• by Linda Cantu, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1996 • Dr. Linda Cantu

Affirmative action is linked intricately to discrimination in the United States. It was established, like the civil rights laws that preceded it, to correct discriminatory practices and racial injustices that permitted minorities and women to be excluded from equal opportunities in employment and education. Discriminatory practices have existed to keep one group of people, because of their race, religious preference or sex, from reaping the benefits of the “American dream.”

The term “affirmative action” was first introduced in 1961 in President Kennedy’s Executive Order #10925 stating that federal contractors should “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that applicants are treated fairly during employment without regard to race, creed, color or national origin.” This order’s intent was to increase the qualification and availability of minorities in employment through outreach, recruiting and training, and other positive programs (Norton, 1987).

The federal government and the private sector use affirmative action to provide equal opportunity and access to education and employment for persons who have been traditionally underrepresented in these areas. The Supreme Court has supported affirmative action to help balance the rights of women and minorities in competing for the same jobs and opportunities as White males. The Supreme Court has even supported numerical remedies when addressing areas where there have been “traditionally segregated job categories” and “persistent and egregious discrimination” and “where necessary to dissipate the lingering effects of pervasive discrimination” (Norton, 1987).

Affirmative action has been utilized in three predominant ways. Its original intent was to assure that underrepresented groups, such as minorities and women, were more aggressively recruited for positions or opportunities in educational institutions or when applying for jobs. Employers and universities have been encouraged to create recruitment methods and policies that ensure underrepresented groups be in a pool of possible candidates for these opportunities. A second method of affirmative action establishes policies that set “goals and timetables.” Goals and timetables, when introduced as policies, are not rigidly enforced. The third method, and probably the most controversial and stringent, sets “quotas” or “set-asides.” This method specifies a certain percentage or actual number of positions be “set-aside” for minorities, women or other designated protected groups. It can also “set aside” or budget monies to be used specifically for protected groups (MALDEF, nd).

Some Positive Effects of Affirmative Action

The effects of affirmative action can be seen in colleges and universities such as at the University of California where, in 1990, the eligibility rate for Hispanic students from high schools in the surrounding area was 3 percent. In 1994, by using outreach programs, boosting financial aid availability and using more aggressive admissions, the rate of eligible students rose to 46 percent (MALDEF, ND).

The make-up of the student body of the University of California has changed dramatically through affirmative action policies. In 1984, 70 percent of the University of California’s student population was White, while Hispanics made up only 7 percent. Ten years later, the percentage of Hispanics almost doubled to 13 percent (Hispanic Outlook, 1995).

The effects can also be seen in medical schools. In 1968, there were approximately 735 Blacks in medical schools. The majority, or 71 percent, could be found in two predominantly Black medical schools: Howard and Meharry Universities. Out of the hundreds of White medical schools in the United States at that time, only 0.6 percent (or 211) Blacks made up part of the total of all other medical schools. As a result of stricter and more aggressive recruitment and admissions programs initiated in the 10 years that followed, the number of Blacks in 1978 rose to about 3000 in the predominantly White medical schools, approximately 5 percent of their total population (Bundy, 1977).

Trends in the Dismantling of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is facing difficult times. There is a conservative political tide sweeping the nation. The “new” U.S. Supreme Court and politics in California are two places we can see these effects.

In two rulings by the Supreme Court in 1992-93, the first changes in the tide away from affirmation action were decided. In the first case, St. Mary’s Honor Center vs. Hicks, the court ruled five to four on requirements that would make it more difficult to prove discrimination on the basis of race, gender or religious preference. In Shaw vs. Reno, the Supreme Court ruled five to four that congressional districts created to give minorities a majority of votes may be unconstitutional and unfair to White voters (Lehr, ND).

Officials at the University of California voted in 1995 to eliminate race and gender as factors in considering persons for employment, admissions and business or awarding financial aid or business contracts.

The state of California presently has placed the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) on the ballot for 1996. This initiative would eliminate race or gender in considerations for employment, admissions to universities, and awarding of financial aid and business contracts in the entire state of California. Supporters of CCRI feel confident that California voters will approve this initiative because of the climate created by the passage of Proposition 187 last year, which, among other things, denies educational and health services to undocumented families.

Supporters of CCRI argue that affirmative action accepts less qualified candidates and lowers standards and that White males are unfairly discriminated against. Others feel that affirmative action has accomplished its societal goal, that racism is no longer an obstacle and that today’s society is “color-blind” in dealing with minorities and women.

The Claim of Lower Standards

Facts do not support the claim that affirmative action lowers standards. At the University of California, for example, the average grade point average of Latino students stands at 3.7 (compared with 3.3 minimum required). All students accepted at the University of California must be in the top 12.5 percent of their class. These numbers show that at the University of California, minorities are held to the highest standards set (Hispanic Outlook, 1995).

