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The Role of Affirmative Action in Society

Introduction

Affirmative action policies and programs are designed to open employment, learning, and public contracting opportunities to qualified women and minority candidates. The list of direct beneficiaries of affirmative action has expanded since the policies were first instituted in the 1970s. Yet, more recently, court decisions at the national level as well as legislations and executive action at the state level have narrowed the conditions under which affirmative action programs can be applied (Goldsmith 313).

Goldsmith, a qualified supporter of affirmative action, expresses concern about the effects of affirmative action programs on the growing economic gap between the lower and higher income black people (313). In his journal article, he argues that, while many of the race targeted programs have aided the more advantaged of the black population, they have done little to advance the situation of the less advantaged minority groups.

It is important to note that affirmative action is not a substitute for broader economic policies that would create jobs. Affirmative action assures that members of minority groups and women are provided opportunities to be considered for jobs that are available. Affirmative action is not an anti-poverty program. It seeks fairness within a given distribution. Charleston indicated that affirmative action and the criticism of it must be understood within the context of a liberal society (34). This implies that it must be understood within the context of a society that seeks to reward individual talent, effort, and achievement and that basically eschews rewards based on the group identity (Charleston 36).

Moore and Bell noted that, since the 1960s, efforts put forth to combat social discrimination have led to greater public awareness and adoption of public policies such as affirmative action aimed at expanding equal employment opportunities for minorities and women within American society in both the public and private sectors (597). Affirmative action, a product of a tortuous set of executive orders, bureaucratic rules, and often contradictory judicial decisions, has created one of the most controversial policy issues of the time (Moore and Bell 598). Although it was not easy to implement affirmative action in society, it should be understood within the context of the long history of discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and women.

Effects of Affirmative Action in the Society

Because affirmative action is intended to correct for systematic discrimination among members of certain historically disadvantaged groups, it has not been a needs-based policy (Brown and Hirschman 108). Those who object to race and gender based affirmative action are concerned about the fairness of policies with these implications. Some have proposed to substitute the present race and gender policy by a needs-based one.

Affirmative action is often thought of as strictly an economic policy that is a way to compensate for historical injustices that have been committed against a certain group (Brown and Hirschman 108). This focus has merit, especially when considering the position of certain African American businesses and that of their white counterparts. Brown and Hirschman noted that this focus led some people to believe that a needs-based policy is fairer than the present arrangement (110).

Affirmative action differs from other policies that are concerned with advancing the ideal equality of opportunity and that are focused on the impediments to the advancement that arise because of economic needs alone (Charleston 8). Charleston asserts that some of the impediments to equal opportunity are to be found at a deep cultural level and cannot be fully addressed simply by assuring that all who apply for a position are treated fairly (11).

The argument for a need-based affirmative action assumes that economic deprivation is the primary deprivation that leads to cultural and educational one. According to Epple, Romano, and Sieg (478), this assumes a one-way casual relationship, whereas the situation is probably more complex. They further discuss that, if women are expected to work, then education needs not be a high priority, and without a strong education, women have little choice but to work at home. Sometimes, affirmative action may involve an obligation to a specific group of people who continue to carry the stigma first imposed on their great grandparents. Whereas the selection of the most talented people among all applicants is best understood as a future investment for society at large and may entail selection from a different group (Epple, Romano, and Sieg 478).

Affirmative action often involves a special obligation owed to individuals as a result of their involvement or belonging to certain groups. In these cases, to the extent that it is an investment, it is so within the confines of the specific aggrieved groups. Affirmative action should be encouraged in the sense that whenever a choice is available, a society should seek to pay its debt in a way that will advance a relevant social interest (Epple, Romano and Sieg 478). Such a debt is due when the effects of past mistreatment have significant and lingering present consequences. This means that, to the extent that debt is involved, affirmative action must involve a group specific policy. In this case, the first aim of affirmative action should not be to maximize interests in general but to serve the specific interests of members of the aggrieved group (Heriot 1).

