Questions and Answers on Affirmative Action

Many of the gains won by the civil rights movements of the 1960s are
now in danger of being overturned, and affirmative action is rapidly
becoming the most prominent target. In California, an initiative to
eliminate state-sponsored affirmative action programs will most likely
be on the 1996 ballot, and the movement to roll back these programs is
going national. A drumbeat of objections to affirmative action, loaded
with misinformation and distortions, fills the mainstream media. We
hope the "Questions and Answers" presented here can help correct
misconceptions and shed light on the reality of affirmative action
policies, and their value for promoting equal opportunity for all.

What is affirmative action?

	Affirmative action is a policy to encourage equal opportunity
and to level the playing field for groups of people who have been and
are discriminated against. According to the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission, affirmative action "is considered essential to
assuring that jobs are genuinely and equally accessible to qualified
persons, without regard to their sex, racial, or ethnic
	The roots of affirmative action lie in the Civil Rights Act of
1964. At first, affirmative action aimed to eliminate racial imbalance
in hiring policies; later the goals were extended to include college
admissions and the awarding of government contracts. Subsequent
provisions extended protections to all people of color, women, older
people and people with disabilities. Equal opportunity laws ban
discrimination. Affirmative action goes farther by requiring employers
to take "affirmative" steps to achieve a balanced representation of
	A recent poll found that when questions are worded in clear
language about the implications of doing away with affirmative action
programs, 71 percent of whites believe that such programs make
"opportunities for everyone, including women and minorities" and 68
percent of those sampled approved the use of these programs to achieve
equal opportunity for all. (San Francisco Examiner, May 1, 1995)

Does affirmative action mean hiring or promoting unqualified people
just because they are minorities or women?

	No. First of all, affirmative action calls for the hiring of
qualified people. Opponents of affirmative action say that to get
qualified people, hiring policies should be based only on "merit," as
if other factors are not normally considered. There have always been
preferences, yet no one ever said they "lowered quality" until they
began to be applied for the benefit of people of color and women.
	Employers tend to hire people like themselves and to think of
them as the most qualified. "Merit" becomes the justification for
this. It's harder to see and trust the qualifications of someone who
is different. Even a former Republican California State Senator
doubted that "there are enough white employers who would hire people
from minority communities without the encouragement of affirmative
action policies." (S.F. Chronicle, March 31, 1995)
	Most jobs are found by word-of-mouth. Since neighborhoods and
social networks tend to be segregated, word of mouth leads to the
perpetuation of discrimination, intentionally or not. Affirmative
action pushes employers to try harder, to cast a wider net. Without
this extra effort, many employers would do what they have always done:
maintain that they couldn't find a "qualified" woman or person of
color, and hire the white man they wanted anyway.
	The anti-affirmative action position assumes a narrow,
oversimplified conception of merit based on test scores, grade point
average or other measurable standards. But many tests are inadequate
to predict success. Numerous studies have found that there is only a
slight relationship between test scores and performance or
professional achievement. (Seattle Times, March 12, 1995.) On the
other hand, there is a major relationship between race, income level,
educational resources and test scores. Over-reliance on test results
inhibits employers from considering other factors that indicate
competence and predict success, such as prior work experience and
specialized training. Regarding college admissions, tests are
culturally biased in that they tend to reflect the experiences of
middle class students and their access to higher quality education
than that available to less advantaged students.
	And students are frequently admitted on the basis of many
preferences that have nothing to do with affirmative action, such as
personal connections, financial contributions, geographical diversity,
athletic skill, or whether an applicant is a veteran. "Far more whites
have entered the gates of the 10 most elite institutions through
'alumni preference' than the combined numbers of all the Blacks and
Chicanos entering through affirmative action." (S.F. Examiner, April
6, 1995, from the Institute for the Study of Social Change at UC
Berkeley) Furthermore, children of alumni admitted to Harvard had SAT
scores that averaged 35 points lower than other Harvard
students. (Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. of Education, cited in
the San Francisco Examiner, April 6, 1995)
	The University of California sets aside a mere five percent of
its incoming freshman class for those who do not meet certain
standards but who are members of an underrepresented racial group,
athletes or graduates of rural high schools, for example. The
University of Washington School of Law receives 2,500
applications. About 900 are considered clearly qualified, but most are
not accepted because there are only 165 first-year places. The Law
School selects students based on a combination of scores, grades and
other factors such as cultural background and special talents to
enhance the richness of the student body. (Seattle Times, March 12,
1995) There is no evidence that affirmative action has lowered the
quality of any educational institution.

