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Affirmative Action for the Better

Kevin T. Fowler
Anniston, Alabama


Affirmative action programs throughout the United States have long since been a controversial issue regarding employment practices. Affirmative action clearly takes an opposite approach to employment practices over the nondiscrimination approach. Whereas with the nondiscrimination approach, certain classes of people are protected from being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, national origin, and religion. In contrast, the affirmative action programs offer individuals such as women and minorities a chance at equal employment opportunities and representation through positive, results-oriented practices that purposely take race and gender into account. The absence of clear cut and positive affirmative action programs make it virtually impossible for race and gender equity and representation to be achieved within most organizations. Within the public sector, affirmative action programs are greatly needed and for this to be effective, they must be promoted at the public, employee, management, and government levels.

Affirmative Action for the Better

Employment practices involving affirmative action have been a controversial issue among the public and private sector human resource departments for many years. The definition of affirmative action "refers to various efforts to deliberately take race, sex, and national origins into account to remedy past and current effects of discrimination. Its primary goal is to ensure that women and minorities are widely represented in all occupations and at all organizational levels" (Tompkins, 1995, p. 161). Another definition of affirmative action according to Bergmann is "planning and acting to end the absence of certain kinds of people-those who belong to groups that have been subordinated or left out-from certain jobs and schools" (1997 p. 7). Although there are many adversaries that do not subscribe to this theory, primarily the white male, it has many benefits to women and minorities that greatly outweigh its negative aspects. Opponents of affirmative action have argued for decades since the inception of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that affirmative action is basically reverse discrimination and does not reward individuals who have achieved higher education and merit. But rather rewards those individuals with positions regardless of merit and education, on the basis of race and gender. While this may be a true statement, without positive affirmative action programs, equity and representation would be more distant from achievement than ever.

Title VII was enacted by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII references to affirmative action programs were brought about "because of the history of discrimination in the United States, certain groups are at a disadvantage in the current marketplace. Thus affirmative action laws impose temporary requirements to correct underutilization of these groups (e.g., goals and timetables for increasing the number of minorities and women in a facility)" (Gutman, 1993, p. 9). Affirmative action programs that were born as a result of Title VII were basically imposed to prevent the dominance of one particular group in the workforce. Under these new laws all individuals of protected classes had a chance to be represented at all organizational levels. Prior to these laws, the white male dominated the workforce. Although still somewhat white male dominated, quotas that were designed through affirmative action programs have helped achieve some representation of women and minorities in the current workforce. Some remedies brought about through affirmative action programs include goal setting, quotas, and timetables. The term goal "refers to specific outcomes which, when achieved, will result in equal employment opportunity and equitable representation" (Hall & Albrecht, 1979, p. 47-78). Goals and hiring quotas vary somewhat in their function. Goals are generally long range plans that organizations use and there are no expected minimum or maximum limitations. Quotas by contrast, "establishes a definite number of people who must be hired (e.g., court order quotas). A company cannot, by law, use quotas unless it has been ordered to do so by a court to remedy past action" (Hall & Albrecht, 1979, p. 47-48). Deficiency correction is the primary target of goal setting through affirmative action. For an organization to be effective with goals, they must be realistic, attainable, and monitored by the human resource department. Affirmative action programs generally achieve their set goals through several common practices called outreach programs. First, there are special recruiting programs where women and minorities will most likely be found. These special outreach programs target black universities and female dominated educational facilities. A second outreach program involves special advertising. Generally, this is also implemented in areas that are heavily populated by women and minorities similar to that of recruiting programs. Through outreach programs like the ones mentioned above, goals can be attained to achieve equity and representation without forgoing higher educated and skilled applicants. These outreach programs are very common in the public and private sector in today's workplace and have provided a measurable level of success in achieving representation.

When applicants are recruited and selected for positions through affirmative action programs, there is an attached stigma that accompanies that individual. The stigma associated with affirmative action is the public's perception that the applicant in incompetent. The public's general view is that even though these applicants are recruited from educational institutions, they are still only being selected because of race or gender. Further, "people resist relinquishing a negative view of those associated with affirmative action; such individuals seem to remain incompetent in the minds of onlookers unless they are proved to be competent" (Heilman, Block, Stathatos, 1997). The described stigma is at best unfair to this group. Recruited applicants should be considered competent when hired and only considered incompetent through performance evaluations like employees of all races and genders. The majority of subscribers to this theory are those (e.g., white males) who fear affirmative action programs and feel that they themselves are being discriminated against. Which, in all actuality, the white male may be part of some reverse discrimination since the inception of Title VII. However, organizations, especially in the public sector where service is the tangible item offered, must be representative of the very population they serve. For example, the Anniston Alabama Housing Authority offers housing assistance to some 1200 residents of which are primarily women and minorities. Would it not be a fair assumption to say that the employees of the Anniston Housing Authority should be representative to some degree of the population that they serve? While the view society has may vary from mine, a large percentage of the population served feels that representation should be more equally balanced and that employees would be more knowledgeable of there circumstances.

Affirmative action programs when handled properly through the human resources department within an organization can minimize the negative references received regarding hiring practices. Nye states "that positive information regarding an employee's job qualifications should minimize assumptions of incompetence associated with affirmative action hiring programs. In other words, when co-workers have information that clearly describes an individual's job qualifications, they should be less likely to assume that he or she was hired solely on race or gender" (1998). By making this information available within the organization, I believe that you would remove the pressures from the employee and co-worker regarding the hiring practices. Further, this would benefit the organization in the areas of productivity, public relations within the community, and morale. Increasing morale within the entire agency as a whole, will eventually aid in retaining, recruiting, and motivating employees during a very competitive workforce. This would be especially true of those who fall under the affirmative action categories. Would women and minorities be treated fairly without affirmative action programs? Opportunities in today's workplace are extremely competitive. Glazer states that "the battle over affirmative action today is a contest between a clear principle on the one hand and a clear reality on the other. The principle is that ability, qualifications, and merit, independent of race, national origin, or sex should prevail when one applies for a job or promotion, or for selective institutions for higher education, or when one bids for contracts. The reality is that strict adherence to this principle would result in few African Americans getting jobs, admissions, and contracts" (1998). With that being said, women and minorities cannot possibly have a fair chance in society without positive affirmative action programs. However, with affirmative action, it has been noted that their incentives to achieve success may be decreased because "preferential treatment can lead to the patronization of black workers and students. By "patronization" I mean the setting of a lower standard of expected accomplishment for blacks than whites because of the belief that blacks are not as capable of meeting a higher common standard" (Loury, 1997). With a white male dominated workforce, negative public perceptions, and low self-esteem of applicants, affirmative action offers the only solution for race and gender equity. Further stated, everyone in America should be afforded equal opportunity. If this cannot be achieved, then we must take action to remedy these painful situations.

In conclusion, the controversy surrounding affirmative action programs today will likely continue into the future. Society as a whole does not appear to be ready to relinquish its negative perception of the hiring practices brought about by Title VII. However, the benefits brought about by this act greatly increase the opportunity for women and minorities in employment that would not otherwise be available to them in the current workforce. These programs offer hope to all socioeconomic groups that they will have a chance at equal employment and representation in a society where they are greatly outnumbered. Furthermore, human resource departments in the public sector will have to become more skilled in implementing positive affirmative action programs if we are to reap the full benefits from them. Even further, the public as a whole is going to have to commit to change if our country is going to move forward.


    Tompkins, Jonathon (1995). Human Resource Management in Government. New York: HarperCollins.

    Bergmann, Barbara (1997). In Defense of Affirmative Action. New York: Sage Publications.

    Gutman, Arthur (1993). EEO Law and Personnel Practices. California: Sage Publications, Inc.

    Hall, F. S., & Albrecht, M. H. (1979). The Management of Affirmative Action. California: Goodyear Publishing.

    Heilman, M. E., Block, C. J., Stathatos, P. (1997). The affirmative action stigma of incompetence. Academy of Management Journal, 40 (3), 603-625

    Glazer, Nathan (1998). In Defense of Preference. The New Republic, 218 (14), 18-25

    Loury, Glenn (1997). How to mend affirmative action. Public Interest (127), 33-45

    Nye, David (1998). Affirmative action and the stigma of incompetence. The Academy of Management Executive, 12 (1), 88-92

About the author: Kevin Fowler lives in Anniston, Alabama. MPA, political science, Jacksonville State University.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 22, 1999.