The Rise - and Fall? - of Affirmative Action

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Rise - and Fall? - of Affirmative Action


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


Are we at, the beginning of the end of affirmative action? Last year, the Supreme Court allowed a federal appeals court's favorable ruling on California's Proposition 209--banning discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of race in the public sphere--to stand.

Even before California voters in 1996 voted in favor of Proposition 209, public opinion had been turning against affirmative action, the government's most ambitious experiment in social engineering. The opposition, however, was slow in forming.

The historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in the workplace, Supporters denied that the legislation would lead to minority quotas and set-asides, but President Johnson issued an executive order in 1965 setting up enforcement of minority hiring practices.

In 1970, President Nixon imposed an explicit quota plan, requiring contractors receiving federal money to set timetables and goals for minority employment. Two years later, Congress passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, allowing civil lawsuits against companies with discriminatory practices.

In the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges may consider race as a factor in admissions but cannot set aside a fixed number of places for minorities. In 1980, the court upheld the practice of setting aside 10 percent of federal public works contracts for minority-owned businesses.

Since then, however, the Supreme Court has handed down a series of decisions weakening affirmative action.

In 1986, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional an affirmative action program requiring layoffs of senior white teachers to protect jobs of newly hired blacks. In 1989, the court struck down a set-aside program in Richmond, Virginia, citing lack of specific evidence of past bias.

In 1995, President Clinton ordered a review of federal affirmative action policies as the Supreme Court continued to hold affirmative action efforts to a stricter standard of constitutionality.

Whether or not affirmative action is the major cause, no one can deny, as David Wagner of Insight magazine points out, that the face of the nation's workplace has changed significantly in the last 30 years.

White male dominance in top white- and blue-collar jobs has declined from 88 to 54 percent.

Blacks, mostly women, have tripled their share of management, technical, and clerical jobs.

The salaries of black male managers and administrators have nearly tripled as a percentage of their white male counterparts, rising from 25 to 69 cents on the dollar. …

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