Affirmative Action Debate: Nation Must Not Set Aside Gains Made By Minorities

This article is part of a debate between Major W. Cox and Thomas McPherson Jr. It originally appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser on July 16, 1995.

By Thomas McPherson Jr.

The affirmative action debate has grown very serious. The president has announced that he will cause a full review to be made of the programs. Presidential candidates have taken strong stands against affirmative action. There are congressional oversight hearings. A few angry white men have cried “reverse discrimination.” The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided in a 5-4 decision that the “government may treat people differently because of their race only for the most compelling reasons.”

I am reminded of the cartoon in which two African-American lawyers are discussing the Supreme Court decision.

One said to the other, “How does this (decision) affect minority set-asides?”

The other lawyer responded, “It sets aside the last half of the 20th century.”

His response is insightfully correct.

As an individual who has worked in the field of equal employment opportunity for the past 30 years, I believe that affirmative action is an absolute necessity if African-Americans, women and other minorities are to realize their full potential in the American job market and in other institutions.

We as responsible citizens must face and deal with the undeniable fact that affirmative action has its roots in American racism and sexism. This society from the beginning of the Republic has taught us that skin color is destiny, and that whiteness is to be revered. It should therefore be understandable that white males take their preferences as a matter of natural right and consider any alteration of that right offensive.

White males have enjoyed racial preferences through five centuries in this country. Power and wealth are overwhelmingly skewed their way primarily because of that historical reality. We have in fact achieved a society based more on merit as a result of affirmative action than we have ever previously enjoyed in this country.

Affirmative action was designed to enlarge opportunities for everyone. It requires employers to go beyond business as usual and search for qualified individuals in places where they did not previously recruit. It is not to force people into positions for which they are not qualified, but to encourage employers to develop realistic criteria for the job at hand and to recruit broadly to include those previously excluded.

President Lyndon Johnson said at the 1965 Howard University graduation exercises, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all others’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”

Ruling on the Microsoft antitrust settlement recently, Judge Stanley Sporkin of the District of Columbia federal court said, “Simply telling a defendant to go forth and sin no more does little or nothing to address the unfair advantage it has already gained.”

Judge Sporkin was declaring that the settlement did little to help Microsoft’s competitors to catch up. They had been the victims of what the Justice Department described as Microsoft’s anti-competitive practices.

Substitute the words “white male” for “Microsoft” and “African-Americans and women” for “its competitors” and the judge’s words sound remarkably similar to a rationale for affirmative action and President Johnson’s admonition 30 years ago.

The concept of affirmative action essentially is a euphemism for reparations. African-Americans were deeply damaged by the institution of slavery. President Johnson and Judge Sporkin are right: It is not enough to simply say “stop” to those discriminating or taking unfair advantage. We must take and continue to take those definitive steps that will enable the victims to overcome the twin deprivations of unequal opportunity and unequal treatment.

During the ’60s, when federal programs were first designed to take affirmative action to overcome the effects of prior discrimination, American cities were going up in smoke. From 1964 to 1969, some 65 cities exploded in violent upheavals.

Aside from the toll in lives and property, the situation was bad for business. Studies assessing the violence found that racist hiring policies had been a precipitating factor. Affirmative action was born in the smoky, charred climate.

All businessmen understand the “bottom line” and will do what is necessary to improve the “bottom line.” We as a nation are driven, in the main, by the dollar to do what is right, rather than by what is moral. Fortunately, however, the fuel of money sometimes causes us to drive in the right direction. In that process, we become accustomed to accepting people of different races, religions and nationalities as co-workers of equal worth, intelligence, skills and abilities.

Without the requirements calling for plans, good faith efforts and the setting of broad numerical goals, many employers would do what they have always done: assert that they have looked out but “couldn’t find anyone qualified” and thereafter hire the white male whom they wanted to hire in the first place.

I read with delight in a recent Montgomery Advertiser that the percentage of African-Americans employed by state government has more than doubled since 1979 – from 15.5 percent to 34.1 percent. The Advertiser recognized the progress in its lead editorial, but attributed the progress, in part to anti-discrimination lawsuits.

I submit to you that the hiring progress was also caused by affirmative action – either by court order or by astute managers who voluntarily took affirmative action to prevent lawsuits.

As in state government, these gains have occurred nationally across the spectrum of occupations in police and fire departments and in other public service occupations, in manufacturing and trucking, in the construction trades, in service occupations, in managerial positions and in professions. Sound, well-developed affirmative action policies do not dilute the merit principle.

Notwithstanding the achievements that African-Americans, women and other minorities have gained through affirmative action, we are still faced with barriers in seeking and keeping jobs. The number of charges received by EEOC grew by 36 percent from 1987 to 1994. Of all charges received in 1994, gender comprised 27 percent, race 35 percent, national origin 8 percent, and the remaining 30 percent of the charges was based on religion, age, disability and equal pay based on sex.

The conclusion of the Glass Ceiling Commission’s report includes among other things, the finding

that 97 percent of senior managers at Fortune 1000 industrial corporations are white males, and that only 5 percent of senior management at industrial and service companies are women, virtually all of whom are white.

With this statistical overview and findings, affirmative action is still needed.

One could raise the question, is affirmative action unfair to others? Evidence of misapplication of the policy is minimal as demonstrated by the EEOC data:

Over the eight-year period, as a percentage of all charges received, white males filed approximately 1.7 percent of race-based charges.

As a percentage of all race-based charges, white males filed race discrimination charges averaging 4.1 percent over an eight-year period.

This tiny percentage of reversed discrimination cases is not caused to junk affirmative action juxtaposed against the employment gains achieved by African-Americans, women and minorities.

Rather than junking affirmative action because of a few white men, we have a “compelling reason” to review the very carefully and to make necessary modifications to ensure African Americans, women and other minorities are assured an equal opportunity to participate in the job market on an equal footing.

And the “most compelling reason” is not to set aside the gains of the last half of the 20th century.

Thomas McPherson Jr. is the principal of an employment dispute resolution service in Montgomery.

Originally published: 16 July 1995, Montgomery Advertiser
Copyright – 1995 – Tom McPhereson and The Montgomery Advertiser.

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