The African-American Perspective on Affirmative Action: Benefits and Costs

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The very phrase “Affirmative Action” has generated so much controversy and debate since its inception that it is difficult to find information about it which is based on empirical evidence rather than on emotional, political, or racial bias. The best test of the efficacy of any policy is to examine the evidence, over time, as to how effective that policy has been in achieving its goals. To accomplish this, one must do two things: determine the policy’s goal(s), and seek out and use hard evidence as to whether the policy achieved that goal or goals. Affirmative Action has always had a clear goal: to give minorities and women equal opportunity by giving them access to education, employment, and the political and legal rights enjoyed by their nonminority counterparts. To determine how effective Affirmative Action has been, the policy can be tested as to its results and impact in verifiable terms. Has Affirmative Action measured up to its promise? Let’s examine the evidence.

In his book Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice, J. Edward Kellough cites a study conducted between 1970 and 1972 which attests to the benefits that Affirmative Action programs brought to African-American men in the construction industry. Black men who worked for contractors who followed federal Affirmative Action guidelines “benefitted significantly more” than those working for noncompliant contractors, both in terms of landing jobs and increasing their earnings (129-30). Additional studies conducted between the 1970s and the early 2000s confirmed that minorities and women benefitted from compliance with and encouragement of Affirmative Action programs (see Bisping and Fain; Holzer and Neumark; and Leonard). These studies often focus on the construction industry but also feature results from the analysis of businesses in general across the United States. As Kellough notes in his conclusion to the chapter about the effects of Affirmative Action on employment, these programs not only create short-term improvements for those underrepresented, but they also create “momentum for continuing change” (132). As businesses have hired more minorities and women, they have gained a reputation for encouraging those populations to apply and become part of their workforce. Such a positive result is a side benefit for employers and employees and becomes a trend that others follow.

Education, particularly higher education, is another area in which Affirmative Action has been hotly debated and led with opposition. Higher education is a means of better employment and other opportunities. In 1998, William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, published their landmark book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, about the impact of Affirmative Action on some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. Some of their findings are not surprising: application to and enrollment at elite colleges by black students increased significantly after Affirmative Action programs were established; more blacks entered professional and administrative fields following their academic careers, thus increasing the numbers of middle-class blacks; and both black and white students reported positive effects of interracial interactions on their campuses (198-200). Other results may have been less expected by opponents of Affirmative action. For example, the black students who were admitted to these schools were just as qualified as their white counterparts (211). Bowen and Bok also discuss what results would follow the elimination of Affirmative Action programs at colleges and universities. As they predicted, following the Bakke decision and the repeal or alteration of such programs, applications by African-Americans and other minorities dropped precipitously between the mid-1990s and early 2000s (215).

So to what extent has Affirmative Action improved a lot of African-Americans? If we look at the conditions under which minorities lived and worked in the first half of the twentieth century as compared to today, it’s obvious how much has changed. But how much of that is due to Affirmative Action? Even its most ardent supporters generally agree that in and of itself Affirmative Action has produced only “modest” gains. American society has some way to go to achieve absolute equality of opportunity. But Affirmative Action’s impact has not been just about numbers. At some point, one has to acknowledge what Kellough calls Affirmative Action’s “symbolic” impact. Developed as a method for redressing the horrors of slavery and the subsequent inequities that all minorities and women suffered, Affirmative Action rests on a premise that underlies the U.S. Constitution itself: that every American is entitled to the chance to achieve “the pursuit of happiness” on equitable terms. Perhaps Affirmative Action is not a perfect program. But it, along with other factors, has produced astounding shifts in attitudes and behavior in the United States. The program promises fair treatment and gives hope to those still disadvantaged. It’s one way of obtaining the success that we Americans were promised more than two hundred years ago. Affirmative Action is one method for fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity to those of each generation.

Works Cited

Bisping, Timothy O., and James R. Fain. “Job Queues, Discrimination, and Affirmative Action.”  Economic Inquiry, 38 (2000): 128-35. Print.

Boston, Thomas D. Affirmative Action and Black Entrepreneurship. London: Routledge, 1999.  Print.

Bower, William G., and Derek Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of  Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP,  1998. Print.

Holzer, Harry, and David Neumark. “Are Affirmative Action Hires Less Qualified?” Journal of  Labor Economics, 17.3 (1999): 534-69. Print.

Johnson, G.E., and F. Welch. “The Labor Market Implications of an Economy-wide Affirmative  Action Program.” Industry and Labor Relations Review, 29 (1976): 508-22. Print.

Leonard, Jonathan S. “What Promises Are Worth: The Impact of Affirmative Action Goals.”  The Journal of Human Resources, 20.1 (1985): 3-20. Print.

Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the  Search for Justice. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2006. Print.

Rai, Kul B., and John W. Critzer. Affirmative Action and the University: Race, Ethnicity, and  Gender in Higher Education Employment. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000. Print.