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Affirmative Action: Public OPinion Vs. Policy Essay, Research Paper

Affirmative Action: Public OPinion vs. Policy

When Justin Ketcham, a white college student from the suburbs, thinks about

affirmative action, he thinks about what happened when he sent out letters

seeking scholarships so he could attend Stanford University after being accepted

during his senior year of high school.The organizations that wrote back told him

their money was reserved for women or minorities. To Americans like Ketcham,

it’s a matter of fairness. The average white male will claim that it’s not fair

to attempt to rebalance scales by balancing them the other way. Students like

Ketcham are also more likely to claim that affirmative action is a program

geared towards curtailing workplace prejudices that really don’t exist

anymore.But when Hillary Williams, a black insurance company manager from the

inner-city, thinks about affirmative action, she thinks about the time she had

to train three consecutive white male bosses for a job that no one even

approached her about filling. To her, it’s also a question of fairness.

African-Americans like Hillary feel that there is just no other was besides

affirmative action to level the playing field in certain businesses.And so the

disparity in public opinion begins. A racially-divided America creates separate

groups, which “Affirmative Action issue taps a fundamental cleavage in American

Society” (Gamson and Modigliani 170)–each with their own view of affirmative

action on different sides of the line. Government attempts to create policy

based upon the voice of the people but affirmative action seems to present an

almost un-solvable dilemma. Traditionally, it had been a policy that was

greatly scrutinized for its quotas and alleged unfairness towards Blacks, but at

the same time it had also been praised for its inherent ability to help

minorities gets jobs they deserve but could not obtain otherwise. So how do we

reach a “happy medium” so-to-speak? In American political culture, it appears

as though individualism and egalitarianism are values that find themselves on

opposite ends of the political battlefield.

In a complex world of political ideology and political culture are sets of

values and principles that are widely endorsed by politicians, educators, the

media and other opinion leaders that make up the definition of what is to be

American (Feldman and Zaller). Some favor the values of individual freedom,

especially individual economic freedom, over other values, especially equality

and popular sovereignty (egalitarianism). These people are labeled Conservatives.

The other side of the spectrum consider themselves as Liberals (Feldman and

Zaller).Because we live in a meritocracy created by the strong forces of

capitalism, there is a tendency for people to fall behind either in the economy

or in the academic community. During the Civil Rights movement of 1960’s,

affirmative action was implemented with the idea and hope that America would

finally become truly equal. The tension of the 1960s civil rights movement had

made it very clear that the nations minority and female population was not

receiving equal social and economic opportunity. The implementation of

affirmative action was America’s first honest attempt at solving a problem it

had previously chose to ignore.The Philadelphia Plan was one of the first major

vehicles for affirmative action named for the first city in which a labor

department agreement with federal contractors had been reached. “The plan set

specific numerical goals for each of the minority employment and the

availability pool.” Labor Department officials announced that “because of the

deplorably low rate of employment among minority groups” in the industry, they

would set up similar plans in other major cities (Gamson and Modigliani 139).

Today, without a college degree will definitely decrease the chance of upward

mobility. Public universities give preferences to minorities based on race and

gender. Many private universities, including Harvard, Chicago and Stanford,

have given preferences to the children of alumni, faculty, and athletes. This

is not to say that public universities give the same preferential treatment, but

it goes to show that public institutions use affirmative action to uplift the

non-privileged minority (Leslie 1991, 59). And universities gives special

scholarships and fellowships to a limited amount of applicants from a particular,

regional, gender, ethnic, or religious backgrounds (Lipset 39).Conservatives

believe that people could achieve social mobility by “hard work (and ambition)

rather than lucky breaks or help from other people” (Lipset 30). From 1983

through 1990, surveys taken by NORC found that around two-thirds of respondents

consistently agreed that “people get ahead by hard work (and) a much

largerpercentage said ambition” (Lipset 30). In October 1989, poll taken by ABC

News-Washington Post, found that 60 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks

agreed with the statements: “if blacks would try harder, they could be just as

well off as whites.” Conservatives (whites) are overwhelmingly non-supportive to

affirmative action or preferential treatment, as seen from responses to the

following NES questions in 1988 and 1992 (Sniderman and Piazza 1993, 104):

Some people say that because of past discrimination it is sometimes necessary

for colleges and universities to reserve openings for black student. Other

oppose quotas because they say quotas give blacks advantages they haven’t earned.

What about your opinion?are you for or against quotas to admit black students?

For Against Unsure

1988: 33% 58% 9%

1992: 23% 71% 6%

Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks should be given

preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring

and promotion is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your

opinion?are you for or against preferential hiring for blacks?

For Against Unsure

1988: 19% 75% 6%

1992: 13% 84% 3%

The attitudes on affirmative action are firmly held for the white majority.

