Affirmative Action

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Employment programs required by federal statutes and regulations designed to remedy discriminatory practices in hiring minority group members; i.e., positive steps designed to eliminate existing and continuing discrimination, to remedy lingering effects of past discrimination, and to create systems and procedures to prevent future discrimination; commonly based on population percentages of minority groups in a particular area. Factors considered are race, color, sex, creed, and age.

The idea of affirmative action was foreshadowed as early as the Reconstruction Era, which followed the U.S. CIVIL WAR. When that conflict ended, the former slave population throughout the South owned virtually nothing and had only a limited set of skills with which they could make a living. To help these newly emancipated citizens sustain a minimal economic base, the victorious General William T. Sherman proposed to divide up the land and goods from the sizable plantations of southeastern Georgia that were under his command and grant to each family of color "40 acres and a mule." The proposal ran into powerful political opposition, however, and it was never widely adopted.

Nearly a century later, this idea of assisting whole classes of individuals to gain access to the goods of U.S. life reemerged in U.S. law and society through a series of court decisions and political initiatives interpreting the CIVIL RIGHTS guarantees within the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. These decisions and initiatives came to be known as affirmative action.

The term itself refers to both mandatory and voluntary programs intended to affirm the civil rights of designated classes of individuals by taking positive action to protect them from, in the words of Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR., "the lingering effects of pervasive discrimination" (Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers' Int'l Assoc.v. EEOC, 478 U.S. 421, 106 S. Ct. 3019, 92 L. Ed. 2d 344 [1986]). A law school, for example, might voluntarily take affirmative action to find and admit qualified students of color. An employer might recruit qualified women where only men have worked before, such as businesses that operate heavy equipment.

Affirmative action developed during the four decades following the decision in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). In Brown, the Supreme Court held that public school SEGREGATION of children by race denied minority children equal educational opportunities, rejecting the doctrine of "separate but equal" in the public education context. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT as well as the VIETNAM WAR inspired members of minorities and women to advocate collectively for increased equality and opportunity within U.S. society. These groups appealed for equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and they sought opportunity in the public arenas of education and employment. In many ways, they were successful. As affirmative action grew, however, it drew increasing criticism, often from men and whites, who opposed what they viewed as "reverse discrimination."

While the Brown decision declared segregated schools unlawful, it did not create affirmative action to remedy discriminatory practices. A decade after Brown, little had changed to integrate the nation's schools. The Court acted ahead of business executives and legislatures when it mandated, in Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716 (1968), that positive actions must be taken to integrate schools. There followed the adoption of an array of devices such as redistricting, majority-to-minority transfers, school pairings, magnet schools, busing, new construction, and abandonment of all-black schools.

The first major legal setback for voluntary affirmation action was REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA V. BAKKE, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 (1978), in which the Supreme Court struck down an admission plan at the University of California, Davis, medical school. The plan, which had set aside 16

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places for minority applicants, was challenged by white applicant Allan Bakke, who had been refused admission even though he had higher test scores than some of the minority applicants. The Court held that by setting aside a specific number, or quota, of places by race, the school had violated Bakke's civil rights. By denying the "set-aside" practice of an affirmative action plan, the decision seemed to threaten the principle underlying affirmative action as well.

The following year, however, the Court found in UNITED STEELWORKERS V. WEBER, 443U.S. 193, 99 S. Ct. 2721, 61 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1979), that the voluntary plan of Kaiser Aluminum Company to promote some of its black workers into a special training program ahead of more senior white workers did not violate the latter's civil rights when it did not involve quotas. The Court also found in Local 28 of Sheet Metal Workers' International Ass'n v. EEOC, 478 U.S. 421, 106 S. Ct. 3019, 92 L. Ed. 2d 344 (1986), that rights were not being violated by a court-ordered membership goal of 29.23 percent minorities. Writing for the plurality, Justice Brennan said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit courts from ordering "affirmative race-conscious relief as a remedy for past discrimination" in appropriate circumstances. Such circumstances might include "where an employer or LABOR UNION has engaged in persistent or egregious discrimination, or where necessary to dissipate the lingering effect of pervasive discrimination."

The Court later found, in City of Richmondv. J. A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 109 S. Ct. 706, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1989), that the Minority Business Utilization Plan of Richmond, Virginia, violated the rights of private contractors. The plan, which required 30 percent of all subcontracts to be awarded to minority-owned companies, was struck down because this municipality had failed to show compelling state interest for such a measure. The Court applied the compelling interest test after holding that race-based action by state and local government was subject to STRICT SCRUTINY. The Court extended this to the federal government in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1995).

In Johnson v. Transportation Agency, 480 U.S. 616, 107 S. Ct. 1442, 94 L. Ed. 2d 615 (1987), the Court ruled that a county agency had not violated Title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT when, as part of an affirmative action plan, it took a female employee's gender into account in promoting her ahead of a male employee with a slightly higher test score. The Court held that a "manifest imbalance" existed in this workforce because of an under representation of women, and that the employer had acted properly in using a "moderate, flexible, case-by-case approach to effecting a gradual improvement in the representation of minorities and women."

At issue in affirmative action cases is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment can be employed to advance the welfare of one class of individuals for compelling social reasons even when that advancement may infringe in some way upon the life or liberty of another. The continuing existence of affirmative action laws and programs suggests that so far, the Supreme Court's answer has been yes.

Affirmative action plans may be undertaken voluntarily, as in the case of a private school's admissions goals; imposed by the courts to protect civil rights; or required by law to qualify for federal contracts. Plans required to qualify for federal contracts are enforced by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), an agency of the U.S. LABOR DEPARTMENT. The OFCCP defines its mission with its critics in mind: "Affirmative action is not preferential treatment. Nor does it...

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