rigid quotas in practice. …