Few social policy issues have served as a better gauge of racial and ethnic divisions among the American electorate than that of affirmative action. Polls indicate that many Americans perceive affirmative action policies to be synonymous with quotas, set-asides, and preferential treatment that benefit minorities and women at the expense of white males. What opinion polls also reveal, however, is that, by and large,voters do not know very much about what affirmative action comprises, the scope of federal affirmative action policies, and who benefits (or is hurt) by these policies. As a result, public opinion is shaped to a greater extent by social attitudes and beliefs about recipients (minorities and women) rather than by solid information about affirmative action policies themselves.
The American Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues convened a briefing for members of Congress and their staffs to summarize relevant social science research on affirmative action. Held on September 21, 1995, the briefing brought six distinguished psychologists to the nation's capital to advance a shared mission: promoting the use of the best scientific psychological research as a means of addressing the social policy issues surrounding affirmative action.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Affirmative Action
What is affirmative action?
Affirmative action is a catchall phrase referring to laws, customs, and social policies intended to alleviate the types of discrimination that limit opportunities for a variety of demographic groups in various social institutions.
More specifically, it refers to both voluntary and mandatory efforts undertaken by federal, state, and local governments; private employers; and schools to combat discrimination and to promote equal opportunity in education and employment for all.
Opinion polls reveal that the general public is sharply divided on the meaning and value of affirmative action (Bruno, 1995). One reason for the heated controversy is related to confusion over how the term is defined and implemented.
In a general sense, affirmative action occurs when an organization expends energy to make sure there is no discrimination in employment or education and, instead, equal opportunity exists. Two types of affirmative action policies are commonly in use (Crosby and Cordova, 1995).
- Classical. This type derives from White House Executive Order 11246 of 1965 (later amended), which mandates that employers monitor their utilization of individuals from target groups (e.g., women) to ascertain if it reflects the availability of talent in the community.
New (additional). More recently, some affirmative action laws and regulations have involved the use of preferential treatment, privilege, and set asides to achieve workforce diversity. Some organizations use set-aside programs as an expedient way to address discrimination when better remedies are not available; from a legal standpoint, justifying set asides is much harder than justifying classical affirmative action.
What are the differences between affirmative action and equal employment opportunity policies?
- Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is best described as a policy of simple nondiscrimination, in compliance with legislation prohibiting all forms of intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. It specifically outlaws discrimination in employment in all public and private sector organizations with 15 or more employees, as well as labor organizations and employment agencies.
Affirmative action goes further by requiring employers to take steps to achieve a balanced representation of workers.
Thus, affirmative action and EEO policies both strive to maintain justice. Classical affirmative action, however, involves effort. In contrast, equal employment opportunity policies are passive. The table opposite highlights some basic differences between the two concepts.
Is affirmative action still needed?
Research indicates that affirmative action is still needed for two related reasons:
- A series of laboratory studies have shown that almost all people have trouble detecting a pattern of discrimination unless they are faced with a flagrant example or have access to aggregated data documenting discrimination (Clayton and Crosby, 1992). This inability to make accurate judgments about discrimination from isolated incidents or comparisons is just as true for fair-minded and intelligent people as it is for others. Aggregated data are needed, therefore, if decision makers are to avoid or correct imbalances before they become flagrant. Data indicate that the biases against minorities and women that humans show in laboratory settings are reflected in real-world practices. According to the March 1995 report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, for example, a large proportion of minorities and women are locked into low-wage, low-prestige, and dead-end jobs. Additional data suggest that these two groups have been disproportionately affected by current trends in workforce downsizing; many service-oriented industries, for example, disproportionately employ women and minorities and are likely to continue downsizing through the year 2002. It is likely that the minorities and women who work in these industries will be hardest hit (Murrell and Jones, 1995).
Continued disparities in income and career mobility (Murrell and Jones, 1995)
- In 1994, women were earning 72% of men’s salaries, even after controlling for work experience, education, or merit. In 1992, black men with professional degrees earned 79% of the salaries of white men holding jobs at comparable levels. Black women with professional degrees earned 60% of the salaries of white men at comparable levels. Based on 1992 data, both white females and black males must work about 8 months to earn a salary equal to what white males earn in 6 months. Black females must work 10 months to earn comparable salaries. Fewer women and minorities than white males are promoted to senior levels in organizations.
Although there have been recent gains in employment participation and income levels among women and black males, the current data suggest that gender and race segregation in employment, as well as discrepancies in earnings, continue to exist even when jobholders hold equivalent qualifications.
Persistence of gender and race segregation in employment (Murrell and Jones, 1995)
- In 1992, women comprised 60% of service sector jobs and 80% of administrative support. In 1992, 90% of black female professionals held jobs in the government sector, suggesting there are limited opportunities in the private sector for this population. In 1992, 70% of black male professionals worked in government compared with 56% of white male professionals. Women and minorities are more likely to experience job interruptions due to downsizing and restructuring, which, in turn, have a negative impact on lifetime career mobility and earnings.
Persistence of discrimination in hiring (Wilson, 1995)
- In 1990, an Urban Institute study comparing pairs of black and white job applicants with identical credentials found that 'unequal treatment of black job seekers was entrenched and widespread, contradicting claims that hiring practices today either favor Blacks or are effectively color blind.' A study in 1995 of university faculty hiring practices found that, in many instances, once a minority hiring goal was met, departments stopped seeking minority applicants. Many ceased recruiting minorities (e.g., by pulling their ads from minority publications) regardless of the number of vacancies that occurred from then on.
What has been the impact of affirmative action on society?
Proponents view affirmative action as one of the most effective ways to address the long-standing problems of racism and sexism in our country, thus serving as a vehicle for reaching the American goal of equality (Pratkanis and Turner, 1995). The following findings by Murrell and Jones (1995) serve as evidence of the perceived success of affirmative action:
- Affirmative action policies have resulted in increases in the representation of women and minorities across all levels of employment in the United States and within organizations that were once exclusively male. Affirmative action has led to higher employment participation rates, increased earnings, and gains in educational attainment for women and minorities.
Does present-day racism justify maintaining affirmative action?
Psychologists and other social scientists have documented the many forms of racism that continue to mar marketplace employment decisions. Today these forms of racism are more evident in less overt yet widely held beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices than they were in the past. The subtle nature of these forms of racism suggests that passive EEO programs may not be sufficient to prevent discrimination.
Contemporary, more indirect, forms of prejudice can be divided into two types (Dovidio and Gaertner, 1995).
- Aversive racism refers to negative feelings that lead to avoidance but are likely to be justified by some other reason. For example, a white male television station manager fails to hire a black applicant for the position of news anchor because he fears the audience will not respond to a black news anchor, but he justifies his decision by saying it was based on economics. Symbolic racism refers to the development early in life of negative feelings people have toward members of other groups. Such feelings persist into adulthood and are associated with beliefs that are expressed symbolically rather than overtly (e.g., in opposition to busing).
Aversive racists typically do not evaluate Blacks more negatively than Whites, but they usually rate Blacks less favorably than Whites (Dovidio and Gaertner, 1995).
- Discrimination is more likely to occur when Blacks compete for jobs or promotions with Whites who hold similar qualifications. The same holds true when highly qualified women compete with highly qualified men. Aversive racism is more likely to affect minorities adversely when the latter attempt to advance to positions superior in rank to those held by Whites.
Affirmative action is essential for combating the effects of subtle forms of racism for a number of reasons (Dovidio and Gaertner, 1995).
- Affirmative action is outcome-based; issues of intention are not central to the issue. Affirmative action involves systematic monitoring of disparities in employment practices toward different groups. When they are successful, affirmative action programs lead to the establishment of clear norms by organizations and institutions regarding the importance of full equality for everyone in the workplace.
Many people argue that affirmative action has caused reverse discrimination against Whites.
What are the major criticisms of affirmative action?
However, a 1995 analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor found that affirmative action programs do not lead to widespread reverse discrimination claims by Whites. In fact, a high proportion of such claims filed were found to lack merit. The analysis found that fewer than 100 out of 3,000 discrimination cases filed actually involved reverse discrimination, and in only six cases were such claims substantiated (Wilson, 1995).
Critics of affirmative action usually believe that people should be selected for positions based on merit alone.
The reality is that most, if not all, hiring decisions involve some sort of unspoken preferential treatment. Sometimes the decision is based on a personal connection or relationship; sometimes it is based on likability or comfort level (Wilson, 1995). In fact, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (1995) confirmed that white men tend to be more comfortable with, and therefore more likely to hire and promote, other white men, thus revealing the prevalence of racial- and gender-based preferential treatment.
Opponents of affirmative action argue that these policies move America away from the goal of achieving a color-blind society.
Yet, as Justice Harry Blackmun noted in the Bakke case, 'In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.' A color-blind society cannot exist in the face of racism or prejudice that continues in the workplace.
Some critics state that young minorities joining the workforce expect that affirmative action will get them promotions.
This charge is one of the most serious, but there are no data to support this notion.
Many people argue that affirmative action stigmatizes recipients.
Although the data support this contention, it should be acknowledged that stigma and negative stereotypes associated with race and gender existed in this country long before affirmative action was implemented. This does not mean that stigma and negative stereotypes are acceptable, but rather that they exist independently of affirmative action.