Sniderman and Piazza says that the opposition of egalitarian polices like

affirmative action lead to a negative stereotyping of minorities. Among the

randomly selected sample, one-half of them were asked about black stereotypes?

they are irresponsible, they are lazy, they are arrogant. These questions were

the immediately followed by a single question about affirmative action in

employment. The other half of the sample was asked the same question about

blacks, but they were immediately preceded by the question about affirmative

action in employment. The data show significantly higher percentages of

negative stereotypes about blacks for the sample getting the affirmative action

questions (Sniderman and Piazza 1993, 97-104). Sniderman and Piazza (1993, 109)

concluded that “affirmative action is so intensely disliked that it has led some

whites to dislike blacks?an ironic example of a policy meant to put the divided

of race behind us in fact further widening it.”

Study completed by Stanley Dickinson, argued that students somewhat feel the

same way that Sniderman and Piazza stated above. He asked 759 anonymous ?non-

minority students’ about their thoughts of stereotyping among certain racial

groups. 8 out of 10 or 80% of the students said at one particular time they had

used ?negative stereotyping’ as a result from affirmative action. It goes to

show that affirmative action or preferential treatment constitutes a negative

opinion (emphasis from Sniderman and Piazza).” The same survey found 52 percent

of blacks and 56 percent of whites accepting the view that “discrimination has

unfairly held down blacks, but many of the problems blacks in this country have

(back then) brought on by blacks themselves” (Lipset 50). According to Sears and

Kinder 1971, he argues that “symbolic racism” explains the lack of support among

whites for particular remedies to solve the problem of racial discrimination.

Whites are more likely to respond to symbolic racism (i.e. Black, Mexican, etc.)

rather than policy content of the question. Over the past few decades, straight

out racism is quite unacceptable. “Now racial hostility is expressed indirectly

by a glorification of traditional values such as ?work ethic’ and ?

individualism,’ in which blacks and other minorities groups are seen as

deficient” (Sears 1986). Sniderman and Piazza argue the rival explanation of

straightforward politics. They argue that “the central problem of racial

politics is not the problem of prejudice” (1993, 107). The agenda of the civil

rights movement has changed from one of equal opportunity to equal outcomes.

The vast majority of the American Creed view the new civil rights program of

racial quotas and affirmative action very much contrast with the principle of

equal opportunity for all (Erikson/Tedin 95).

Although the civil rights movement fabricated most of the political culture,

progress for socio-economic equality has been inadequate, uneven and unsteady.

This fact in itself urges the public to argue for changed policies. Today,

people are listing to the ?individualistic’ side rather than tipsy egalitarian

side of the political spectrum. Proposition 209 was an civil rightsinitiative

that utilized conservative values of individualistic principles to get rid of

1There are only 7 counties that did not support the initiative. Women,

especially white women, have by many measures made greater gains than

minorities (Lester PG), a sore point that could complicate coalition-building

now that affirmative action is under fire. Whatever its role in spawning a

healthy black middle class, it has barely touched black poverty or reduced an

enduring gap between white and black unemployment rates.Given this pattern, it

is hardly surprising that the much touted review of federal programs

commissioned by the President, should have included a considerable amount of

straightforward advocacy for the diversity principle. For example, that the

“competitiveness of our society and economy” depends upon building an

“inclusive” economy, and adds that in science, education, and other fields,

there will be “dangerous shortages of talent if we continue to draw the ranks of

those professions so overwhelmingly from among white males only” (Aptheker 15).

The suggestion that women and minorities offer abilities different from and in

some ways superior to those of white men is echoed elsewhere in the assertion

that diversity “is critical to the quality of certain institutions and

professions.” Throughout, society’s equilibrium is measured by the standard of

proportional representation, and any deviation from the norm is regarded as a

major social wrong.But affirmative action is, after all , a policy which has

survived at least in theme for years in the face of widespread, and often angry,

disapproval. It is also a policy whose potential constituency is quite

formidable, encompassing blacks, certain immigrants groups, and women?in other

words, over half the population. True, many women, Hispanics, and Asians are

ambivalent about or in some cases hostile to the idea of group rights, but

Americans retain a powerful attachment to the principle of affirmative action,

and many in the new black middle class have come back to look on it as an

entitlement?much as the elderly view Medicare or farmers regard crop subsidies.

Support for affirmative action also enjoys the status of a litmus test of group

loyalty for black elected officials and civil-rights leaders.

