Last Updated 10 Apr 2020

The Pros and Cons of Affirmative Action

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The concept of affirmative action is found in a speech by President Kennedy when he was referring to the government’s responsibility to ensure that affirmative action was taken with regard to equal employment opportunities for individuals regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin. It is interesting that although President Kennedy pioneered the concept of affirmative action, it was President Lyndon Johnson who first applied this concept by taking steps to equalize the presence of individuals in government positions.

President Johnson outlined that it was not enough to say that equal employment opportunities existed; it was the government's responsibility to ensure that the positions not only existed, but were being filled by minorities in a commitment to cultural diversity. Directives were put into place as part of this process that not only banned discrimination, but also offered incentives to government contractors who employed a culturally-diverse workforce.

Some of the pros of affirmative action, therefore, include increased opportunities for cultural minority groups, such as legislation that strongly urged employers to select minority candidates and contractors (given that they met qualifying criteria) Numerous research studies have been conducted regarding the glass ceiling for women, as well as attempts to determine percentages of cultural identity in the white-collar professional positions (for example). Such studies have identified that there are more Caucasian males in positions of authority at a majority of companies.

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To rectify this, many agencies established affirmative action plans that were intended to encourage minority applicants, and thus enlarge the pool of qualified applicants from which to draw for available positions. The downside to this, however, was that the legislation that was designed to encourage minority employment fostered the discrimination it sought to eradicate. To weight any individual's application due to demographic information (as cultural information is) results in basic discrimination. One cannot have both options available; either no-one is favored, or everyone is favored.

To have two qualified individuals, and then to choose one based upon his or her cultural identity is at its heart discriminatory. At what point are professionals free to choose the best person for the job, without knowing the individual’s cultural identity? In the ideal world, individuals would be interviewed by telephone or by e-mail in such a way as to reveal no identifying information. This would enable the employer to make a decision solely upon an individual’s qualifications and experience for the position, as opposed to fulfilling a criterion for minority employees.

This is not, however, practical at this point in time, and so employment rests in the hands of companies who have an ethical obligation to be equitable, if for no other reason. Weighting a decision based upon cultural identity only applies if there is no opportunity for a variety of individuals to apply for a given position. The issue remains, however, that the individuals still need to be qualified for a position. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, there are differing degrees of qualification. No one appreciates being a token employee, yet that is the standard that affirmative action laws have succeeded in achieving.

It is ironic that anti-discrimination laws are themselves discriminatory. The concept of fairness and equity for all individuals, then, should apply regardless of cultural identity—not because the company has no racial representation. Even the act of gathering cultural information is discriminatory because that information is being used to discriminate against other well-qualified individuals. All professionals who hire new employees must consider how they can meet equity in employment without discrimination.

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