Affirmative Action is defined by Meriam Webster’s Dictionary as an active effort to improve employment or educational opportunities for members of minority groups or women.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy issued an executive order calling for Affirmative Action as a means to promote equal opportunity for racial minorities in hiring by federal contractors. This was the first official use of the term by the Federal Government. Eight years later, as President, Nixon beefed up the Office of Federal Compliance Programs, which, along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has become one of the government’s two main enforcers of affirmative action policy. Such efforts have vastly expanded opportunities for African Americans.
However, they have also touched off complaints from many whites that Afro-Americans are benefiting from reverse discrimination. Under the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972, most federal contractors, subcontractors, and all state and government institutions, including universities, must initiate plans to increase the proportions of their female and minority employees until they are equal to the proportions existing in the available labor market. Affirmative action plans that establish racial quotas were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of University of California VS. Bakke in 1978.
This case arose when the medical school of the University of California at Davis twice rejected Allen Bakke’s application while admitting members of racial minorities who had lower test scores. Bakke charged that the medical school’s policy of setting aside 16 of the 100 positions for racial minorities was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. In a complex 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ordered that Bakke be admitted. The court ruled that universities may consider race and ethnic origins as a factor in evaluating candidates for admission, but they may not establish fixed racial quotas. (Source: Time Magazine, May 27, 1991)
The decision was upheld in the case of Private Business and Unions in United Steelworkers of America vs. Webber in 1979. This case arose when Brian F. Webber sued Kaiser Aluminum and the United Steelworkers of America for setting aside half of the positions in a training program for minority workers with less seniority. The Supreme Court overruled this case by a 5-2 vote, holding that the Kaiser program did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The ruling was that private employers could voluntarily adopt plans designed to eliminate conspicuous racial imbalance in traditionally segregated job categories. Then, in 1984 and 1986, the justices ruled against upsetting seniority systems in favor of minorities. (Harper’s Magazine, July 1991, pp. 27)
In 1984, the Supreme Court struck down a Richmond ordinance intended to guarantee Afro-Americans and other minorities a greater share of the city’s construction contracts. The decision not only threatened similar programs in 36 states but also opened the door to legal attacks against other racially based government schemes. A key component of the court ruling was the requirement that all government distinctions based on race be subject to “strict scrutiny.
This means that public sector affirmative action programs are valid only if they serve the compelling state interest of redressing identified discrimination. (Time Magazine, February 6, 1989, pp. 60) Affirmative action has moved to the forefront of public debate in recent months with a proposed California ballot initiative that would end many race-based preference programs. The University of California itself has become the focus of debate after Ward Connerly, a Regent for the University of California system, called for an end to such preferences in admissions. The Chancellor of UCLA, Charles E.
Young quickly took a strong stand against Mr. Connerly, stating that affirmative action had benefited the university and should continue. (NY Times, June 4, 1995)
The University of California at Berkeley campus was among the first of the nation’s leading universities to embrace the elements of affirmative action in its admissions policies. It now boasts one of the most diverse campuses in America, with whites accounting for only 32% of the student body. However, Berkeley may soon become one of the first campuses in the nation to abandon the cornerstone of affirmative action in higher education. The University Board of Regents expects to consider a proposal to prohibit the use of race and ethnicity as factors for admissions. (NY Times, June 4, 1995, pp.23) On Thursday, July 8, 1995, the California University System Board of Regents adopted a plan to dismantle affirmative action plans within the university system. Effective January 1, 1997, the University of California system shall not use race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion.