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Facts and Myths of Affirmative Action

by Anthony Walesby

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Anthony Walesby

Anthony Walesby is an Associate Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, and the Senior Director of the Office of Institutional Equity at the University of Michi...

Affirmative Action. When you read or hear these words, what comes to mind? There are a lot of myths about affirmative action. For the purposes of this article, we will explore affirmative action in the employment context only. However, because there can be so much confusion over this topic, we will briefly go over affirmative action -- as it can sometimes be viewed -- in college admissions. Due to the two most recent Supreme Court opinions that address college admission (the University of Michigan cases in 20031), a student's race can be used as one of many factors when deciding college admissions. If a student's race is considered, it must be part of a narrowly tailored and holistic admissions process and cannot be the sole reason for the offer of admission. As such, colleges and universities can choose to consider a student's race when making admissions decisions absent a state law that would prohibit such use.

In the employment context, the use of affirmative action is much different than in college admissions. However, I suspect the several myths about affirmative action in employment come from knowledge, or perceived knowledge, about affirmative action in college admissions. Under the Regulations implementing Executive Order 11246, which was signed by President Johnson in 1965, a federal contractor "must develop and maintain a written affirmative action program for each of its establishments if it has 50 or more employees," and "has a contract of $50,000 or more." This includes most institutions of higher education. So while the use of race in college admissions can be undertaken voluntarily by a college or university, there are specific federal requirements regarding race and gender in the employment context.

Because of the number of myths about affirmative action, and the limited space here, let's explore some of the more pervasive myths and the actual relevant facts:

Myth: Affirmative Action means quotas.

Fact: Federal regulations identify "placement goals," which are based on a calculation of availability data and the current workforce. Availability data comes from a few sources, including the U.S. Census and terminal degree awards databases. These goals provide clarity and focus on outreach efforts to ensure the applicant pool is as diverse and qualified as possible. Many organizations have full-time "diversity recruiters" to assist them in this requirement. The regulations explicitly state "Quotas are expressly forbidden...[i]n all employment decisions, the contractor must make selections in a nondiscriminatory manner. Placement goals do not provide the contractor with a justification to extend a preference to any individual, select an individual, or adversely affect an individual's employment status, on the basis of that person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

Myth: Affirmative Action means hiring individuals who are less qualified than other candidates because of race and/or gender.

Fact: This is unlawful. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, you cannot base a hiring decision, in whole or in part, on a person's race or gender. In addition, under Executive Order 11246, a college or university must take affirmative steps to ensure its hiring practices are fair, equitable, and free from discrimination. It must also take steps to get the word out about open positions and target outreach efforts to ensure the applicant pool is as diverse and qualified as possible. In the end, the most qualified person is hired.

Myth: Our list of finalists for the open position doesn't include a person of color or a female candidate, so let's select someone from the applicant pool to include as a finalist so we are compliant with federal requirements.

Fact: This is not consistent with best practices and does not relate to federal requirements. More importantly, organizations should consider conducting a "step analysis" of its hiring process to determine if there are any barriers to candidates reaching the final round. If the finalists do not reflect the demographics of the candidate pool, an institution should ask itself why, and it should identify steps to address this issue. Further, as stated in the regulations, "A central premise underlying affirmative action is that, absent discrimination, over time a contractor's workforce, generally, will reflect the gender, racial and ethnic profile of the labor pools from which the contractor recruits and selects."

Myth: Affirmative action, civil rights and diversity are the same thing.

Fact: While there are many ways to define these three terms, they are not the same. I define them in the following way: Affirmative action is a federally mandated program for federal contractors as it relates to employment. Civil rights result from a series of federal and state civil rights laws and provide protection from discrimination and harassment on a variety of bases, including race, color, national origin, gender, age, disability, religion and veteran status. Diversity can be defined in many ways, including diversity of thought, experiences, and backgrounds. Together, all three can contribute to a more welcoming, inclusive, supportive, diverse, and respectful working and learning environment that is free from discrimination and harassment.

Affirmative action helps create a level playing field that gives everyone an equal opportunity to compete for a job and career. It ensures that no person is disadvantaged or treated unfairly during the hiring process because of their race, ethnicity or gender. It is about fairness and justice for all. Who could be against that?
  1. See Gratz v. Bollinger, et al., 539 U.S. 244 (2003) and Grutter v. Bollinger, et. al. 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
All opinions expressed by Anthony Walesby are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of HigherEdJobs.


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Reply Cooker said...
Question...What happens if an individual is let go and then her/his manager calls their clients to let them know this individual is not longer with the company and they would like to continue with keeping their business. The person on the other side of the line says..."Oh My God, what happened? Did she/he go to another company?" Then the individuals manager who originated the call said, it had nothing to do with our company downsizing, it was an HR issue and is confidential. Does that person have the right to say that? I would think she crossed the line and is destroying someones reputation. Please let me know. Thank you in advance....

03/24/2011 06:06 AM

Reply GPLM2000 said...
How many people really buy-in to this line of reasoning? Only one word, that of "race", makes it fallacious. Any rule/program/policy/law that uses race as a basis for determining anything is discrimination, period. There is no justification for something that is clearly illegal. Only intellectuals try to justify forced integration through intimidation and laws where possible. I guess Orwell is alive and well.

03/24/2011 10:02 AM

Reply F. Loera said...
Mr. Walesby's statement of, "More importantly, organizations should consider conducting a "step analysis" of its hiring process to determine if there are any barriers to candidates reaching the final round. If the finalists do not reflect the demographics of the candidate pool, an institution should ask itself why, and it should identify steps to address this issue" is part of Affirmative Action regulation yet in my experiences in corporate America I find that this part of the "deal" is lacking in follow through and enforcement.
Statements of how Affirmative Action is not needed anymore have come without researched evidence of the closed gap in positions of leadership where diversity should also occur as equal representation to the work force.
Affirmative action is even more so needed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the growing legal and illegal migration of individuals from Europe, Asia, and the Mid-East. A recent government survey indicated that illegal immigration from these listed regions have surpassed Latin (Hispanic) numbers.
Just as a balance in the White house is required that periodically shifts from left to right, so must the workforce be represented in local leadership. In this way, everyone is represented at one time or another.

03/24/2011 12:16 PM

Reply deju200 said...
Affirmative Action only for disable person

06/04/2011 12:01 PM

Reply Dr. Maverick said...
In all fairness GPLM2000, data from the department of labor has shown that White women have benefited more from affirmative action than any other underrepresented group. How do you explain that? If not through affirmative action, how do you propose U.S. society re-orients itself to acknowledge the simple fact that we exist in a diverse country and world.

Additionally, new research has emerged that suggests that holisitc admissions policies negatively impact grad student diversity ( Still, one myth I wish Mr. Walesby would have discussed is the idea that the major outcome of affirmative action is diversity. It is not! The major outcome of affirmative action is that any qualified person has access and equity in business, education, employment opportunities.

08/03/2012 01:55 AM

Reply Dr. Michaels said...
The problem is that in practice many of these myths are true. Yes, it is illegal, but there is so much corporate pressure to hire to meet targets that in practice it IS a quota system. When your executive leadership demands results that will affect your rating or employment, you will make the target, even if it means hiring less qualified blacks. When my organization pushed this to the point of actual numerical targets that must be met, I finally told them that what they were doing was blatantly illegal and that I would not participate unless it went through Legal. The legal review said it was in fact illegal and discriminatory, so they just changed the word targets to "preferred placement goals" and pretended they would not base performance ratings on failure to meet them. The whole thing is unbelievable- why can't people just hire on the basis of the most qualified person for the job?

10/22/2014 07:07 PM

Reply Chit said...
" do you propose U.S. society re-orients itself?"

Without coercion.

11/14/2014 05:28 PM