Why We Still Need Affirmative Action

As a child, I was always fascinated by the tortures inflicted in Greek mythology—Sisyphus forced to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down every evening. Prometheus enduring the eating of his liver by an eagle every day. They're just so exquisitely punitive. But I gotta tell you, writing a defense of affirmative action would have been a perfect addition to Hades' arsenal. Not only is the policy poorly understood by both its supporters and detractors, but it seems, at first blush, to fly in the face of American precepts of equality. Still, since it's Black History Month, I thought I'd take up the cause—not simply because I like hate mail, but also because I really believe that affirmative action is a crucial tool in the fight for equal opportunity and access for all.

One of the problems, I think, is branding. Opponents of affirmative action have succeeded in associating the phrase with unfair advantages for undeserving minorities and women. A 1996 article in Stanford Magazine, by David Sacks and Peter Theil, is a perfect and well-written example: "Over the past quarter of a century, Stanford has been discriminating in favor of racial minorities in admissions, hiring, tenure, contracting and financial aid. But only recently has the University been forced to rethink these policies in the face of an emerging public debate over affirmative action. We are beginning to see why. Originally conceived as a means to redress discrimination, racial preferences have instead promoted it. And rather than fostering harmony and integration, preferences have divided the campus. In no other area of public life is there a greater disparity between the rhetoric of preferences and the reality." I don't see it that way. In certain very competitive circumstances such as college admissions, affirmative action has caused everybody to feel unfairly judged, not just black people. Stanford has every right to compose a student body based on the qualifications it thinks will maintain its status as an elite university. If one of those qualifications is a diversity of background, so be it. Any guidance counselor will tell you: it takes more than good SAT scores to get into college. Affirmative action isn't around to play favorites—nor is it supposed to prefer people of color over white ones. It is a system designed to make sure that everybody is getting into college through their qualifications whether you are a poor kid from East L.A. or a fourth-generation legacy.

Sadly, though, the phrase "affirmative action" has become code for choosing unqualified minority candidates instead of qualified white people. A survey done last year by Quinnipiac University found that more than 70 percent of voters think diversity is not a good enough reason to give minorities preferential treatment. And that's despite the fact that the number of people who fall under the protection of such programs has continued to grow—women, Hispanics, gay men and lesbians, the disabled, even white men have all been the beneficiaries of more inclusive hiring practices. As long as people remain convinced that affirmative action is about giving minorities preferential treatment, they will also remain ignorant of the fact that affirmative action works on behalf of all people. But rather than patiently explaining that the aim of affirmative action is not to toss white men out on the street or proving that I deserve all the opportunities I've been given, I propose changing the name to "employment equity," the phrase they use in Canada. Or at least some kind of wording that says: "This isn't about demonizing white men, stealing their jobs, and giving them to knuckleheads. This is about fairness."

Affirmative action wasn't supposed to be controversial. In 1961 when President Kennedy issued an executive order mandating that beneficiaries of federal monies "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin," it was a bold call to arms for the American government to walk the walk of desegregation. It wasn't until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that Lyndon Johnson expanded the mission of affirmative action: "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…This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

Back then, with the paint over the "Whites Only" signs still fresh, it made sense that a simple law, no matter how historic, would not be enough to end Jim Crow. But what was a pressing social issue more than 40 years ago is a high-school history lesson now. Today most people are opposed to legislating preference. But does that mean they're against equality?

Affirmative action is not about giving African-Americans now the 40 acres and a mule their enslaved ancestors never got. It is about creating opportunities for the minority that the majority might be tempted to keep for itself. And while there has been a vast improvement in race relations since 1964, I don't think anyone believes all our problems surrounding discrimination and bias have been solved. Hundreds of people have climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, but that doesn't make it accessible.

Accessibility in the workplace, in schools, and everywhere else comes out of diversity. Having a diverse workforce or student body does have benefits. In "Impact of Diversity on Students: A Preliminary Review of the Research Literature", authors Morgan Appel, David Cartwright, Daryl G. Smith, and Lisa E. Wolf found that diversity "is increasingly related to satisfaction, academic success, and cognitive development of all students." And one way to achieve that diversity is affirmative action—fostering multiculturalism in a codified way until it becomes second nature. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author of the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a pivotal decision in support of affirmative action, has herself recognized that affirmative action isn't a permanent solution but a remedy that, if used, dare I say, judiciously, will one day make itself irrelevant. "When the time comes to reassess the constitutionality of considering race in higher-education admissions," she wrote, reflecting on the decision nearly seven years later in The Next Twenty-five Years: Affirmative Action in Higher Education in the United States and South Africa, "we will need social scientists to clearly demonstrate the educational benefits of diverse student bodies, and to better understand the links between role models in one generation and aspirations and achievements of succeeding generations."

Diversity isn't just an attempt to look good in pictures or to appear politically correct…that's a Benetton ad. Diversity challenges assumptions and forces people to rely on personal experience instead of stereotype. It's hard to think black people are inferior if they're sitting next to you in freshman English or in a conference room. Diversity is just a synonym for melting pot—an attempt to get us closer to the day when "our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin," wrote Franklin Thomas, former head of the Ford Foundation, "or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings." But we're going to need a little equity if we ever want to get there.