Affirmative Action Debate: A Case of the United States

Essay, 2010

18 Pages, Grade: Good


Affirmative Action Debate: A Case of the United States

ABSTRACT The United States is characterized by a high level of multiculturalism. However, diversity comes along with discrimination, which has severely damaged the country’s social justice and human liberties. To counter discrimination, the government decided to introduce affirmative action in 1961. Since then, affirmative action has been one of the most controversial issues in the country. In this paper, the affirmative action debate will be analyzed with the use of cultural theory. By defining underlying distinctively different perspectives behind the debate, cultural theory seeks to shed more light into the issue. A clumsy solution to the debate will then be formulated. Since a clumsy solution combines rationality of all distinctively different perspectives in the conflict, it is most likely to be accepted by the populace.

I. Introduction

Affirmative action—progressive efforts to counter discrimination by increasing representativeness of historically excluded groups—women and minorities, has remained a focal point of public debate. Intense controversies come as a result of changing interpreting pattern of the subject, which was pioneered by legal and administrative forces. Originally, affirmative action sought to promote equality of employment opportunities to women and minorities. It implied a positive step towards social equality, therefore, attracted favorable responses in public sphere. As legislatures, later on, introduced a notion of preferential treatment into the concept, affirmative action became the bone of contention. The conflict has been going on for decades without any sign of receding.

To better understand the disputes around affirmative action, the paper will first introduce a brief summary of historical landmarks around affirmative action. Cultural theory (Douglas 1987, Thompson et al. 1990) will then follow to further explain different opinions identified in the debate. Cultural theory refers to the fourfold typology: egalitarianism, individualism, hierarchy and fatalism, which are constructed along two dimensions of sociality: grid and group. Cultural theory represents four distinctly different ways people view nature, humans and social relations. Each premise tells a unique story based on certain elements of experience and wisdom that are missed by the others. With the application of cultural theory in affirmative action debate, underlying forces of conflicts are expected to come to light. Afterwards, a clumsy solution that combines rationality of four ways of life will be proposed. Since a clumsy solution addresses the opinions and the needs of different parties in dispute, it is most likely to be accepted by the entire populace.

II. A Brief History of Affirmative Action

In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which required all federal contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin" (Kennedy 1961). For the first time, the term “affirmative action” was recognized. It manifested the government’s efforts to counter long-standing discrimination in the United States, at first in equal employment opportunities by federal contractors. The Civil Right Act of 1964 readdressed the issue to a higher level. It declared the illegitimacy of any discrimination on the ground of race, color and national origin in state-funded programs or activities (Civil Right Act of 1964 1964).

Following the path of President Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson believed that fairness required more than simply a partial treatment, and that equality should move beyond the boundary of rights and theories to become a fact, an indisputable part of reality. In September 1965, he signed Executive Order 11246 which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. In addition, the order asked for mandatory introduction of positive, continuing affirmative action plan in each federal department and agency. In 1967, President Johnson amended the order to include sex as an additional criterion (Dale 2005).

Policies by President Kennedy and President Johnson represent a procedural affirmative action, in which attributes such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin are irrelevant, and effectively have no weight in employment application (Cahn 2002). However, entering the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, the concept adopted a new meaning: preferential treatment. According to President Nixon’s Revised Order No. 4 in December 1971, all contractors had to tailor their affirmative action plans with respect to current employment statistics. Contractors had to analyze employment compositions to define “areas within which the contractor is deficient in the utilization of minority groups and women, and further, goals and timetables to which the contractor’s good faith efforts must be directed to correct the deficiencies” (United State Department of Labor 1971). By this order, criteria such as race, sex, or color now became relevant. Consequently, under-representativeness required reparative measures. The new interpretation of affirmative action fueled a wave of contestation during the 1970s (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2001). After 1980, United States federal court legitimized affirmative action plans, pulling affirmative action out of the hot list of significant national political issues. As a result, public debate on the subject came to a halt until the 1990s (Dale 2005).

