What's Race Got to Do with It?

source: Americans for a Fair Chance (www.fairchance.org)

Affirmative Action FAQ

President Lyndon Johnson explained the rationale behind the use of affirmative action to achieve equal opportunity in a 1965 speech: "You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still believe that you have been completely fair."

Q. What is affirmative action?

A. Affirmative action is an important tool to provide qualified individuals with equal access to educational and professional opportunities they would otherwise have been denied despite their strong qualifications. These policies make certain that all Americans are considered fairly and equally for jobs and educational opportunities.

Q. Why is affirmative action needed?

A. Affirmative action remedies past discrimination, fights present-day discrimination, and promotes diversity in our society. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees affirmative action is necessary, because "in order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity" (Supreme Court majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).

Q. Is discrimination still a problem in America?

A. Yes, and disparities in opportunities continue to persist. Women earn approximately 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Latinas earn 56 cents for every dollar white men earn. African-American men earn 75 percent of what white males earn. In 2002, the median household income for whites was $44,964, compared with $29,177 for blacks. And the poverty rate for blacks is almost triple that of whites.

Q. Is affirmative action fair?

A. Yes, affirmative action encourages fairness. Affirmative action initiatives are designed to help companies, organizations, and educational institutions evaluate candidates equally and fairly -- that is, based on their qualifications. These programs provide equal access to opportunity for qualified individuals who might not have had a chance otherwise.

Courts have taken great pains to balance competing interests in shaping affirmative action remedies. Under these principles, there must be a very strong reason (e.g. to remedy discrimination) for developing any affirmative action program; the program must only apply to qualified candidates, and the program must be limited in scope and flexible.

Q. Why should colleges and universities use affirmative action in admissions?

A. In June 2003, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on affirmative action [Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)] upholding the use of race in admissions decisions. Reiterating America's commitment to affirmative action, the Court concluded that "effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized."

Affirmative action ensures that colleges and universities can identify and attract outstanding individuals from historically underrepresented groups. The diversity of our college campuses is critical to the future strength of our society and our economy. Colleges have always admitted students based upon a wide range of criteria that includes extracurricular activities and life experiences, as well as quantitative measures such as test scores. Diversity on college campuses improves the learning process for all students -- male and female, regardless of race or gender. Affirmative action ensures that an applicant's full background and life experience can be considered as part of an admissions decision.

Q. Why is affirmative action needed in federal government contracting?

A. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in many of the businesses with which the government contracts. For example, even though women-owned firms represent an estimated 28 percent of all businesses in the United States, these firms obtained a mere 2.9 percent of the $235.4 billion in federal government contracts awarded in fiscal year 2002.

Q. Have affirmative action programs in employment worked?

A. Yes, we have made great progress in the past generation, but there is much more to be done. Drastic inequalities still exist in hiring practices and salary. On average, college educated African-American women annually earn $19,054 less than college educated white men. Also, on average, a woman with a Master's degree makes $4,765 less than a man with an undergraduate degree. With the help of affirmative action, minorities and women now have greater access to the business world. We need to further this progress so that everyone has an equal shot at higher-level jobs and fair compensation. The Supreme Court agrees that the "skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, culture, ideas, and viewpoints" (Supreme Court majority opinion, Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).

Q. What have been the results of affirmative action programs in higher education?

A. Affirmative action creates more open, fair, and meaningful access to higher education for all qualified members of our society. Over the past 30 years, affirmative action has contributed to increases in the number of women and people of color enrolling and graduating from colleges and universities. Since the late 1980s, students of color have increased their total college enrollment by 57.2 percent, and the proportion of women earning bachelor's degrees is increasing steadily. The Supreme Court agrees that student body diversity is a compelling interest in affirmative action programs at colleges and universities, given that it "better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals" (Supreme Court majority opinion, Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).

Q. Why do some people oppose affirmative action programs?

A. Misperceptions drive much of the opposition to affirmative action. Large numbers of white Americans incorrectly believe that African-Americans are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schooling, and health care, according to a 2001 national survey by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University. Many Americans also believe that women have reached equality in the workplace.

In fact, government statistics show that blacks have narrowed these gaps, but continue to lag significantly behind whites in employment, income, education, and access to health care. Additionally, even though women-owned firms represent an estimated 28 percent of all businesses in the United States, these firms have obtained a mere 2.9 percent of the $235.4 billion in federal government contracts awarded in 2002.

Americans for a Fair Chance, a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund in partnership with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Asian American Justice Center (Formerly National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium), National Partnership for Women and Families, and the National Women's Law Center, was created to educate the public and the media on the ways that affirmative action benefits the nation.

For more information contact LCCR Field Assistant Erica Williams (williams@civilrights.org)
January 2004