The Failure of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action! What does this term mean? That was the focus of my Masterís thesis, or at least part of the focus. The whole idea was to find out what was the original intent of Affirmative Action, how it was to work, where Affirmative Action had gone and what it has become. I started my journey from a position of neutrality. My past experiences were ones that saw no real bias in people being selected for any position. I had a football scholarship to college. In sports, the best got to play. No one cared if you were black or white, just whether or not you could perform. From college I went into the Air Force as an officer and into pilot training. Again, it didnít matter the color of your skin, only if you could do the job. From 1980 to 1990 I saw only that individual merit mattered. That is the way it should be.

My research on Affirmative Action started off simple enough. I looked at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and how congress moved to ensure that everyone in American society was treated fairly and equally. President Kennedy was the first to use the term Affirmative Action when he said that he wanted businesses to "act affirmatively" to provide "equal opportunity" for consideration to all people regardless of their sex, race, religion or ethnic origin. This meant looking at individual merit and not disqualifying an individual just because they were black or a woman. Makes sense to me. The congressional records show time and again during debates in congress, conservatives worried about how to make Affirmative Action laws work without forcing a quota system. Time and again liberal congressmen boldly stated that quotas would be expressly forbidden by any law (they were specifically talking about the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Believe it or not, this is true. Quotas are forbidden in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So how is it that we have come to a point where people are counting heads and checking percentages of minority employees in comparison with the percentages of minorities in the total population?

As one might expect, activist judges overstepping their constitutional boundaries is the answer. In the initial challenges to discrimination under the 1964 Act, people found themselves searching for a way to base their claims, a form of measurement to determine whether true discrimination had taken place. Time and again, "experts" found themselves with no real solid measurement. The fall back position was that tests for entrance to a position or promotion within a system were naturally discriminatory against minorities since white men had written the tests. The "fact" that these tests had been written by white men was a reasonable assumption at the time, but an assumption that did not necessarily disqualify the tests. Without a solid means for testing for discrimination, judges went the most obvious route available to them: quotas. This meant that minorities would be given handouts until their numbers in the disputed area of employment rose to an amount in proportion to their numbers in the general population. While this is a kind and noble gesture, what about those truly qualified individuals passed over to make room for minorities? Are they truly less deserving? Arenít they discriminated against based on their color and sex? How ironic that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared us a color blind society and that we would not consider our differences when hiring, so the first thing we do is start counting and keeping track of percentages of women and people of color that are in our work force.

My research showed that minorities, prior to the passing of the 1964 Act, were making gains in income and access to positions previously off limits. The rate of minority gains actually slowed down after passage of the Act. In trying to determine the reason for this bizarre consequence there was no apparent documented reason for the slow down in advancement. The one possible reason was that the urge to excel was declining. People werenít trying as hard to get ahead. Why? If you knew that there was a position open and if you didnít get it, you could sue and claim discrimination what would you do? If you knew there were so many set-asides so that there was a slot being held for minorities, would you feel that you needed to try as hard? History has shown us through welfare and other programs that hand outs tend to kill personal initiative and drive. I believe that we would be farther along in the "assimilation" of minorities into all levels of business if we had left people to their own devices and individual drive. We also would not have the issue of minorities being look upon with doubt as to their qualifications. Time and again we see where a minority gets into a leadership position and the question goes out, "Did they earn that position, or are they a quota." By having quotas, we have established doubt in peopleís minds as to the qualifications of the individual, not to mention the interesting phenomena known as "white backlash." Resentment now exists on both sides of the race and gender aisle. Everyone believes that "the other person" has the inside track and they canít get a break because of their personal background. In this aspect, Affirmative Action has at the very least prolonged, if not aggravated our problems in race relations.

In the long run, Affirmative Action has slowed down the progress of many minorities, cast doubt on the minorities that are achieving and exacerbating race relations. No matter how you slice it, a noble idea has been perverted and used by invasive big government to dictate how people should conduct hiring and promotion practices to the point of causing more harm than any good that was desired. I myself have been on the negative end of Affirmative Action. On a number of occasions I have had friends in companies where I have tried to obtain work let me know, after I was rejected, that I had the qualifications and was the desired candidate but that they needed a female or other minority. This has not made me bitter, but it does make one wonder why you should try so hard to get a good education and work hard if all that really matters is if you are the right color or gender. If as a society we are truly concerned about appropriate representation in all fields of work, why isnít anyone screaming over the disproportionate representation of blacks in professional football or basketball? Shouldnít we have set-asides in these realms of business like anywhere else? The absurdity of this question is a damning inditement of Affirmative Action in all aspects of life. However, if anyone decides to take the concept of set-asides in pro sports seriously, Iíll take the slot for red-headed, left-handed white boys.

As a foot note, during my Air Force career I went through training to be a recruiter for Air Force ROTC (thatís Reserve Officer Training Corp.). The idea was that in this specific position, I would go around to high schools within a specific region and look for qualified candidates to offer ROTC scholarships for college. During the training we were told that there were quotas for minorities and the grade point average and SAT/ACT standards were lower for minorities. This caused an uproar among the officers in the training, even the minority officers. The explanation was that minorities had so many options it was hard to get them to choose the military over more lucrative options. To get the required numbers of minorities, standards had to be lowered to get the "next level" of potential minority candidates into the officer corp. There was one exception to this rule. Asians were not given this preferential treatment. When asked why, the instructor said that Asians achieved such a high level of success, there was no need for affirmative action on their part. My research supported this statement. Whether first generation, or if their families had been in America 100 hears, Asians tend to excel. So since Asians assimilated well and didnít need Affirmative Action, they were not considered a minority. This makes me wonder, if Asians can succeed, why canít other minorities? Why do other minorities need assistance and Asians do not? There is no need for quotas. Like other types of government interventions, Affirmative Action has taken away the concepts of hard work, pride in personal achievement and self determination. In its wake is a belief that something is owed to minorities based on some potential past discrimination.

Anyone under the age of 40 has not had to deal with Jim Crow laws and does not deserve special treatment based on the color of their skin or their gender. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he wanted his children "judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character." Whether or not Mr. King really meant these words has been debated. What cannot be denied is that they reflect the concepts our founding fathers were striving for, to let each individual carve out their own future based on their own efforts and willingness to pay what price is required of them. Life isnít fair. You cannot guarantee equality of outcome. All we should strive for is to look at each person as an individual, not as part of a group, and judge them on their own merits.

Jeff Adams
December 30, 1998