Does affirmative action mean quotas?

	No. In 1976, Allan Bakke sued the University of California
Medical School at Davis for denying him admission on the basis of
reverse discrimination, because 16 out of 100 places in the medical
school class were reserved for "economically and educationally
disadvantaged applicants." The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bakke,
holding that the policy of reserving specified slots was a quota
system and illegal. However, the Court also held that race could be
included as a factor in determining admission, as long as it was not
the exclusive basis on which a decision was made.
	Affirmative action plans do not impose quotas; they simply
seek to increase the pool of qualified applicants by using aggressive
recruitment and outreach programs, setting goals and timetables and
establishing training programs, among other measures. People confuse
affirmative action with "consent decrees," which are court-mandated
quotas imposed by judges on specific institutions after years, often
decades, of proven failure to end discrimination. Ending affirmative
action would not affect consent decrees. (S.F. Examiner, December 25,

Isn't affirmative action really reverse discrimination?

	No. Affirmative action policies provide equal opportunity to
those groups who have been systematically denied it. Affirmative
action is not the source of discrimination, but the vehicle for
removing the effects of discrimination. Some white men are opposed to
giving others the opportunity they have historically enjoyed, and so
cry "reverse discrimination" in response to the steps that have been
taken in that direction.
	Actually, few reverse discrimination cases have been brought
by white males, and even fewer have been found to have any merit. A
recent Labor Department report found less than 100 reverse
discrimination cases among more than 3,000 discrimination opinions by
the U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeal, between 1990 and
1994. Discrimination was established in only six cases. The report
found that, "Many of the cases were the result of a disappointed
applicant... erroneously assuming that when a woman or minority got
the job, it was because of race or sex, not qualifications."
(S.F. Chronicle, March 31, 1995)
	While some white men may feel they have been unfairly passed
over, it is a myth that they are losing jobs to unqualified women and
people of color due to affirmative action. While white men continue to
dominate the upper levels of business, less-skilled white men, men of
color and women are all losing jobs as corporations move overseas,
down-size, hire part-time workers, automate and computerize. White
workers are directing their anger at people of color and women, rather
than at the corporate decisions that lead to increased economic
insecurity for everyone.

Doesn't affirmative action perpetuate a society that focuses on race
when what we want is a color-blind society? Why do we still need
affirmative action?

	Because we still don't have equal opportunity. Affirmative
action, though initially created to redress the consequences of
slavery and segregation, must also serve to stem the effects of
continuing discrimination against women as well as people of color.
	In a recent poll, 60 percent of white people felt that people
of color have the same opportunities as whites, while 70 percent of
Black people disagreed. (West County Times, October 12, 1994) Talk of
a "color-blind" society acts as a smokescreen to justify a return to
the way things were 30 years ago. Opponents of affirmative action say
they want to protect the rights of the individual, and that race and
gender are irrelevant. However, they ignore the fact that it has
always mattered whether an individual is white or of color, male or
female, rich or poor. Opportunities in life have always been
conditioned by those factors.
	The brutality of racism continues relatively unfettered:
African Americans have the highest poverty rate at 33.1 percent; for
Latinos it is 30.6 percent; for Asians, 15.3 percent; and for whites,
12.2 percent. (S.F. Examiner, October 7, 1994) In 1992, 46.6 percent
of Black children under age 18 lived in poverty, compared with 16.9
percent of white children. Black babies are twice as likely to die
within the first year of life as white babies. (S.F. Examiner, January
4, 1995) In early 1995, the national unemployment rate for Latinos
equaled that of African Americans for the first time-both being much
higher than the rate for whites. (N.Y. Times, April 27, 1995)
	Given these conditions it is not surprising that an American
Council on Education survey found that Black and Latino students are
less likely to complete high school and attend college than
whites. Prospects for minority students in substandard schools remain
dismal. About 96 percent of Latino and 95 percent of African American
high school students cannot meet the University of California's
admissions requirements. (S.F. Examiner, March 17, 1995) With tuition
increasing, and competition for scholarships growing (along with a
legal attack on race-based scholarship programs), higher education
will soon be out of reach for an increasing number of students of
	The Glass Ceiling Commission, a bipartisan group of
legislators, labor experts and executives, was formed to identify the
barriers to career advancement by women and people of color. In its
1995 report, the Commission found that white men, who constitute about
43 percent of the work force, hold over 95 percent of senior
management positions. White men comprise 80 percent of tenured
professors and 97 percent of school superintendents, while Black men
constitute four percent of middle management and three percent of
physicians and lawyers. The Labor Department report revealed a
"pattern of injustice" that has been only slightly remedied by
affirmative action and would be worse without it.
	Until this picture changes, affirmative action will be vital
in any efforts to address poverty and achieve equal opportunity. We
need more affirmative action, not less.

