Mitt Romney’s attack on affirmative action while governor of Massachusetts has been in the news this week. It appears that he retreated from his attack, but for many affirmative action leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Affirmative action was implemented for a reason and there is still much justification for its continuance. For years, affirmative action has been demonized through misapplication and the use of the term “quota.”
Let’s start with quotas. To set the record straight, quotas are not legal in the United States. No employer, university, or other entity may create a set number required for each race.
But how often have we heard the statement “He got in because of the quota system.” It is a common chant of those who despise affirmative action—by those who were fine with the way things used to be. Some of them lived during the years when just because of a man’s color he had no chance of promotion or progression up the career ladder no matter how well he performed or how much education he attained. On the other hand, some have only lived in a world with affirmative action, and think it not fair that they are not he recipients of this law that sought to change past behaviors, yet they refuse to acknowledge that they are beneficiaries of the past discrimination.
What do I mean? Because their parents and grandparents had all along what these laws recently provided for people of color and women, their parents were better able to leave them in a financially more stable circumstance, and they are the beneficiaries of plain old networking. I recently observed a kid being accelerated up the ladder because his father was a longtime manager. It happens all of the time. And, how many schools consider the children of their alumni more favorably in in their entrance process? And what about public education, many were beneficiaries of better educational resources by virtue of the neighborhoods they lived in, the resources their parents had accumulated, etc. They are beneficiaries of something more powerful than affirmative action.
Now let’s turn for a moment to the misapplication of this affirmative action which was intended to promote equal opportunity. The term first appeared in an executive order, signed by President Kennedy in 1961, referencing measures to achieve non-discrimination. In 1965, President Johnson signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to take "affirmative action" to hire without regard to race, religion and national origin. In 1968, gender was added to the anti-discrimination. Nowhere does it say “hire the first unqualified person of color or female that darkens your door,” but in what I believe was a deliberate attack on affirmative action, that is exactly what some employers did. Rather than employ good recruiting practices to hire persons of color or women who could truly do a good job, they hired some who really did not have a chance in hell of doing a good job and then turned around and blamed affirmative action for the problems experienced. To this day I see people who were hired years ago who have remained incompetent and serve as a reminder to all of how bad this affirmative action thing was.
On the other hand, there were many who were put in these awkward and challenging positions who rose to the occasion. So even with this misapplication, it advanced diversity and equal opportunity in the workplace. I applaud those folks. I think it important to note that there has always been a good diverse pool of applicants, as these people had been disenfranchised in the workforce for many years. There were huge numbers available for recruitment—there was no need to hire those that were unqualified. But it happened, and yet, it was not all a loss. I think it also important to remember that some employers implemented the law as intended and we see those benefits in healthy diversity-rich workplaces.
I ask all of those who see affirmative action as a useless and unfair to remember that employers had years and years to be fair. They did not come to fairness on their own volition, and thus affirmative action. And even with such laws, we still see very few people of color and women breaking the glass ceiling or even in management in correlation to their numbers in the workplace. It is still very much a white man’s workplace. If there is a time when an advantage is given due to race or gender under affirmative action, it is when all things are equal and it is an opportunity to increase diversity--I can think of no other.
Even with years of affirmative action, we still decisions based not on ones qualifications, not one’s character, but on the color of their skin or gender. If you haven’t seen it, I have. As long as there are those that continue to perpetuate unfair hiring practices based upon the race, color, gender, origin and age we must have laws to protect them.