Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.  

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In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? Affirmative-Action-demonstrationI want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.

. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .[1]

The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.

President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.[2]

. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not LBJtake a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.[3]

While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,

. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.[4]

Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.

The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.[5]

Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites.[6] The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans.[7] It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.

For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended.[8] That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History.[9] How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.”[10] She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?

Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.

The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies.  Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.

Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.

Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish abolish_affirmative_action_nowgoals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year.[11] Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.”[12] If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.

Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.

It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.[13]

What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”[14]

Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.

If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?[15]

Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day.[16] However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”[17]

All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that

[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.[18]

This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.

Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .”[19] A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.”[20] Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.

On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.

It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.

At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.

[1] Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/eo-10925.html.

[2] Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.

[3] “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/650604.asp.  All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.

[4] “Statement on Affirmative Action,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/aaction/state77.pdf.

[5] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.

[7] Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.

[8] Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.

[9] This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

[10] “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016, https://sojo.net/articles/jesus-and-affirmative-action.

[11] The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.

[12] Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.

[13] Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.

[14] Ibid., 143.

[15] Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.

[16] George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.

[17] Ibid., Section 11.4.

[18] Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[19] Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.

[20] John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”

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