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How Do We Fix Discrimination?

By Linda Napikoski Women's History Expert
Affirmative action refers to policies that try to correct past discrimination in hiring,
university admissions, and other candidate selection. The necessity of affirmative action is
often debated.
The concept of affirmative action is that positive steps should be taken to ensure
equality, instead of ignoring discrimination or waiting for society to fix itself. Affirmative
action becomes controversial when it is perceived as giving preference to minorities or
women over other qualified candidates.
The Origin of Affirmative Action Programs
Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy used the phrase “affirmative action” in
1961. In an executive order, President Kennedy required federal contractors to “take
affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed…without regard to their race,
creed, color, or national origin.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued an order that
used the same language to call for nondiscrimination in government employment.

The Need for Affirmative Action

The legislation of the 1960s was part of a larger climate of seeking equality and
justice for all members of society. Segregation had been legal for decades after the end of
slavery. President Johnson argued for affirmative action: if two men were running a race,
he said, but one had his legs bound together in shackles, they could not achieve a fair
result by simply removing the shackles. Instead, the man who had been in chains should
be allowed to make up the missing yards from the time he was bound.
If striking down segregation laws could not instantly solve the problem, then positive
steps of affirmative action could be used to achieve what President Johnson called
“equality of result.” Some opponents of affirmative action saw it as a “quota” system that
unfairly demanded a certain number of minority candidates be hired no matter how
qualified the competing white male candidate was.
Affirmative action brought up different issues with regard to women in the workplace.
There was little protest of women in traditional “women’s jobs” – secretaries, nurses,
elementary school teachers, etc. As more women began to work in jobs that had not been
traditional women’s jobs, there was an outcry that giving a job to a woman over a qualified
male candidate would be “taking” the job from the man. The men needed the job, was the
argument, but the women did not need to work.
In her 1979 essay “The Importance of Work,” Gloria Steinem rejected the notion that
women should not work if they do not “have to." She pointed out the double standard that
employers never ask men with children at home if they really need the job for which they
are applying. She also argued that many women do, in fact, “need” their jobs. Work is a
human right, not a male right, she wrote, and she criticized the false argument that
independence for women is a luxury.

New and Evolving Controversies

Has affirmative action in fact corrected past inequality? During the 1970s,
controversy over affirmative action often surfaced around the issues of government hiring
and equal employment opportunity. Later, the affirmative action debate shifted away from
the workplace and toward college admissions decisions. It has thus shifted away from
women and back to a debate over race. There are roughly equal numbers of men and
women admitted to higher education programs, and women have not been the focus of the
university admissions arguments.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions have examined the affirmative action policies of
competitive state schools such as the University of California and the University of
Michigan. Although strict quotas have been struck down, a university admissions
committee may consider minority status as one of many factors in admissions decisions as
it selects a diverse student body.

Still Necessary?
The Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement achieved radical
transformation of what society accepted as normal. It is often difficult for subsequent
generations to understand the need for affirmative action. They may have grown up
intuitively knowing that “you can’t discriminate, because that’s illegal!”
While some opponents say affirmative action is outdated, others find that women still face
a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from advancing past a certain point in the workplace.
Many organizations continue to promote inclusive policies, whether or not they use the
term “affirmative action.” They fight discrimination on the basis of disability, sexual
orientation, or family status (mothers or women who may become pregnant). Amid calls for
a race-blind, neutral society, the debate over affirmative action continues.