The 1990s saw a resurgence of affirmative action contestation, ignited by Proposition 209 or Californian Civil Right Initiative (1996) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2001). Proposition 209 grants California the right to overrule federal court’s affirmative action mandate and give no preference to race, sex, national origin,… in public employment, education and contracting. Despite its failure to cause a national-wide trend, Proposition 209 managed to revive the debate on affirmative action’s legitimacy. In defense, President Bill Clinton managed to diffuse public attention by pledging “mend it don’t end it” (Clinton 1995) strategy towards affirmative action.

During the Bush Administration, not much attention went to affirmative action (Cabinet Office 2010). The topic made the headline again when Barack Obama won the election in 2009 and became the first African-American president in the United States history. Despite rumors attributing his victory to affirmative action, President Obama maintains a neutral opinion of the issue. He acknowledges the effectiveness of affirmative action in specific cases, but believes in general, it is not nearly as helpful to minorities or damaging to whites as it is portrayed (Sherman 2009).

The emergence and development of affirmative action reflects a number of significant implications. First, affirmative action has been constructed based on at least three rationales: (1) compensating for those who have been directly or indirectly harmed by discrimination, (2) ensuring no discrimination against disadvantaged groups, either deliberately or unwillingly, and (3) achieving diversity in the future (Cabinet Office 2010). Affirmative action, in theory, is the means towards an equitable end, which any society striving for equality and civil rights would desire. However, ongoing debates points out the necessity to test the feasibility of affirmative action in practice.

Second, affirmative action has never been officially defined. Instead, it’s commonly agreed to be pro-active efforts to erase differences between certain groups. Difficulties in arriving at a one and only definition come from the facts that (1) affirmative action tends to be an aggregation of different legislature and court rulings rather than a single policy; (2) affirmative action spreads over distinct territories (education, employment,…), levels (private vs. public,…) and activities (recruitment, hiring, promotion,…); (3) affirmative action’s status changes across different policies and court rulings (Holzer & Neumark 1999). Affirmative action debates, therefore, are based on a relatively loose theoretical ground.

Finally, the alteration from procedural to preferential affirmative action by legislatures fuels the already intense controversies (Cahn 2002). Procedural affirmative action stresses the importance of an equitable end and disregards race, color, sex… Quite differently, preferential form makes those criteria relevant and asks for measures to achieve statistically acceptable compositions. This is generally understood by contestants as depriving the qualified of what they deserve. Therefore, public debates are the inevitable outcome.

I. Cultural Theory and Affirmative Action Debate

Aiming at a better understanding of the issue, conflicting viewpoints underlying affirmative action debate will be analyzed and explained with the application of cultural theory (Douglas 1987, Thompson et al. 1990). Cultural theory seeks to develop a typology of social constructions of life based on two dimensions of sociality, “grid” and “group” (Douglas 1987). For each dimension, “high” and “low” value will be assigned. The group dimension gives a measure of people lives’ incorporation into the group they live in while the grid dimension describes the degree of structural constraints that people are willing to accept. The higher the group score, the greater collective pressure over people’s thoughts and behaviors. The higher the grid score, the greater social control people deem acceptable. The interplay of grid and group results in a fourfold typology justifying the ways people view nature, humans and social relations: egalitarianism, individualism, hierarchy and fatalism (Figure 1).

Generated from distinctive combinations of grid and group, each way of life tells a contradicting storyline yet implies certain elements of experience and wisdom that are missed by the others. Since the populace is divided among the four ways, it’s important that they are given sufficient attention in the course of social phenomenon and policy analysis (Thompson et al. 1990).

Seeking to define cultural theory’s four ways of life in the case of affirmative action, the following parts hope to shed more light into the subject. The four biases will be theoretically explained, alongside with their unique perspectives in the debate.

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Affirmative Action Debate: A Case of the United States
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
Social Movements and Political Participation
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affirmative, action, debate, case, united, states
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Kim H. Bui (Author), 2010, Affirmative Action Debate: A Case of the United States , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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