Debunking the 'Affirmative-Action Myth'

Who has benefited most from affirmative action? The answer will surprise you and will explain why the practice is still beneficial.

Anti-affirmative-action advocate Ward Connerly, who is best known for leading the state-to-state war to roll back affirmative action, told an audience of CEOs and senior executives at a DiversityInc learning event in Washington, D.C., that he is a crusader for "a color-blind society." He argued that dismantling affirmative action will force the government to treat all its citizens equally regardless of their racial background.

But that stance doesn't account for who has really benefited most from affirmative action over the years.

What Is Affirmative Action?

The definition of affirmative action under Executive Order 11246 (41 CFR 60-2.10) is:

A set of specific results-oriented procedures to which an organization commits itself to apply every good-faith effort to:

  • eliminate disparity in hiring and promoting of groups
  • eliminate under utilization
  • ensure equal opportunity
  • identify barriers which interfere with EEO to all employees

The intent of affirmative action has been to bring about equal opportunities in employment as well as business contracts, housing and education. It is not only a remedy toward past and present discrimination but is used to prevent future discrimination, assisting in attaining an inclusive society.

There is no requirement of preferential treatment ("goals" vs. "quota") except in situations of intentional discrimination and under a court order.

Who Benefits From Affirmative Action?

Virtually everyone has benefited. EEO/AA has actually benefited white men more than any other group. This may come as a surprise to those who have only focused on the "surface issues," which are hyped by the press and politicians. The reality is that both overtly and under the surface, EEO/AA rules have led to the hiring and upward mobility of millions of white men

Affirmative-action rules have a great focus on veterans and veterans with disabilities. The only consistently ongoing "preference points" or hiring "preference" systems in the country are for veterans. "Veterans points" have been in effect since the end of World War II and are widely used by public and private employers. The overwhelming majority of those benefiting from veterans preferences have been white and male. Millions of white men have been passed ahead of others who scored higher in applicant ratings (including many women and "minority" candidates) and were given jobs, instead of the "top qualified" applicants being hired.

The most significant change brought about by the EEO/AA laws was publication of job announcements. Until the mid-1960s' passage of EEO/AA laws, the majority of mid- and upper-level job openings were not published. They were secrets, known only to insiders. Unless you were "in the know," you would not have information to even apply. Until then, virtually all of those jobs went to white men, but not all white men were considered appropriate management material. Italian, Polish, Irish, Jewish, South Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Catholic workers and the great numbers of lower-income white people were not generally part of the "in group" or "country-club set." These people held mostly lower-pay-level jobs. However, after the EEO/AA laws forced companies to publicly advertise management positions, these groups began to learn about, apply for and move into the upper levels of employment. The implementation of EEO/AA enabled millions of these white men to apply for and get jobs, achieving upward mobility that had previously been denied.

The "Affirmative action is only for women and 'minorities'" myth is simply a myth. Scratch below the surface and one finds that the positive effects of EEO/AA have been predominantly for white, male job applicants and continue to benefit the entire society.

"Affirmative action's purpose was not to give unqualified people special rights but rather give people who were, in fact, qualified and eager and ambitious the opportunity to enter into fields that had been denied them solely by virtue of the color of their skin or their gender ..." wrote Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, former secretary of transportation.

Gen. Colin Powell stated, "When equal performance doesn't result in equal advancement, then something is wrong with the system, and our leaders have an obligation to fix it. If a history of discrimination has made it difficult for certain Americans to meet standards, it is only fair to provide temporary means to help them catch up and compete on equal terms. Affirmative action in the best sense promotes equal consideration, not reverse discrimination."

Job discrimination is grounded in prejudice and exclusion. Affirmative action is an effort to overcome that treatment through inclusion. The logic of affirmative action is no different than the logic of treating a nutritional deficiency with vitamin supplements. For a healthy person, high doses of vitamins may be unnecessary or even harmful, but for a system that is out of balance, supplements are an efficient way to restore balance.

Bob Gregg is a partner in the Boardman Law Firm. He practices employment law and has been professionally engaged in a wide range of employment-relations work for more than 30 years. In addition to litigation, a major emphasis of his practice is consulting to analyze the workplace, develop policies and procedures, and resolve employment problems before they generate legal action.

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