This article looks at the concept and history of Affirmative Action. As you read, understand that there is a wide difference between concept and actual affirmative action plans. In my experience, lots of folks accept the concept, but disagree with plans trying to implement that concept. Having written Affirmative Action plans; I know it isn’t easy to develop, implement, or monitor these plans. Some plans are good. Others are poorly written or implemented.
First, a Wikipedia definition. “Affirmative action originally referred to a set of policies and practices preventing discrimination based on race, creed, color and national origins.” It was later modified to include women. “It now often refers to policies positively supporting members of disadvantaged or underrepresented groups that have previously suffered discrimination in areas such as education, employment and housing.” Although we primarily think of the concept having been part of the Civil Rights movement, the actual history of affirmative action is well before that movement.
The concept was first seen during the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877). It was focused on helping former slaves that lacked skills and resources to obtain them for independent living. General William Tecumseh Sherman proposed to divide the land and goods from the State of Georgia and grant it to black families. Identified as “Forty acres and a mule” policy, it wasn’t ever widely adopted because of political opposition.
The first specific use of the term “affirmative action” was during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. In the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act of 1934, the concept was to allow economic security for workers and other low-income groups. During this time frame, it wasn’t unusual for employers to blacklist or fire employees that were either associated with or trying to organize unions. This act allowed workers to unionize without fear of being discriminated against. In the event of discrimination, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could review potential cases and take action to restore employees to an appropriate status through “affirmative action.” This original use therefore had little to do with protecting minorities, as they were often barred from union ranks. However, it set the stage as a policy meant to compensate or address an individual’s unjust treatment.
Most attribute the concept to President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925. This instructed federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” He also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 expanded the concept. It prohibited employment discrimination, whether employers had a government contract or not. When I was writing my affirmative action plans, the understanding was that the plan should identify barriers and affirmatively develop steps to remove those barriers to ensure equality of opportunity.
Here’s an example from many years ago when I was teaching these topics. I tried to find the specific case but couldn’t, so I’m going from memory. It stuck in my mind because it involved an oft stated “claim” that affirmative action lowers standards. It involved the California Highway Patrol. Persons of color were underrepresented in the CHP. Folks started looking for barriers that were getting in the way of equal opportunity during the application process. One barrier they identified was that minority applications were frequently being rejected because they didn’t meet the “dental” standard. The standard was that X number of natural teeth were required to pass the dental exam.
Thus, cause and effect were present. Communities of color and lower income tended to have less access to dental care. Therefore, a higher proportion failed to meet this standard. Taking an “affirmative” look at this standard, what they found was that although at one time the standard was legitimate, it no longer was appropriate. What changed? Officers no longer had to “bite” the wax off their bullets to reload their revolvers so having X number of teeth was no longer required. Removing this barrier, increased the equal opportunity of employment in the CHP for minorities.
No single article can cover the concept and uses of affirmative action. For a more in-depth look, search for “The American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity” on the internet. They have a good description of how affirmative action plans are supposed to work. The bottom line, in my mind, is there is nothing wrong with the concept of identifying and removing barriers to equal opportunity. When the plan is poorly written, or the concept misused, the problem is the plan, not the concept.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.