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Affirmative Action Still Needed

Posted on December 15th, 2011 by

By Chip Underwood, ERC Testing Program Manager

A statewide campaign set forth by civil rights and student groups seeks to overturn California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits any program from giving preference to women and minorities in college admission, employment, promotions, or government contracts. This effort follows a decision favorable to civil rights groups in Michigan where a similar ban on affirmative action policies was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Disparities in wealth based on race are well documented. Despite white households having a median wealth that is 18 to 20 times that of black and Hispanic households, many contend that affirmative action programs designed to redress the remnants of past discrimination and to alleviate education and income inequality are, by design, a form of “reverse discrimination.” Specifically, opponents to affirmative action policies argue that these policies cause better qualified white men to be bypassed in favor of women and minorities. This argument suggests that somehow women and minorities, through affirmative action, subject their white male counterpart to the same treatment historically received by minorities.

More and more, critics of affirmative action policies call for “color-blind” recruitment strategies in employment and education. But is it enough in this country to rely solely on color-blind policies as a remedy for disparities in wealth between white males and the historically disadvantaged? As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University:

“Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, you are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”

In both Michigan and California, the bans on affirmative action policies resulted in a drastic reduction in minority admissions in state universities.  Supporters of affirmative action argue that admissions and hiring goals established to more properly represent women and minority populations do not exclude truly qualified candidates in favor of individuals who are not, but redress the institutional discrimination that has caused some populations to be underrepresented in competitive universities and high skilled labor markets.  Opponents argue that targeting is in fact a quota system that leads to reverse discrimination.

With further appeals expected in Michigan, and a federal appeals court reviewing California’s Proposition 209 in February, this controversial issue will continue to receive a lot of scrutiny in the year to come.

Categorized as Civil Rights

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