Why should white women care about affirmative action?

	Women, in general, have been the main beneficiaries of
affirmative action and will be the biggest losers if it is
overturned. The number of women entering the professions, including
medicine, law and accounting, has increased substantially in 30
years. Women of all races have increased their share of professional
positions in corporations, and there would be no women police
officers, fire-fighters, bus drivers or construction workers without
affirmative action.
	However, women have yet to achieve equality in the work
place. Women tend to work in a narrow range of low-paying, low-status
jobs. They are under-represented in many occupations and are only 6.2
percent of directors of the top 500 corporations. Women occupy 44
percent of all federal jobs, but only 13 percent of top jobs. (Figures
compiled by The Feminist Majority, March 14, 1995) In 1993, women and
minority-owned firms received only 12 percent of the contracts awarded
by the state, a mere four percent more than in the
mid-80s. (S.F. Chronicle, March 29, 1995) In addition, the gap in
wages continues, as women earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by
	Many working and middle class families could not survive
without both parents working: 59 percent of women now work outside the
home. Overturning affirmative action would hit these families
hard. However, some polls indicate that young women, in particular, do
not realize what it took for them to have the opportunities they take
for granted today. Up until the 1970s, there were few women in law
schools, few women professors except at women's colleges, few
opportunities to go outside of jobs traditionally reserved for women.

Asian Americans have made it without affirmative action so why can't
everyone else?

	Not all Asian Americans have "made it." The "model minority"
myth belies great disparities in resources among Asian Americans due
to differences such as the number of generations in the U.S., language
capabilities, class, and ethnic background. The model minority myth
serves to perpetuate the illusion of a meritocratic, color-blind
	Unfortunately, that myth does not serve to spare Asian
Americans and Pacific Islanders from racist attacks or discrimination
on the job. Like women and other people of color, Asian Americans
continue to face the "glass ceiling" and to be underrepresented in
many mid- and upper-level jobs.
	It is also a myth that Asian Americans have not benefited from
affirmative action. Asian Americans are included in federal employment
affirmative action policies which apply to most employers who receive
federal funds. However, they are not considered an eligible minority
for many of the federal student aid programs and their eligibility for
special college admission programs varies with the educational
institutions. In relation to affirmative action policy, Asian
Americans are placed in a kind of buffer zone, sometimes treated as a
minority and sometimes not. Their "model minority" image is used to
undercut the demands of other people of color, yet Asian Americans
continue to be subjected to racist stereotyping and scapegoating.

Doesn't affirmative action stigmatize people of color who are seen as
getting a job or into college only because of that policy?

	Stereotypes plague people of color and would continue to do so
even if this policy was eliminated. White people, however, have
received preferential treatment for hundreds of years without being
stigmatized for it. They held the exclusive right to most jobs without
having to compete with anyone else. Now people of color are
stigmatized by being told, "The only reason you're here is because of
affirmative action." So they are faced with the constant need to prove
that they are qualified.
	Sometimes, this makes people of color feel as though they
would be better off without affirmative action programs so that it
would be clear they "deserve" to be where they are. However,
affirmative action was developed in the first place because many white
people refused to recognize people of color as deserving an equal
chance to demonstrate their abilities.

Why don't we change affirmative action to policies that help people
based on economic need instead of race or gender?