The affirmative action programs have played an important role in opening opportunities previously unavailable and have prodded our social consciousness to be vigilant against new waves of racial intolerance and gender bias (Goldsmith 313). Equality and justice are commonly shared calls evoked by both proponents and opponents of affirmative action. In making the case for affirmative action, there are arguments that point to compensation, rectification, and temporary suspension of egalitarian principles so as to enable a level playing field for all in the long term (Goldsmith 313).

Because affirmative action tends to occur in states that are ethnically divided into ethno-cultural groups, distribution of values and goods tend to privilege one cultural community over others (Charleston 15). In effect, research shows that social advantages and disadvantages tend to coincide with the cultural fault lines that divide the state. Clearly, in establishing a more just and inclusive society, there is also a need to recognize all groups and ethno-cultural communities within a society (Shuford 519).

Affirmative action recognizes differences, cultural and gender alike, in a multi-ethnic society instead of forcing assimilation and cultural hegemony of a particular group's values and practices. Cultural recognition bestows dignity and space for a separate identity (Charleston 16). It is anti-hegemonic in conferring equal recognition of the cultural symbols and practices of groups other than the dominant one. In this way, affirmative action promotes equal citizenship in a divided state. It advances inter-cultural harmony and unity in a tolerant policy of multiculturalism (Shuford 520). By conferring dignity and a separate space as well as ending discrimination and alienation, affirmative action may diminish immigration of talents and skills from a society (Moore and Bell 597).

Affirmative action tends to enhance more efficient utilization of human resources in the society. Discrimination against an ethno-cultural community or gender tends to underutilize the potential of the discriminated group to contribute maximally to the development of the state (Moore and Bell 598). Discrimination based on ethno-cultural criteria leads to inefficient use of the human resources of the society. Moore and Bell argued that, by conferring of preferences to the disadvantaged through representation in decision making political institutions, affirmative action restores justice and equality in the society (600). In its turn, this advances political participation and commitment to a shared citizenship.

Affirmative action has sought to remove some of the institutional obstacles which have denied opportunities for women and minorities. Since these programs are successful, competition has increased by enlarging the pool of eligible and qualified candidates (Heriot 2). In the past, race and gender were used to exclude certain qualified individuals; now, affirmative action has sought to use race and gender as positive characteristics for the purpose of diversification and inclusion. In this context, affirmative action is not about quotas but about valuing diversity.

The research reveals that many forms of affirmative action such as hard and soft preferential treatments are viewed as unfair in terms of their outcomes, with ratings of fairness decreasing as the emphasis of the policy on non-merit factors increases (Moore and Bell 605). When an organization implements affirmative action policies, more opportunities for minorities or women may be viewed as unfair by a significant proportion of white males (Charleston 16). Attempts to enhance fairness perceptions of affirmative action may be successful when elements of procedural and interactional justice are closely examined.

The support of affirmative action by decision makers should not stop at the level of impression management. People in organizations will be motivated to see that the verbal support is backed by actions (Lipson 135). For example, the success of diversity training is dependent on whether diversity will be considered as a priority in a firm as well as on the expression of positive attitudes toward diversity by policy makers and implementers. Accountability for the success of affirmative action should be shared by organizational decision-makers and this should be an integral part of selecting a diversity practice (Lipson 136).

For young working class women, the ability to move into the skilled crafts, which had been traditionally closed to them, was the most significant effect of the affirmative action (Clawson and Waltenburg 251). It is in this area that the de facto weakening of affirmative action has been most strongly felt. It is important to note that the movement of women into management may have taken on somewhat of its own momentum (Clawson, and Waltenburg 251). As a result, firms are willing to accept women with advanced degrees from respectable business schools without the whip of affirmative action pressure.

