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 characteristics." 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 workers. 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, 1994) 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 color. 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 men. 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 society. 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 gender. 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, 415-285-5067. 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 1995.