Affirmative action opponents also claim that White students who excel on standardized tests lose out to minority students who do less well and are accepted into universities even though their scores are lower. Standardized achievement test scores themselves are under attack to prove their validity in showing success in school. There is no evidence to confirm that doing well on standardized tests predicts success in school. Conversely, there are studies that show that women’s performance in college has been equal to men’s despite differences in standardized test scores. The same holds true for minorities (Cantu, 1995). The College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) that prepare the SAT, admit that the SAT cannot predict success in school.

In judging the performance of military personnel, the military has found that standardized test scores did not predict success in the military. During a study called “The Hundred Thousand,” the military found that there was no substantial difference in the success of enlistees who entered the military using lower criteria. In fact, enlistees who entered as “category fours” (the lowest entrance criteria) and those who entered as “category ones” (the highest entrance criteria) showed no difference in success (Cantu, 1995).

Still, there are various admissions procedures and standards in place. Universities and employers still set guidelines and standards. Long before affirmative action became a buzz word, universities diversified their campuses regionally taking students from the south, west, central and eastern United States. Qualified students from within a university’s own community are often passed by to allow students from outside the community to attend. In these cases, sometimes “less qualified” students, regardless of their color, are recruited into schools. In the area of athletics in colleges and universities, athletes are traditionally recruited and selected with full tuition over much more qualified candidates in order to support a successful sports program.

The successful performance of woman and minorities in schools and the success of enlistees in the military throws doubt on traditional measures used to screen military, employment or university applicants has having validity. White males do better on standardized tests, but there is no evidence that supports that in doing so they are more successful in employment or educational success or attainment. What is true is that they have been given many more opportunities and access to employment and education because of it. Possibly, the real predictor of success is “opportunity.”

Additionally, there are many qualified and capable women and minorities who over the years have been overlooked in employment and educational opportunities. Affirmative action gives these individuals the opportunity to compete and be selected for opportunities where they previously have been excluded because of discriminatory practices. The assumption that all minorities and women in universities or employment are underqualified is in itself racist and discriminatory. Perhaps, it is more appropriate to say that universities and employers have changed their guidelines rather than to say they have lowered standards.

The Claim of Reverse Discrimination

One argument is that White males are being unfairly discriminated against. But according to a report by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, of about 3000 reverse discrimination cases filed by White males between 1990 and 1994, only 1 percent to 3 percent constituted employment discrimination. The courts found the majority of the cases to be meritless and that the White male job applicants were less qualified for the jobs than were the chosen female or minority applicants (Wharton, 1995).

There is a preponderance of evidence and incidences that continue to demonstrate that, despite laws and affirmative action plans created to equal the playing field for minorities, huge discrepancies still exist in education and employment.

In an Atlantic Monthly Journal, Stanley Fish says that, in looking at the injustices of affirmative action, there is no way to equate what has happened to Blacks in our country to how “reverse discrimination” is hurting White males:

“Blacks have not simply been treated unfairly; they have been subjected first to decades of slavery and then to decades of second-class citizenship, widespread legalized discrimination, economic persecution, educational deprivation and cultural stigmatization. They have been bought, sold, killed, beaten, raped, excluded, exploited, shamed and scorned for a long time” (1995).

When looking at affirmative action to rectify a far greater wrong of lost educational and employment opportunities, it is difficult to sympathize with a group that claims “reverse discrimination.” It is hard to feel that White males are being treated “unfairly” when you look at the historical and grievous acts perpetrated in the name of real racism.

Despite claims by White males that they are being unfairly discriminated against, the facts are:

  • According to a January 1994 study by the US General Accounting Office, two-thirds of all minority-awarded scholarships in four-year institutions account for no more than 5 percent of all scholarship dollars, and financial aid based solely on race accounts for only 1 percent of all financial aid (Alicea, June 1995).
  • The 1990 census says that for every Hispanic manager in California’s private sector industries, there are 62 White (non-Hispanic) managers (Bergheim, 1995).
  • In 1990, Whites totaled 58 percent of California’s population, but in 1993 totaled 79 percent of the faculty (Bergheim, 1995).
  • In 1990, White males in California were earning $10,000 more than equally educated women, African Americans or Hispanics (Bergheim, 1995).

In the year 2000, four-fifths of the US workforce will be made up of women, members of minority groups or immigrants (Jung, 1993). The turn of the century is only five years away. It is this group that will be providing the tax base and economic direction of our country. Minorities and women will fill the jobs in medicine, technology and teaching. But they will not be qualified if we do not start preparing now.

