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“The scholarship,” according to Carlos Gonzalez, an overseer appointed by a federal court, “was designed essentially as a jump-start effort to get the process of desegregation under way.” He was talking about a new race-based scholarshipScholarships open only to specific racial (or ethnic) groups at Alabama State University (ASU). It was triggered by a federal court’s finding that “vestiges” of segregation remained within the Alabama university system: the state was ordered to spend about $100 million to racially diversify the student body.
Two years later, 40 percent of ASU’s budget for academic grants went to minority students even though they represented only about 10 percent of the student population. That meant minority students got about $6 of aid for every $1 going to everyone else.
One beneficiary of diversification was a grad student who accumulated $30,000 in scholarship money. She said that she would’ve attended the school anyway, but getting the money because of her skin color was an added bonus. “I think it’s wonderful,” she exclaimed, according to a CNN report.Brian Cabell, “Whites-only Alabama Scholarship Program Raising Eyebrows,” CNN, October 30, 1999, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/US/9910/30/white.scholarships/index.html.
Not everyone came off so well. One big loser was another grad student, Jessie Tompkins. The effort to balance the student body racially meant funding he’d been promised got reassigned to others. He remembered the moment vividly. He’d received an assistantship for three years, but when he went to apply the next year, he learned that the scholarships had been reserved for those with a different skin color. “I said, ‘Ma’am?’ She said, ‘You can apply, but you won’t get it.’”June Kronholz, “Double Reverse: Scholarship Program for whites Becomes a Test of Preferences,” The Center for Individual Rights, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cir-usa.org/articles/103.html.
As word of the new scholarship policy circulated, temperatures rose. They heightened even more when news got out that the race balancers were more lucrative than the old funding mechanisms that had been available to everyone. The minority set-asides paid for tuition, books, and for room and board, and then added on almost $1,000 for personal use. While the new students got all that just for showing up inside their color-appropriate skin, Tompkins remembered that he hadn’t even received enough to fully cover tuition; in exchange for his aid, he’d worked for the school by helping coach the track team and by scheduling tennis court use.
The situation reached a boil with one more detail: the revelation that the minority scholarship recipients weren’t as academically qualified as those including Tompkins who were now suddenly being turned down at the funding office. To qualify for financial aid, the new recipients only needed a C average, significantly below what had been required of all applicants in the earlier, color-blind system. That led the editor of the university newspaper, Brandon Tanksley II, to express his frustration and anger this way, “It’s not that they’re minority students, it’s that they’re not competitive.”June Kronholz, “Double Reverse: Scholarship Program for whites Becomes a Test of Preferences,” The Center for Individual Rights, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cir-usa.org/articles/103.html.
As for Jessie Tompkins, with his scholarship no longer available, he was forced to drop out and take a job handling packages at United Parcel Service. The next year he returned on a part-time-student basis and once again applied for his old scholarship. Again he was rejected. In a newspaper interview he said, “We don’t need race-based quotas. I don’t want anyone telling my children they’re the wrong color. If you want something, you work for it; you just work for it.”June Kronholz, “Double Reverse: Scholarship Program for whites Becomes a Test of Preferences,” The Center for Individual Rights, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cir-usa.org/articles/103.html.
Eventually, Tomkins connected with the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm with conservative and libertarian leanings. The firm was experienced with this kind of complaint: it had previously led a charge against the University of Texas’s affirmative action program. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Tompkins compares himself to a plaintiff in that important case, Cheryl Hopwood: “We were bumped aside, regardless of our qualifications, because of our race.”June Kronholz, “Double Reverse: Scholarship Program for whites Becomes a Test of Preferences,” The Center for Individual Rights, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cir-usa.org/articles/103.html.
Tompkins says he’s just like Hopwood, even though she’s a woman and he’s a man, and even though she’s white and he’s black.
As for the administration at the traditionally black Alabama State, they chose not to respond to Tompkins directly, but they did stand behind their affirmative action program. William Hamilton Harris, president at ASU, defended the set-asides this way, “Bringing whites and blacks together on campus will broaden the quality of education and the quality of life at Alabama State.”June Kronholz, “Double Reverse: Scholarship Program for whites Becomes a Test of Preferences,” The Center for Individual Rights, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1997, accessed May 31, 2011, http://www.cir-usa.org/articles/103.html.