Assessing the economic impact of affirmative action programs requires attention to operational aspects of the workplace and how these cause and promote bias (Clawson and Waltenburg 251). Affirmative action in the workplace can be divided into effects of systematic discrimination and that of behavior and attitude. Burger and Jafta argue that systematic discrimination, which relates to the structure of personnel systems including job groups, task assignments, and promotion have given the affirmative action a major focus (3). This is because these factors are known to be contributors of stratification, segregation, and segmentation of women in education and work (Burger and Jafta 5). Discrimination based on attitudes and behavior is considered a serious case and can involve external discriminators and women themselves through feedback effects (Burger and Jafta 3). Behavior is further impacted by structural systems such as informal determination of job ladders, performance and promotion decisions, especially top hierarchies.

Economic Effects of Affirmative Action

The positive economic effect of affirmative action is that it may lead to better utilization of human resources as more women and minority races are given the opportunity to gain access to employment and a greater pool of skills and talent is opened up (Charleston 15). In his journal article, Charleston says that, in the past, disadvantaged groups were largely denied the opportunity to develop their skills and talents as they were denied access to adequate education and training. Charleston argues that correctly implemented affirmative action is, in fact, an economic necessity for countries, because they cannot waste human potential and afford to carry a permanently poor underclass (18). Organizations must realize that they are dependent on developing these resources for their own economic survival (Palmer 765). It is only when the productivity of the whole population is increased that there will be sufficient economic growth. This economic development is, however, dependent on the implementation of meaningful affirmative action which changes the attitudes of people towards gender and race (Moses 212).

Moses noted that there have been lively debates regarding the economic effects of affirmative action on the targeted groups and on organizations subject to affirmative action regulations (213). The implicit question from Moses' work is whether the benefits of affirmative action outweigh the costs. It is important to note that the question cannot be answered in the abstract because it depends both on the effects of affirmative action and on the values one assigns to organizational outcomes and to the well-being of the target groups. DiTomaso, Parks-Yancy, and Post in their article indicated that both conceptual and empirical studies have been published (616). These studies reveal that target groups profit more from affirmative action than from passive equal opportunity practices. The effects of affirmative action vary across target groups, locations, industries, implementation procedures, and other factors.

According to Clawson and Waltenburg, theoretical models indicate that whether the net effect of affirmative action on organizations is positive or negative should depend on several factors (251). These factors include the extent of pre-existing discrimination, how affirmative action programs are implemented, and differences in human capital resources of the majority and minority groups (Clawson and Waltenburg 251). Pre-existing discrimination hinders firm performance by limiting access to the resources development represented by the victimized groups. When affirmative action decreases discrimination, the effect on firm's economic performance would be positive. On the other hand, if discrimination was already absent, the constraints on behavior posed by affirmative action could have a negative effect (Clawson and Waltenburg 253).

Consequently, affirmative action programs, such as focused recruitment, that serve to increase organizational access to human resources should have a positive effect on performance, whereas preferential selection should have a negative effect (Lipson 133). The magnitude of the negative effect of privileged selection should increase with the size of a human capital gap between the majority and minority applicant groups (Lipson 133). This, therefore, means that affirmative action remains necessary in light of the current economic and social situation of minorities, which reflects the effects of past discrimination among other factors. Moses indicated that, without affirmative action, discriminatory employment practices would likely increase and opportunities for women and minorities would narrow (215). Supporters of affirmative action argue that its policies have succeeded in opening up opportunities for minorities in professional and blue-collar occupations (Moses 215).

Attitudes toward affirmative action are more closely related to the perceived fairness of affirmative action than they are to any other variable (Lipson 134). In his article, Moses asserts that research on evaluative reactions to affirmative action has often used measures of fairness rather than attitudes as the dependent variable (216). In their article, Ray and Sethi noted that people report positive attitudes towards affirmative action programs they consider fair and they report negative attitudes towards affirmative action programs they consider unfair (400). Fairness perceptions mediate many of the effects described. Strong affirmative action programs that provide rewards on the basis of demographic characteristics rather than merit are disliked because they are seen as unfair (Ray and Sethi 400).

