Free Research Paper on Affirmative Action

Free sample research paper on Affirmative Action:

There are numerous issues that have spawned heated debates in American society: abortion, animal rights, and prayer in public schools. Arguably, these debates have become so hotly contended that politicians have jumped on the bandwagon to support one side or another. Among the current topics that have fueled a considerable amount of political and social debate is the topic of affirmative action. While opponents maintain that affirmative action induces reverse discrimination; those that support the movement argue that without affirmative action, many of society’s institutions would be free to legally discriminate against anyone they so choose.

At the heart of the affirmative action debate lies the issue of race. Although many Americans will not consciously admit that affirmative actions laws were instituted to help advance minorities (especially African Americans), the reality is that American history, up to and including the debate over affirmative action, has always contended the topic of race. According to Berdahl (2000):

Throughout American history, from the early colonial period to the present, race has played a central role in our legal system, in our political conflicts, and in our social relations. Race was incorporated into the Constitution, which originally counted African-American slaves as three-fifths persons.

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Race has continued to be a central feature of our political discourse, through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, up to the current debate over affirmative action (p. 115).

Race has invariably been an extensive part of American history. However, affirmative action has not. Although many authors argue that the seeds of affirmative action began with the Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), in which the Supreme Court declared that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal and a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, most supporters of Affirmative Action agree that the true case defining the affirmative action debate began with the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court of California imposed limitations on the quotas for affirmative action to ensure that enforcing affirmative action policies did not come at the expense of “reverse discrimination.” This ruling initiated a debate about the “fairness” of affirmative action, that is still as vigorously debated today as it was in 1978 (Schwartz, 1988).

Although affirmative action has come to the forefront of public and political debate over the past 25 years, when the idea was first initiated, it was not met with such an extensive amount of criticism. In fact after the decision in Brown, many Americans believe that more had to be done to advance the civil rights of minorities. In an attempt appease political constituents, President John F. Kennedy responded by signing Executive Order 10925 creating the Presidential Commission on Equal Opportunity. This Order mandated that federal contractors had to take “affirmative action” to “ensure that there be no discrimination by ‘race, creed. Color or national origin’” (Urofsky, 1991, p. 16-7). Although Kennedy’s legislation set the precedent for “affirmative action,” because it only extended to federal contractors, the Order was somewhat limited in its scope and enforceability.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson called the passage of a Civil Rights Act as a memorial to President Kennedy. The Act, which was put into law on July 2, 1964, created a permanent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, for the first time, extended the provisions of Executive Order 10925 to include private employers, labor unions and government agencies. Despite Johnson’s efforts, affirmative action had not completely taken hold in American society. In an attempt to further the Civil Rights Act, in 1965 and 1976, Johnson subsequently passed Executive Orders 11246 and 11375. The first “required federal contractors to take affirmative action to recruit, hire and promote more minorities” (p. 17). The later, passed two years later, added women to the list of minorities covered by anti-discrimination orders.

In spite of the legislation, Neither Johnson nor Kennedy’s legislation did little to change the racial landscape of American business. When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he was faced with the growing reality that a number of the economic problems suffered by inner city minorities were the direct result of discrimination in hiring practices among local employers. In an attempt to put an end to discrimination in hiring practices once and for all, Nixon unveiled the Philadelphia Plan, issued as the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) Revised

Order No. 4.
This plan included hiring goals, quotas and timetables for implementation. According to Urofsky, “…federal contractors would have to meet specific numerical goals in hiring minorities, with the long-term goals equaling the percentage of that minority in the available labor force” (p. 18). For private industry, the Philadelphia Plan marked the beginning of the implementation of affirmative action into organizational infrastructure. Faced with the threat of loosing lucrative federal contracts, private industry now had the incentive it needed to hire more minorities.