Affirmative action is a cheap and easy way to remedy societal fall backs Over

the last few decades, public opinion about affirmative actions has changed

tantamount to public policy. The original affirmative-action initiative emerged

out of a belief that the racial neutrality enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of

1964 would not suffice to change the face of American society. According to

this reasoning, even if individual blacks were no longer being denied

opportunities, black as a whole would nevertheless, simply because the country’s

economic and educational institutions functioned in a systemically

discriminatory way. It was in the basis of this theory?known popularly as the

doctrine of institutional racism?that the earliest affirmative action plans

called for lowering employment standards en masse, and for coercing corporations

and government agencies into agreements which, in practice, often led to defacto

quotas (emphasis aptheker 16). According to S.M. Lipset, Americans believe

strongly in both values: individualism and egalitarianism. But affirmative

action has, since its inception, been an ever-present example of government

attempting to create a public policy that would appeal all. Some commentators

content that the move to affirmative action came because the nation, faced with

the financial demands of the Vietnam War buildup, was unable to afford the vast

sums necessary on social programs to help the poor compete their way to economic

parity (Aptheker 14). In this view, affirmative action was perceived as the

fast, cheap way to achieve social equality.Whatever its origins, few doubt that

affirmative action has helped ope the doors of oportunity for minorities and

women over the past three decades. Their numbers have grown throughout the

workforce, including high paying professions like law and medicine. Both the

gender gap and, to a slightly lesser degree, the racial gap in median earnings

have narrowed. In this sense, a greater number of minorites have moved into

positions of power, and thus their groups have a much stronger influence upon

affirmative action itself . . .or so one might think . .

And economists agree that progress has not meant parity. Women, according to

one recent study, still earn on average 15 percent less than comarably qualified

men. Blacks actually made their greatest gains between 1940 and 1970 and fell

back relative to whates during the 1980’s (Currie 19). Both groups remain

underrepresented in high-paying executive and magerial positions. And studies

pairing black and white job applicants with similar credentials consistently

show that whites do better (Williams 75-6).On the public platform, affirmative

action is indeed an emotional, divisive and complicated issue for policy-makers.

30 years after it entered the national lexicon on the wake of the passage of the

Civil Right Act of 1964, it has emerged as one of the nation’s major topic of

disagreement and debate. From government set-aside to workplace preferences to

race-targeted school admissions, it is under attack from opponents who want to

abolish of and from reformers who want to refocus it.Although these policies

were unpopular with white Americans from the outset, they were grudgingly

accepted by many on the grounds that blacks, who has recently been the objects

of legal discrimination, arguably deserved some limited amount of compensatory

justice. Over the years, however, the proposition that affirmative action was

necessary to combat discrimination, or even the effects of past discrimination,

became increasingly difficult to sustain. Employers met the conditions set down

by enforcement agencies; employment and educational tests were changed, and

personnel policies were adjusted to conform with guidelines established by the

EEOC; and thousands of new businesses set their hiring policies entirely

according to affirmative action principles.Faced with an increasingly shaky

rationale, the advocates of preferences began to advance a new one: diversity.

Like the original conception, diversity assumed an America in which racism (now

joined by sexism) was rampant. But diversity was designed less to fight bias in

particular instances than to create sweeping standards for the entire workforce,

if not for the entire society. And where affirmative action had been intended,

at least theoretically, to enhanced the goal of societal integration, diversity

celebrated difference and promote “multiculturalism”?i.e., segregation.

Implementing it necessitated a degree of racial and sexual consciousness

virtually limitless in its application.There are few figures in public life

today as committed to the diversity idea as President Clinton. From the musical

and literary selections at his inaugural ceremony, to his policy of setting

aside one of every three positions on the new adminstration for women and

minorities, to his having reserved to position of Attorney General for a woman,

to the scrupulous balancing of his health-care task force according to race and

gender, to the proposal advanced by that task force to impose a diversity system

on the medical profession, the Clinton administration has sent an unmistakable

message: as for as the government is concerned, America is a country that counts

by race and gender.The adminstration’s attitude was perhaps most vividly

demonstrated ina case involving a public-school teacher in Piscataway, New

Jersey. In 1989, the local schoool board had been confronted with the need to

lay off one of two home economics teachers?one white, one black, with equal

seniority and comparable performance assessments. Even though blacks were well-

represented throughout the faculty, the board dismissed the white teacher on

purely racial grounds. She then sued, and the Bush adminstration, citing

flagrant reverse discrimination, supported her action (Citrin 40-1). The

Clinton adminstration, however, abruptly reversed course and supported the

schoool board. It had to do so on grounds other than discrimination against the

black teacher, which was never an issue in this case; the grounds it came up

with were “diversity.”Nor does affirmative action lack for broad backing among

predominactly white institutions. The business community has regularly spoken

against anti-quota legislations in the past, and is distinctly unenthusiastic

about anti-preference proposals today, including CCRI (Czurak 1). Officials at

prestigous unversiies regard their racially balanced student boddies as a major

achievement.


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