The Civil Rights Act aimed to blind organizations to gender and race and similar distinctions removed from merit. The idea behind the law is an ideal, a theoretically perfect society where discrimination in the invidious sense doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the real world rarely lives up to ideals. Affirmative actionMeasures implemented to advance toward fairness for minorities in the workplace, usually including some form of preferences for certain minority groups. enters here, at the realization that things won’t be perfect just because we make laws saying they should be. What affirmative action does—as its name indicates—is act. It’s not a requirement that organizations stop discriminating; it’s a set of preferences and policies that aggressively counter discrimination, usually in ways that themselves hint at discrimination. There is, even ardent defenders admit, a troubling element of fighting fire with fire where affirmative action operates.
In practice, affirmative action comes in various strengths:
The history of affirmative action has been brief and turbulent. Since the early 1970s, the courts—including the US Supreme Court—have visited and revisited the issue, and repeatedly reformed the legally required and allowed strength of affirmative action. The specific physical and cultural traits affirmative action policies address have also stretched and contracted. In the midst of all that, individual states have formed their own rules and guidelines. And for their part, companies have scrambled to bring policies into line with accepted practice and, in some cases, to take the lead in establishing standards. Because there’s no sign that the legal and historical developments will settle in the near future, this section will concentrate only on the ethics and the broad arguments surrounding affirmative action.
Arguments in favor of affirmative action include the following:
Common arguments against affirmative action include the following:
Finally, an important point to note about the debate swirling around affirmative action is that there’s broad agreement on the goal: diminishing and eliminating discrimination in organizations. The conflicts are about how best to do that.
In business ethics, few subjects raise emotions like affirmative action. There are a number of reasons, and one is that the ethics are so clear. In all but its weakest form, affirmative action stands almost straight up on the divide between individualism and collectivism.
If you believe that individuals center ethics, it’s going to be hard (not impossible) to defend favoritism, no matter how noble the goal. An ethics based on fundamental personal duties—especially the requirement for fairness—demands that all men and women get an even shot in the workplace. Any swerve away from that principle, whether it’s to favor whites at a historically black university in Alabama, or women in Silicon Valley, or any other minority group anywhere else, is going to be extremely difficult to justify. Further, if you believe that ethics begins with individuals and their rights to freedom and to pursue happiness, then blocking the opportunities allowed for some just because they don’t fit into a specific race or gender category becomes automatically objectionable.
On the other side, if you believe in the community first, if you think that society’s overall welfare must be the highest goal of ethical action, then it’s going to be hard (not impossible) to deny that some form of affirmative action balancing, at some places and times, does serve the general welfare and therefore is ethically required. Thinking based on utilitarianism accepts that divvying out opportunities in terms of minority status will harm some individuals, but the perspective demands that we only bear in mind the total good (or harm) an action ultimately does. With respect to affirmative action, it may be true that its proponents sometimes push too far, but it’s very difficult to look at workplaces and schools through the second half of the twentieth century and not concede that society as a whole does in fact benefit in at least some of the instances where special efforts are made to support the opportunities of some historically disadvantaged groups. Specific individuals may suffer when these social engineering strategies are implemented, but the general benefit outweighs the concern.
There are a number of reasons organizations implement affirmative action policies, and not all are motivated by social idealism. First, some companies are simply required to do so because they want to work for the US government. According to current law, all businesses holding contracts with Washington, DC, in excess of $10,000 are required to have at least a weak affirmative action program in place. With respect to public institutions including universities, since their funding derives to a significant extent from the government, they typically are subject to governmental policy directives.
Another very practical reason affirmative action policies are implemented is to prevent future lawsuits. The suing of organizations, businesses, and individuals for damages alleging discrimination can be quite lucrative, as the $40 million lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch indicates. More, a business may even choose to quickly hand over millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit of dubious merit just to avoid the bad publicity of a nasty, public, and prolonged court fight. Lawyers, of course, have picked up on this and are constantly probing for weak organizations, ones where just the appearance of some kind of discrimination may be enough for a shakedown. Given that reality, prudent companies will take preventative action to insulate themselves from claims that they’re discriminatory, and an affirmative action policy may serve that purpose.
A set of more positive reasons for an organization to implement affirmative action policies surrounds the belief that companies benefit from a diverse workforce:
Finally, regardless of whether an affirmative action policy may help the bottom line by protecting against lawsuits or by improving employee performance, some organizations will implement a program because they believe it’s part of their responsibility as good corporate citizens in a community to take steps to serve the general welfare.