In many countries, research shows that a vast majority of the population are relatively poor. It is, therefore, important that these people are given the hope that their life may improve. Palmer studied that women and minority groups must be seen to be advancing themselves (765). Palmer in his journal article noted this is also because a certain amount of redistribution of wealth has to take place to reduce the inequalities which continue to exist (765). Social peace is a prerequisite for economic growth and improvement and the welfare of the community is, thus, promoted by achieving this social peace, even if it means that some loss in efficiency may take place. Ray and Sethi emphasized that affirmative action measures must also be accompanied by a change of attitude so that the dignity of the people may also be restored along with providing the hope (400).

Advantages of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is necessary to break the cycle that keeps minorities and women locked into low-paying jobs. Statistics indicate that African Americans, in particular, have been trapped in a socio-economically subordinate position. To break this pattern and eventually heal the racial rifts in many countries, vigorous affirmative action programs that push more women into middle-class jobs should be adopted. Ray and Sethi, however, assert that affirmative action programs make everybody more racially conscious (410). They also cause resentment and frustration among the majority groups. Many African Americans resent being advanced on grounds other than merit.

DiTomaso, Parks-Yancy, and Post assert that affirmative action presents many advantages to the economy of a country or organization. This is because, according to Moses (214) and Lipson (135), an affirmative action program, which is correctly implemented, can change the attitudes of all employees in the organization towards themselves, their colleagues, and the objectives of the organization. Many organizations have stagnated through adherence to outdated policies and procedures which do not promote a level playing field for all employees (Epple, Romano, and Sieg 478).

Organizations have a social responsibility to develop human capital. They can, therefore, state this commitment publicly by communicating an affirmative action policy statement to all employees and to the public at large. Lipson indicated that the astute implementation of an affirmative action program leads to improved management of human resources (136). It encourages the role of mentorship in the workplace and improves the interactive and leadership skills of seniors (Epple, Romano, and Sieg 478).

A well managed affirmative action program raises performance standards in organizations. It increases the productivity of current incumbents as previously disadvantaged employees are now presented with the opportunity to compete for posts (Shuford 504). Affirmative action, according to Shuford, presents an opportune time to evaluate the levels of competence of current incumbents and helps to determine whether or not entrance criteria and requirements are relevant to job content (510). The success of the beneficiaries of affirmative action leads to a change in the perception of many men that women and other minority groups have what it takes to perform well in their jobs.

Disadvantages of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action policies result to reverse discrimination. This discrimination is no better than the racial or sexual discrimination that affirmative action allegedly frustrates. Inheritance laws favor certain members of society and disadvantage others (Palmer 769). The point is that disadvantages to majorities produced by the affirmative action may be warranted by the promotion of social ideals of equal treatment for groups that were severely mistreated in the past (Shuford 510).

Policies of affirmative action may confer economic advantages upon some who do not deserve them and generate court battles, jockeying for a favored position by a multiple array of minorities, lowering of admission and work standards in some institutions. Affirmative action causes heightened racial hostility, and "continued suspicion that well-placed women and minority group members got their positions purely on the basis of quotas, thereby damaging their self-respect and the respect of their colleagues".

Conclusion

In conclusion, DiTomaso, Parks-Yancy, and Post noted that feminist economists should develop appropriate theoretical frameworks for analyzing the economic status of women (618). Here such issues such as how to account for women's dual roles in social production and reproduction when evaluating equality warrant further investigation. Feminist economists should develop better measures for evaluating affirmative action policies. Researchers should determine what factors to include in constructing and assessing successful programs. Previously ignored factors such as economic performance, professional development and advancement, and promotion and succession systems should be incorporated. It is important to determine whether the affirmative action goal of equalizing labor values across the genders because it can even be achieved without changing the nature of the marketplace itself. Attaining a level playing field might actually challenge traditional values such as status, mobility, and compensation in order to distribute workplace rewards more equitably. Affirmative action is not a perfect social tool, but it is the best tool yet created as a way of preventing a recurrence of the far worse imperfections of our past policies of segregation and exclusion.