By this point in time the premise of affirmative action was no on shaky social and political ground. Numerous politicians and individuals had begun to step forward to challenge the idea. The culmination of the affirmative action debate came in the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), when Allan Bakke, a 32-year-old, white, middle class male living in California, was twice denied acceptance to medical school at the University of California at Davis. Bakke argued that his grade point average, MCAT scores and overall rating by the medical school was higher than six of the seven minority applicants who had been accepted based on affirmative action policies. Bakke maintained that affirmative action, in this case, promulgated reverse discrimination. The Supreme Court of California eventually ruled that Bakke had been denied equal protection under the law and that the school’s quota system was unconstitutional (Mosk, 1991).


Since this time there have literally been thousands of court cases that have challenged the constitutionality of affirmative action. Overall the debates that have emerged can be summed up as follows: “Opponents of affirmative action maintain that commitment to a non-racist social environment requires strict color-blindness in decision-making as both a strategy and a goal. […] Proponents of affirmative action insist that only malign racial distinctions should be prohibited; they favor benign distinctions that favor blacks” (Kennedy, 1994, p. 49).

Who is right? Is affirmative action a boon, a bane, or completely ineffective? In his book Not All Black and White, Edley (1996) asserts that despite the presences of affirmative action laws on federal, state and local levels, the following incongruities regarding minorities still remain:

  • The black unemployment rate continues to hover at twice that among whites, being the first to rise at the start of a recession and the last to fall as recovery begins.
  • The median income for black males working full-time is 30 percent less than for white males.
  • The overall poverty rate for whites is on-third that for blacks:11.6 versus 33.3 percent (p. 42-3).

Edley makes the argument that while affirmative action polices are a necessity, especially in America, the way they are currently designed is essentially ineffective.
Edley is right. The problem of affirmative action—which was initially an altruistic movement to ensure everyone’s civil rights—does not lie in the concept itself, but rather in the conceptual framework in which it was designed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 states in part that no employer is required to: “grant preferential treatment to any individual of group on account of any imbalance which may exist between the number of employees in such groups and the total number or percentage of persons of such race, color, religion, sex or national origin in any, community, State, section or other area” (Beckwith and Jones, 1997, p. 9). In short the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not seek to legislate preferential treatment; rather, its primary goal was to eliminate barriers to segregation and discrimination. The end result, however, has been a plethora court cases which have ultimately attempt to define and re-define the concept of affirmative action as set forth in the Civil Rights Act.

Take for example, the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971). In this case “black petitioners argued that their rights under Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) had been violated because in order to get hired or promoted by Duke Power they needed either a high school diploma or a passing score on a standardized intelligence test” (Mills, 1994, p. 11-2). In a decision that shocked American, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioners stating that “The [1964 Civil Rights] Act proscribes not only overt discrimination but also processes that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation” (p. 12). Thus the consequences of Duke Power’s hiring practices stood in direct violation of the Civil Rights Act.

The Court’s decision in the Griggs case literally shaped the course of affirmative action polices for the next twenty years. In case after case, the terms affirmative action has been slightly modified to suit the needs of those involved. The end result is a society that has become greatly divided along racial lines. While affirmative action originally set out to end segregation, it seems that, in many respects, it has further divided a nation already highly attuned to racial disparities.

Americans have a tendency to take things to extremes. Take for instance the woman who sued McDonalds because she got burned when she spilled her coffee in her lap. Making the argument that the coffee did not come with any warnings about how hot the contents of the cup were, the plaintiff in this case walked away with a large sum of money. Although it may not be fair to equate the affirmative action debate to the McDonalds’ incident, there are invariably some parallels; especially the notion of American’s simply taking things too far.
While it is true that affirmative action has advanced the personal, career and educational goals of thousands of minorities that otherwise would not have gotten a chance, it seems that the overall definition of affirmative action has somehow become skewed in all of the debate. Affirmative action does not mean the advancement of one minority over another; rather it means a level playing field for all. The problem is that we as a society have not yet developed the tools to provide a level playing field for everyone. No matter what happens it seems that someone ultimately ends up rejected and some one ends up blaming affirmative action. Clearly, the policy is need; however, much to the dismay of policymakers, one clear definition of affirmative action needs to be established “for liberty and justice for all.”

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