	This approach would benefit people of color who are
disadvantaged economically. But counterposing it to affirmative action
is an attempt to sweep the pivotal issue of race under the rug. People
of color have been discriminated against based entirely on race for
hundreds of years. Therefore, policies to eliminate discrimination
must address the issue of race. We need programs based on economic
need in addition to, but not instead of, affirmative action.

What is behind the attack on affirmative action?

	First, the economy continues to decline. People are afraid of
losing what they have. There is a scarcity of jobs and limited
resources today. It was easier for society to accept the changes
brought about by the civil rights and women's movements when the
economy was growing and the middle class was still expanding. The
current economy is seeing a shift from high-wage manufacturing jobs to
low-wage service jobs, with a drop in the standard of living for
middle income workers, the decline of blue collar unions, and lack of
investment in public infrastructure. (San Jose Mercury News, February
19, 1995)
	Safety net programs are also being cut deeply. The commitment
to provide for people in need is fast disappearing. Women on welfare,
teen mothers, immigrants, criminals, youth, and now anyone who
benefits from affirmative action programs are depicted as undeserving
and taking away from what others have.
	This attack is taking place in the larger context of the fight
for the identity of the nation. It's no accident that California is
the first big site of battle. California will soon become the first
state (other than Hawaii) to be majority non-white; the cities of Los
Angeles, San Francisco and some counties already are. Many people from
the dominant society fear losing control over the economic, political
and cultural direction of the state, particularly to people from
unfamiliar cultures. This converges with the economic problems and
leads to the scapegoating of immigrants and other people of color who
are blamed for this crisis. While California and the nation need the
labor of immigrants and other people of color, they do not want to
make room for them as human beings, let alone as equal participants in
civic life.
	Rolling back affirmative action fits in with the Republican
agenda to limit the role of government in defending the vulnerable:
deregulation, ending welfare, cutting school lunch programs, food
stamps, and other programs that benefit the poor. Underlying this
attack is an aversion to the fundamental concept of an egalitarian
society and an acceptance of living in a society polarized by race and

Does affirmative action benefit society as a whole?

	Yes. Having a truly democratic and just society demands it
because racism, sexism and all discrimination tear at the very fabric
of society. A nation that seeks to maintain privilege "abandons its
soul... because so many people are excluded from the possibility of
decent lives and from forming any sense of community with the rest of
society." (Roger Wilkins, The Nation, March 27, 1995)
	Higher education has also benefited from affirmative
action. The President of the University of California, Jack Peltason,
recently stated: "Equal opportunity, affirmative action and diversity
programs have been indispensable both to our educational mission and
to our ability to achieve a diversified community of learning."
Private corporations have embraced affirmative action, knowing that it
is good business to have a work force that reflects the demographics
of the community.
	Elizabeth Toledo, coordinator for California NOW, believes "We
have to change the question from `Is affirmative action good or bad?'
to the question `Does the government have the responsibility to
address discrimination and bias in the work place, and does it have a
duty to attempt to create a level playing field?"
	The Dean of the University of Washington's Law School summed
up why it does: "In an increasingly multicultural nation with a global
reach, a commitment to diversity-to broadening the boundaries of
inclusiveness of American institutions-is economically necessary,
morally imperative, and constitutionally legitimate."

For more information:

Equal Rights Advocates, 1663 Mission Street, Suite 550, San Francisco,
CA 94103, 415-621-0672.

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, 1275 K St. NW #301,
Washington, DC 20005, 202-682-1300.

National Lawyers Guild, 55 Sixth Ave., Third Floor, New York, NY
10013, 212-966-5000; or 558 Capp Street, San Francisco, CA 94110,

Northern California Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action,
415-621-2006, ext. 64.  NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, 99
Hudson St., New York, NY 10013, 212-925-6635.

"Questions and Answers about Affirmative Action" was prepared by a
team coordinated by CrossRoads editor Nancy Stein and including
CrossRoads editor Elizabeth Martinez, Cathy Tashiro, a doctoral
student in sociology working on issues of race and ethnicity, and Phil
Hutchings, program director of the Center for Ethics and Economic
Policy in Berkeley, California.

The above special feature appeared in CrossRoads magazine No. 52, June

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