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Affirmative Action Remains Imperative

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Editor in Chief

It has been almost three decades since President Lyndon B. Johnson created the institution of affirmative action, and as the 1996 Presidential campaign gets underway, Republican politicians are charging that the program is overdue for termination.

Affirmative action began in 1965 when President Johnson issued an Executive Order requiring companies that worked with the government to commit to conscious and deliberate efforts to bring qualified people of color into jobs and educational institutions from which they had been historically excluded. Over the years, affirmative action programs have expanded, and rightfully so, to include women and other traditionally excluded groups.

"After 30 years, it is obvious that this social experiment called affirmative action has outlived its usefulness," Senator Jesse Helms (RNorth Carolina) said last week as he introduced a bill to end all such programs. Sens. Bob Dole (RKansas) and Phil Gramm (RTexas), both leading presidential contenders, have pledged to end affirmative action if elected president.

Contrary to what Helms and other GOP lawmakers charge, however, affirmative action has not outlived its usefulness. We are beginning to see some of the positive effects from affirmative action initiatives, but we are a long way from attaining the goal of ending workplace and education imbalances. Like all programs, affirmative action must change over time; it has grown to help many different groups of people, and it should continue to evolve to include other groups, such as the poor.

The Republicans charge that affirmative action has done more than enough and is no longer necessary. Helms, Dole and Gramm would do well to examine some statistics on "equal opportunity." For example, women still earn disproportionately lower salaries than men (typically 55 to 75 percent of the average male salary). While only one-tenth of white families live in poverty, one-third of African American and one-fourth of Latino families do. Native Americans are still the most impoverished minority in North America. Today's poor people are poorer than they were 20 years ago, and have an even less chance of digging themselves out of poverty, according to a report from the federal Commission on the Cities.

One can see that affirmative action is still needed to bring more minorities into higher education and the workplace. These statistics also highlight the need for affirmative action for poor people, a need President Clinton recognized when he spoke last week about his review of affirmative action programs. Clinton said he wanted to "emphasize need-based programs where we can because they work better and have a bigger impact and generate broader support." However, he must be careful not to replace necessary race- and gender-based programs with need-based programs more acceptable to the Republicans; rather, the separate areas should complement each other.

Introducing his bill to end affirmative action, Helms said "It is about fairness. It is about putting an end to reverse discrimination at the hands of ruthless bureaucrats." He is confused in his accusations. Affirmative action itself is about fairness. It is about ending discrimination in the workplace, in education, and in housing, at the hands of prejudiced - and sometimes ruthless - bureaucrats. Affirmative action works to remedy discrimination, not instill it. It seeks to eliminate the historical and unearned privileges of traditional majority groups.

Another popular misconception about affirmative action is it encourages the hiring of people based solely on their race or gender. It does not - it is about recruiting and hiring qualified people of all backgrounds. As an example, MIT has made a concerted effort over the last few years to recruit more women applicants, and hence more women students. This is not a quota system or reverse discrimination, but an active policy to open up opportunities for members of groups that have historically been excluded, either by misguided legislation or societal pressure.

In attacking affirmative action, Dole and Gramm both called for an end to "quota systems." Yet another misconception: affirmative action is not a quota system. Legally imposed hiring regulations have been instituted only when discrimination was found to be persistent and near-total, and after voluntary measures failed. Extreme discrimination can only be repaired by remedial goals, designed to reproduce the circumstances that would most likely occur provided there was no discrimination in the first place. These goals are not quotas; they are inclusionary rather than exclusionary, and are flexible and temporary.

Has affirmative action worked over the last 30 years? Yes, in many areas. Members of minority groups who would otherwise not have had a chance to get a good education and enter productive careers have had access to employment, higher education, and housing. Between 1970 and 1980, total black employment increased by 15 percent among public sector employees. Affirmative action guidelines at large private companies have also produced dramatic increases in the number of minority employees and promotions.

American cannot lose with affirmative action. It is indispensable for giving underrepresented groups a temporary leg up, and it encourages the diversity that gives our country the potential to solve its problems. By the turn of the century, more than three-fourths of the job market will be people of color, female, or immigrant. A perpetuation of exclusionary employment and education practices would leave this talent pool untapped.

Helms said that the government should end the programs and "restore the principles upon which our country was built: personal responsibility, self-reliance, and hard work." In a utopian society, with no history of prejudice and discrimination, he would be correct. However, modern America must deal with the consequences of centuries of institutionalized oppression of minorities, and many more years of segregation and discrimination. As President Johnson said in a speech at Howard University in the 1960s, "Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity."