Affirmative Action Who Benefits?
Affirmative Action: Who Benefits?
A Policy That Suffers an Identity Crisis
Few social policy issues have served as a better gauge of racial and ethnic divisions among the American electorate than that of affirmative action. Polls indicate that many Americans perceive affirmative action policies to be synonymous with quotas, set-asides, and preferential treatment that benefit minorities and women at the expense of white males. Consequently, political leaders on the left and right are promising to revisit federal affirmative action policies. Some have expressed clear intentions to dismantle affirmative action policies; others have called for more study and review.
What opinion polls also reveal, however, is that, by and large, voters do not know very much about what affirmative action comprises, the scope of federal affirmative action policies, and who benefits (or is hurt) by these policies. As a result, public opinion is shaped to a greater extent by social attitudes and beliefs about recipients (e.g., minorities and women) rather than by solid information about affirmative action policies themselves.
With a few exceptions, social science research on affirmative action and workforce diversity has not been brought to bear on current policy debates. This research is critical to address the question of whether or how the federal government can ensure fairness for all Americans. For this reason, the American Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues convened a briefing for members of Congress and their staffs to summarize relevant social science research on affirmative action. Held on September 21, 1995, the briefing brought six distinguished psychologists to the nation's capital to advance a shared mission: promoting the use of the best scientific psychological research as a means of addressing the social policy issues surrounding affirmative action.
This document integrates and summarizes key points made by the presenters at the briefing. Faye Crosby, PhD, discussed the varieties of affirmative action policies and how these policies compare with equal employment opportunity policies. Audrey Murrell, PhD, summarized current data on workforce participation of women and ethnic minorities, and the barriers these groups face to equal representation in income and employment. John Dovidio, PhD, summarized research into contemporary forms of racism that affirmative action policies must address.
Also, Rupert Nacoste, PhD, discussed procedural standards employed by courts in evaluating affirmative action programs and means to ensure procedural fairness for all groups. Anthony Pratkanis, PhD, presented a number of means to ensure that affirmative action policies are balanced and work for everyone, including direct recipients as well as indirect beneficiaries. And Janet Helms, PhD, explored the historical and political context in which affirmative action programs came into existence and offered a challenge to Americans to look at research findings when thinking about race and gender in the workplace.
We gratefully acknowledge the leadership and assistance of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Barbara Rose Collins (D-Mich.), cosponsors of the briefing, and their staffs.
The information presented in this paper does not necessarily reflect the positions of the American Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, or the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues. For questions or more information regarding this briefing, please contact Brian Smedley, PhD, Director of APA Public Interest Policy, at 202-336-6066. For more information about specific issues discussed here, contact any of the contributors listed at the back of the booklet.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Affirmative Action
What is affirmative action?
Affirmative action is a catchall phrase referring to laws, customs, and social policies intended to alleviate the types of discrimination that limit opportunities for a variety of demographic groups in various social institutions.
More specifically, it refers to both voluntary and mandatory efforts undertaken by federal, state, and local governments; private employers; and schools to combat discrimination and to promote equal opportunity in education and employment for all. However, the meaning and nature of affirmative action have changed over the last 30 or so years as a result of congressional, presidential, and court actions (Stephanopoulos and Edley, 1995).
Opinion polls reveal that the general public is sharply divided on the meaning and value of affirmative action (Bruno, 1995). One reason for the heated controversy is related to confusion over how the term is defined and implemented.
In a general sense, affirmative action occurs when an organization expends energy to make sure there is no discrimination in employment or education and, instead, equal opportunity exists. Two types of affirmative action policies are commonly in use (Crosby and Cordova, 1995).
- Classical. This type derives from White House Executive Order 11246 of 1965 (later amended), which mandates that employers monitor their utilization of individuals from target groups (e.g., women) to ascertain if it reflects the availability of talent in the community.
- New (additional). More recently, some affirmative action laws and regulations have involved the use of preferential treatment, privilege, and set asides to achieve workforce diversity. Some organizations use set-aside programs as an expedient way to address discrimination when better remedies are not available; from a legal standpoint, justifying set asides is much harder than justifying classical affirmative action.
What are the differences between affirmative action and equal employment opportunity policies?
- Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is best described as a policy of simple nondiscrimination, in compliance with legislation prohibiting all forms of intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. It specifically outlaws discrimination in employment in all public and private sector organizations with 15 or more employees, as well as labor organizations and employment agencies.
- Affirmative action goes further by requiring employers to take steps to achieve a balanced representation of workers.
Thus, affirmative action and EEO policies both strive to maintain justice. Classical affirmative action, however, involves effort. In contrast, equal employment opportunity policies are passive. The table opposite highlights some basic differences between the two concepts.
Is affirmative action still needed?
Research indicates that affirmative action is still needed for two related reasons:
- A series of laboratory studies have shown that almost all people have trouble detecting a pattern of discrimination unless they are faced with a flagrant example or have access to aggregated data documenting discrimination (Clayton and Crosby, 1992). This inability to make accurate judgments about discrimination from isolated incidents or comparisons is just as true for fair-minded and intelligent people as it is for others. Aggregated data are needed, therefore, if decision makers are to avoid or correct imbalances before they become flagrant. As shown in the table opposite, affirmative action is the only policy that requires an organization to collect and scrutinize aggregated data.
- Data indicate that the biases against minorities and women that humans show in laboratory settings are reflected in real-world practices. According to the March 1995 report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, for example, a large proportion of minorities and women are locked into low-wage, low-prestige, and dead-end jobs. Additional data suggest that these two groups have been disproportionately affected by current trends in workforce downsizing; many service-oriented industries, for example, disproportionately employ women and minorities and are likely to continue downsizing through the year 2002. It is likely that the minorities and women who work in these industries will be hardest hit (Murrell and Jones, 1995).