Republicans miss mark on affirmative action

by By Matthew

I have been amazed at the recent attempt made by right wing ideologues to represent themselves as proponents of civil rights and equal opportunity, but as opponents of affirmative action. Much ink has been spilled in the effort to construct this position. Not surprisingly, not a drop of this ink has been devoted toward divulging the relevant facts. It is my hope that the information presented in this piece will counteract the deluge of deliberate misinformation and the omnipresent condition of underinformation.
It seems, for instance, that many Americans have fundamental misconceptions about the economic circumstances of minorities. A recent national telephone survey found that “the majority of white Americans” believes the average minority is faring as well as or better than the average white in areas as jobs, education and health care.
These beliefs are not true. Government statistics show that whites, on average, suffer from unemployment at nearly half the rate of other groups; are paid 60 percent more than minorities when they are employed; are far more likely to have medical insurance; and more than twice as likely to graduate from college. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission found that minorities and women are statistically more likely than white men to lose their jobs in downsizing and have a much harder time finding new employment when they do. Not unrelated, the poverty rate among African Americans (33.1 percent), Latinos (30.6 percent) and women (33 percent) is nearly three times that of white males (12.2 percent). At the same time, women (who are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action) are still underrepresented in most occupations, represent only 6.2 percent of directors of the top 500 corporations and earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by men. In short, white men, who constitute about 43 percent of the work force, hold more than 95 percent of senior management positions. White men comprise 80 percent of tenured professors and 97 percent of school superintendents.
In light of these figures, the Republican contention that affirmative action is no longer needed rings a bit hollow. Another particularly specious argument advanced by some members of the right wing is that affirmative action should be canceled because it does not work. While it is obvious that there is still a long way to go toward racial and sexual equality in the workplace and in education, the historical record shows that, without affirmative action programs, women and minorities would be significantly worse off than they are now. The number of minorities and women entering the professions (including medicine, law and accounting) has increased substantially in 30 years. As Crossroads magazine has observed, today “there would be no women police officers, fire-fighters, bus drivers or construction workers without affirmative action.”
However, the favorite claim of those opposed to affirmative action but still in favor of “civil rights and equal opportunity,” is that affirmative action is a way for government to meddle in the affairs of the otherwise efficient and beneficent business world. In the past year, for instance, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) argued that the task of ending racial and sexual discrimination should be taken up “with an eye toward what is the fundamental sound goodness of the American people, not what is the bully and guile of the federal government.” Similarly, our own Daily columnist, Joe Roche, offered his typically reductionist and Manichean take on the issue by insisting that in no uncertain terms “affirmative action was created because of President Lyndon Johnson’s power-hungry efforts to institute Executive Order No. 11246.”
Unfortunately, the much lauded “invisible hand” is not a panacea, and the predominantly white-male owned corporate America needs more than economic incentives to hire proportionate numbers of minorities and women and to equitably compensate them for their work. This is not to say there aren’t financial incentives for businesses to support affirmative action and diversity policies. In fact, The Organization for New Equality has found that firms that support affirmative action “receive an average return on their investments twice that earned by companies that did not pursue affirmative action.” In another study, it was found that companies rating in the top 100 on affirmative action earned an average 18.3 percent return on investments compared to 7.9 percent return for those companies ranked in the bottom 100.
Since affirmative action programs do not “strangle” business and since there is still a long way to go toward achieving racial and sexual equality in this country, for what reasons might affirmative action be under attack?
Does affirmative action mean quotas? No. Since the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke Decision, “the policy of reserving specified slots for economically and educationally disadvantaged applicants” has been illegal. Although race might be considered in admissions, the court held that it could not be the exclusive basis on which a decision was made.
Does affirmative action then mean that companies must hire underqualified minorities? On the contrary, affirmative action expands the possible pool of applicants by including qualified candidates who are traditionally overlooked by closed hiring and admissions practices. Crossroads magazine points out that “Without this extra effort, many employers would do what they have always done: maintain that they couldn’t find a ‘qualified’ woman or person of color, and hire the white man they wanted anyway.” Thus, the cry of “reverse discrimination” is particularly ironic when compared to the reality of the still entrenched old boys network.
Here at the University’s Grad Fest, a career-placement specialist cited a well-known industry fact that these days at least 70 percent of positions in business are filled “in-house.” These figures also demonstrate the prevailing need for affirmative action in universities and colleges. According to information culled from the Study of Social Change at University of California-Berkeley and the U.S. Department of Education, “alumni preference” has hastened far more whites through the gates of the 10 most elite institutions than the combined numbers of all blacks and Chicanos entering through affirmative action.
It is also interesting to note that, according to the Los Angeles Times, the loudest opponents of affirmative action in California are also those who have “acted behind the scenes to try to get relatives, friends and children of business partners” enrolled into the UC system. Dozens of the confidential letters written to regents requesting special favors in admissions were penned by state officials who publicly oppose affirmative action.
In this light, it is positively insulting that “big-hearted” Republican opponents of affirmative action would like us to believe they lose sleep because of the possible “stigma” that affirmative action might bring to minorities and women. Paul Rockwell, director of the group “Angry White Guys For Affirmative Action” has pointed out that this is an extremely strange argument. He writes, “Veterans are not stigmatized by the GI Bill. Europeans are not stigmatized by the Marshall Plan.” The beneficiaries of “the $500 billion federal bailout of the savings and loan industry … feel no stigma. Only when the beneficiaries of affirmative action are women and people of color is there a stigma.”
What we find is that the real stigma marks the society that cannot rid itself of its history of racism and sexism. For this blight, affirmative action is but one potent remedy.
I agree with author H.G. Wells, who said civilization is a race between education and disaster. I encourage everyone to check out the following affirmative action web site in order to acquire the former and avoid the latter.
Matthew Marcus Paymar is a cultural studies and political science senior.