Affirmative action opponents say that with the dissolution of affirmative action admissions policies will be more fair and students will be admitted based on their grades and qualifications not on the color of their skin (Hispanic Outlook, 1995). But advocates of affirmative action contend that if affirmative action policies were to be dismantled, the following would result:

  • Higher education admissions for African-Americans could drop 40 to 50 percent. For Hispanics, admissions could fall 5 to 15 percent (Hispanic Outlook, 1995).
  • The climate for minorities entering colleges would return to a climate of “We don’t want you” (Hispanic Outlook, 1995).
  • Financial aid targeting minorities and women would no longer exist, making it difficult for these students to attend college.
  • Overall, because our society is not colorblind, because racism still exists, African American, Hispanic and female students would again find it difficult to compete in the areas of education and employment.
  • Employers and universities would no longer be obligated to meet any standards created to protect the interests of minorities and women. We would see less diversity in the workplace and in universities.

Has affirmative action accomplished its societal goal? Have we reached a place in the United States where we can say that racism is eliminated and, in saying so, safely assume that people will have access to employment and education regardless of their color, gender or religious preference? Evidently not, if the predictions above are accurate.

ABC’s television program, PrimeTime Live, broadcasted in 1991 a study that exemplifies the fact that our society is not colorblind In this study, a camera crew followed two men who were identical in educational attainment and cultural background, were both affluent and were well dressed. The only difference between the two was that one was Black and one was White. In every encounter, the Black man was either ignored or given suspicious attention. He was asked to come up with more for the same goods such as a higher down payment for the same car. He was turned away as a prospective tenant. He was treated differently and made to feel inferior and unwanted in every circumstance. This experiment shows that this man, because he was Black and despite all his education, social and economic advantages, was still subjected to racism. It shows that in fact race, not socio-economic status, dictated how both were treated (Fish, 1995).

In a similar 1991 study by the Urban Institute of employment practices in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, equally qualified, White and Black applicants were used to test bias in the workplace. The applicants were matched identically for speech patterns, age, work experience, personal characteristics and physical build. They were sent to answer newspaper advertised job positions. Investigators found repeated discrimination. The higher the position, the greater the discrimination. White male applicants were offered jobs three times more often than were equally qualified Black applicants. The investigators found that discrimination is “widespread and entrenched” (Beauchamp, 1993).

Racism exists. Because of racism, many people have been denied access to educational and employment opportunities. The civil rights movement and the legal remedies applied to correct these injustices exist solely to correct the imbalance in education and employment caused by past discrimination and racism, not to exclude a certain group of people from benefiting equally in achieving the “American dream.” Looking historically, we know that racism was deliberately, detrimentally and injuriously used to exclude minorities from benefiting economically or educationally because they were considered inferior.

Given these facts, some members of Congress such as Senators William Cohen (R-Maine), Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill) and Paul Simon (Dill), have spoken their support for continued affirmative action policies. They feel this is necessary to ensure an end to discrimination and promote diversity in the workplace. Senator Cohen comments, “Racism is not a thing of the past, and the field is not level” (Hyde, 1995).

Affirmative action has given people the opportunity to access employment and education. It has moved us forward to a more level playing field. But there is still some leveling to do.

As Justice Blackmun said in 1977, “In order to get beyond race, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”


Alicea, Ines Pinto. “Dismantling Affirmative Action,” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (June 1995), 5(19).

Alicea, Ines Pinto. “Schools Review Race Based Scholarships,” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (September 29, 1995), 6(3).

Beauchamp, Tom L. “Goals and Quotas in Hiring,” Ethical Theory and Business, by Beauchamp, Tom L. and Norman E. Boier, Fourth Edition. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993) p. 384.

Bergheim, Kim. “White Males Fight Back,” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (July 1, 1995), 5(21).

Black, H. Concurring and dissenting opinion, University of California Regents vs. Bakke (438 US 265, 407).

Bundy, McGeorge. “The Issue Before the Court: Who Gets Ahead in America,” Internet posting (November 1977).

Cantu, Linda. “Exclusion and Bias: The Effects of Standardized Testing,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1995).

Fish, Stanley. “Reverse Racism,” Atlantic Monthly Journal (1995).

Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, Editors. “UC Regents Roll Back Affirmative Action,” Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (October 13, 1995), 6(4).

Hyde, Dawn. “Affirmative Action – A Review of the Confusion,” Business Monthly (July 1995).

Jung, Carolyn. “Workplace Program Emphasizes Embracing Diversity,” Mercury News (April 12, 1993).

Lehr, Dick. “High Courts Backs Off of Race-Based Preferences,” Internet posting (Boston Globe, no date).

MALDEF, “Quick Answers to Common Questions About Affirmative Action” Internet posting (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, no date).

Norton, Eleanor Holmes. “Step by Step, the Court Helps Affirmative Action,” Affirmative Action After the Johnson Decision, by Douglass McDowell (Washington, DC: National Foundation for the Study of Employment Policy, 1987), pg. 157.

Wharton, Tony. “Passions Run Deep in a Community Conversation,” Affirmative Action, Part I: Enforcing Equality, An Affirmative Action Primer, Internet posting (Landmark Communications, Inc., June 1995).

Linda Cantu is a research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]