What comes to mind when you hear the term “affirmative action?” There is perhaps no other social, political, or legal concept that is more misunderstood or arouses more passionate reactions. Any time I ask a classroom full of students whether they support affirmative action, at least 85 percent of them express disapproval. Follow-up questions—what is affirmative action? what does it involve?—yield few responses. Most admit they do not really know exactly what these programs entail.
While many in America hold very strong opinions about affirmative action, few know much about its origins, history, or mechanics. Although affirmative action programs include women and many minority groups—and European American women have been shown to benefit from these programs more than have people of color—often the only group associated with them is African Americans. Unfortunately, a very broad program designed to enhance the experiences and lives of everyone has become, in the minds of many, one designed to enhance the lives and opportunities of a handful of Americans at the expense of others—namely, European American males.
The idea behind affirmative action is to cast a wide net for applicants to ensure that the pool of qualified candidates (students, employees, contractors) is as inclusive as possible. Affirmative action is not a lowering of the bar on quality; it is not about establishing or meeting quotas. Although we have all heard anecdotal stories about somebody’s husband, son, or brother not getting a job because an employer “had to hire an unqualified minority,” these stories are unfounded. As one Salt Lake City human resources director informed me, companies “spend entirely too much money to recruit, hire, train, and retain employees to even consider hiring someone lacking the skills needed to perform a job.”
Unfortunately, the belief underlying the notion that our loved ones have “lost out” to an “unqualified woman or minority” comes from the inaccurate assumption that women and people of color cannot be equal or superior to the European American males with whom they compete.
When the Supreme Court upheld the practice of affirmative action in college admissions at the University of Michigan, it provided an opportunity to better understand the practice. Two separate cases were before the court. In the first, the University of Michigan law school’s admissions policy—which gives more individual consideration to applicants but considers race and ethnicity in an attempt to enroll a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students on campus—was upheld. The justices found the university’s attempts to maintain a “critical mass” of minority students did not amount to illegal quotas (Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2003).
While the Supreme Court did not reject the notion of racial preferences to promote educational diversity in the second case against the University of Michigan, it did find against the institution for its use of a point system to achieve diversity at the undergraduate level. The admissions policy at issue involved the use of a point system that awarded African American, Latina/Latino, and American Indian applicants a 20-point bonus on a 150-point scale (Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2003).
Affirmative action is not a new idea. First crafted in the 1950s by then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, affirmative action programs have spanned nine different presidential administrations—six Republican and three Democratic. President George Bush enthusiastically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which formally endorsed the principle of affirmative action (Journal of Social Issues, vol. 52, 1996).
The University of Michigan case revealed several affirmative action supporters, many of whom filed “friend of the court” briefs. In fact, more than 300 organizations are on record in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action practices.
In addition to several members of the United States Armed Forces, academic institutions such as Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, and Georgetown joined to show support for the University of Michigan. M.I.T. President Charles Vest said the racial and ethnic diversity of his institution’s student body “is not a natural occurrence…it is the result of a determined, conscientious effort, over more than three decades, often against seemingly insurmountable odds” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2003).
Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola, General Electric, General Motors, and the AFL-CIO labor union signed or submitted briefs in support of the University of Michigan. They were joined by the Association of American Medical Colleges, American Bar Association, Association of American Law Schools, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Education Association.
The University of Utah welcomed the Supreme Court decision, which supports its own approach to diversity. The presence of diverse individuals on the U’s campus enhances all of our students’ capacities to function effectively in our pluralistic society. Affirmative action does not hurt European American males. Rather, the rich experiences and knowledge gained from interacting with a variety of cultures and races can only contribute to his academic, personal, and professional success.
Diversity enhances our critical thinking, decision-making, and interaction skills. Exposure to diversity makes us better physicians, salespersons, teachers, attorneys, administrators, neighbors, politicians, entrepreneurs, and Americans.
—Karen Dace is associate vice president for diversity at the University of Utah.