The Case for Affirmative Action
FRED L. PINCUS
Affirmative action programs are at the center of an intense controversy. Proponents argue that programs that take race and gender into account are necessary to promote genuine equal opportunity and more equal outcomes. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that programs utilizing quotas and "reverse discrimination" are unfair to white males.
This thirty-year-old debate raises complex legal, political, and philosophical issues concerning the role that government should play to promote equal opportunity. Most citizens in the 1990s would agree that the government, especially the federal government, should protect individual citizens from discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or gender. In a New York Times/ CBS News poll, for example, 88 percent of blacks and 65 percent of whites agreed that it was "necessary to have laws to protect minorities against discrimination in hiring and promotion" ( Verhovak 1997).
There is a widespread belief that employment and educational decisions should be based on meritocratic criteria; that is, decisions should be based on an "objective" assessment of an individual's skills, abilities, and motivation. An individual's race, ethnicity, gender, or religion should not matter. Fair decisions, the argument continues, are "color-blind" and "gender-blind."
There are questions, however, about how to ensure that employers, educators, and public officials act in a meritocratic manner. There are even more questions about what to do if meritocratic policies do not result in equal outcomes. Should the government provide equal opportunity, or should it ensure equal outcomes? Finally, some people are even questioning the adequacy of the concept of meritocratic standards. Are they dear? Appropriate? Objective?
I define affirmative action as those policies intended to achieve race and gender equality that go beyond meritocratic decisionmaking by taking race and gender into account. In this chapter, I describe and analyze two policies in some detail: (1) goals and timetables administered by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and (2)court-ordered hiring and promotion quotas. Due to limitations of space, I cover the issues of college admissions and minority-owned business set-asides more briefly. I emphasize the racial aspects of affirmative action and discuss gender in less detail.