Affirmative Reaction

November 1, 1998

Mark Miester

It's one of the most incendiary issues in society today: affirmative action, the federal government-spurred initiative that encourages organizations to ensure equal availability of opportunity for all. Proponents argue that it is needed to prevent discrimination, even unintentional instances.

Opponents claim that it merely reverses the discrimination, bestowing special preferences on minorities solely on the basis of their skin color or gender. That was the topic at hand for panelists at the 1998 Burkenroad Symposium on Business and Society. The symposium, sponsored by the Freeman School's Burkenroad Institute for the Study of Ethics and Leadership in Management, took place at the business school on Oct. 16.

What exactly does affirmative action mean? That's one of the problems. According to panelist Faye Crosby, professor of psychology at Smith College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, one's attitude about affirmative action is very often based on one's understanding of the term.

Crosby's research indicates that people--regardless of race, gender, economic class or political leanings--are in favor of affirmative action if they understand it to mean a monitoring system for organizations to ensure the utilization of available talent and are opposed to it if they understand it to mean a quota system.

Although quotas and set asides have consistently been overturned by the Supreme Court and lower courts as unconstitutional applications of affirmative action, such programs continue to exist, said Ward Connerly, chair of the American Civil Rights Institute, a national organization aimed at educating the public on the problems of racial and gender preferences.

Connerly, an African American, called for a return to the "culture of equality" our founding fathers established in the Declaration of Independence.

"If we try to rationalize discrimination in the guise of diversity, sooner or later it's going to catch up with us, and it's not going to be a pretty picture," Connerly said. "I support affirmative action, but I do not support treating people differently on the basis of skin color or sex or national origin or ethnicity."

Baton Rouge native William Gray III, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund and a former congressman, said he is opposed to quotas as well but challenged Connerly's belief that equality could be achieved by removing all preferences based on race, gender or ethnicity.

"Simply dropping the barriers of 350 years of slavery and segregation would not solve the problem because the residues of bigotry would still exist systematically in the society and would therefore continue to advantage whiteswhite males," Gray said.

Preferences are not only reserved for African Americans, Gray added. Preferences are routinely granted in our society to everyone from military veterans to college football players. But it is only when one's own group feels threatened that anyone complains of injustice.

"There are lots of horror stories of improper use of affirmative action by corporations," noted Gray, calling affirmative action an imperfect solution to a serious problem. "But we have to ask ourselves, is affirmative action or some tool like it needed to include people in the room? Is the playing field level? Is there equal access and opportunity? I suggest to you that the playing field is not level and we need a tool."

Jeanne Kohl, Democratic senator from Washington, closed out the panel with a discussion of affirmative action's impact on women. Kohl is leading the fight against Washington's Initiative 200, currently on the ballot, which seeks an end to racial preferences.

Citing a study of employment practices in Washington in 1998, Kohl said that 25 percent of businesses of 100 or more employees intentionally discriminate against women. "I believe people roundly assume that discrimination against women is a thing of the past, that we've achieved equality," Kohl said. "This is not true."

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