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
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.
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. …