What is "Affirmative Action" and why is it so controversial?

I have heard a lot of talk about "Affirmative Action" during this presidential campaign. I know affirmative action has something to do with helping minorities compete for jobs, but how exactly does affirmative action do this? And why is affirmative action so controversial?

In general terms, "affirmative action" is a term used to identify policies or programs aimed at leveling the playing field for minorities in the pursuit of jobs, admission to colleges or universities or even government contracts. Affirmative action policies have been established in response to decades of discrimination against minorities, even after the passage of constitutional amendments and federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin.

The term "affirmative action" was first used in Executive Order 11246, issued by Lyndon Johnson. The Order called on federal government contractors to "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." Johnson expanded the Executive Order in 1967 to protect women from discrimination as well.

Examining the Executive Order is instructive because it sheds light on the origins of affirmative action policies in the United States. The Order, for example, explicitly forbids "rigid and inflexible quotas" for minority employment. Rather it encourages contractors to make "good faith efforts" to meet "goals and timetables" for the employment of minorities and women. These general policies are almost uniformly supported by Americans, both whites and minorities.

However, support for affirmative action policies drops off sharply, especially among whites, when the policies establish quotas or "set-asides" to promote minority candidates in the hiring, admission or contract awarding process, sometimes at the expense of white candidates. Such policies have come under fire during the last twenty years, prompting several high profile court cases and major policy changes in a handful of states.

One of the most important affirmative action cases is Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke was a NASA engineer who applied for application to the University of California at Davis Medical School in the late 1970s. He was twice denied admission, even though is test scores were higher than those of several minority applicants who were admitted. The school's admission procedures reserved sixteen of the 100 spots in each entering class for "disadvantaged" applicants--blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Asian Americans.

In response to Bakke's challenge of the admission policy, the Court ruled that the school must admit Bakke, but it did not ban the use of quotas if they were aimed at redressing current and past discrimination against minorities. Public disfavor with this more aggressive brand of affirmative action in California, however, grew to point that in 1996 voters in that state passed a proposition banning the use of quotas in university admissions in the University of California system.

Several legal challenges to the Proposition have failed and the policy has remained in place. Since that time, admission of minorities to some schools and programs in the state system of higher education have dropped significantly. Critics complain that minorities are now being unfairly denied educational opportunities. Supporters of Prop. 209 argue that the abandonment of racial quotas has focussed attention on the real problem--inadequate inner-city high schools. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state of California, alleging that inner-city high schools offer far fewer Advanced Placement courses than affluent suburban schools.

Affirmative action remains controversial not because there is widespread public sentiment in support of racial discrimination. In fact, notwithstanding the persistence of pockets of racism in the United States, the American public is highly critical of racial and ethnic intolerance and discrimination. Instead, the controversy about affirmative action centers on broad disagreement about the best way to fight discrimination in the present and to make amends for past discrimination.

A recent White House report (prepared during the Clinton Administration) contends that discrimination has not been sufficiently eradicated from American society to justify the end of affirmative action. Others have countered that there are several better alternatives to affirmative action, at least in the form of quotas and set-asides. Commonly recommended alternatives include improving educational opportunities for minorities from kindergarten through twelfth grade or admitting the top 10% of graduates from each high school in a state, regardless of how those graduates compare with their counterparts in other schools.

What no one on either side of the debate challenges is the fact that minorities still tend to lag behind their white counterparts in educational attainment and in the job marketplace. Addressing these disparities will rightly remain a priority in American politics into the foreseeable future.

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