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An examination of affirmative action, diversity and justice.


Affirmative Action is the collection of "policies used in the United States to increase opportunities for minorities by favoring them in hiring and promotion, college admissions, and the awarding of government contracts. Depending upon the situation, "minorities" might include any underrepresented group, especially one defined by race, ethnicity, or gender (Finkelman, 2006). The term affirmative action was first used in a 1961 executive order issued by former President John F. Kennedy, in an effort to encourage federal contractors to racially integrate their workforces (Finkelman, 2006).

Until the mid-1960's minorities and women were mistreated and prevented from attending school, and barred from employment opportunities. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodations were they treated fairly (Finkelman, 2006). This act was the first step in a long battle to end discrimination. The judicial rules regarding affirmative action center around two areas. The first is the procedural weighing stand which allows race to used as a factor, but not the main factor. The second is the procedural effect standard which states "that affirmative action procedures within and organization must be appropriate to the documented level of discrimination in the targeted segment of the organization" (Libertella, Sora, and Natale (2007). These findings were shaped by court cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which "declared it unconstitutional to establish a rigid quota system by reserving a number of spaces for blacks", and Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co. (1989), in which "the Court rejected a local set-aside program for minority contractors. These cases particularly Bakke helped shape the modern face of affirmative action laws (Finkelman, 2006).

Proponents of affirmative action view it as a "positive and constructive action" (Libertella, et al, 2007). As a philosophy concerned with righting perceived wrongs, its associated laws and guidelines are well posed for such action. Opponents of affirmative action assert that "race based policies make black achievement a white allowance and black failure a group stigma" (Riley, 2003). Opponents fail to honor the historical relevance of affirmative action which has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow. Instead they seek to create a new system and tout that real organizational and societal change requires a focus on a (1) move from a compensatory justice approach to a structural justice approach which focuses not on race and righting past wrongs, but on elevating any subordinated group within society (Fiss, 1996), (2) change the definition by establishing an economic based program which eliminates race-based remedies and focuses on class-based remedies (Klein, 2006), and (3) change the system by providing better education to the poor. Opponents propose these remedies as the only real- long term solutions to leveling the playing field.

Forgotten by affirmative action opponents are the actions, pervasive societal attitude towards blacks and discrimination laws which led to the need for affirmative action. They forget that as historian Roger Wilkins observed "blacks have a 375-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100 involving legalized discrimination" and the other 30 finding there in society. (Brunner, 2007).

It was not until the Thirteenth Amendment, that the practice of slavery was made illegal. In 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson upheld a "separate, but equal doctrine which did not create nor promote equality. Blacks continued to face discriminatory practices in hiring, housing, education and every other societal area (Sykes, 1995). "While blatant, overt wrong may have disappeared, it is only within the last twenty five years, that black and women have received the rights and respect that go along with full membership in the community" (Groarke, 1990, p. 209).

Kennedy's 1961 Executive Order which first introduced the term affirmative action was the first step in creating "an equality not just as a right or theory, but equality as a fact and result" (Brunner, 2007). Legislation continues to work to this end. In the landmark cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger the Supreme court ruled that while affirmative action is no longer a justifiable way of addressing past oppression and injustice, it is necessary to promote diversity at all levels of society (Brunner, 2007). Justice O'Conner stated "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 (Brunner, 2007, p. 5).

Affirmative action efforts are weakened by the new-age movement towards diversity and inclusion. While these pursuits are noteworthy and useful to organizational success, they are neither a replacement nor panacea for the hot-fire issues of discrimination which continue to exist in modern society.

Diversity and Inclusion

While affirmative action seeks to level the playing field and provide equal opportunities for all persons regardless of their "differences" (Miller & Katz, 2002, p 5). Diversity, as defined by Miller and Katz (2002) "is an attribute embodied in every individual" (p 5). It encompasses individual differences such as race, religion, age, sexual preference, culture, physical limitations, and gender. The goal of diversity is to value the individual contributions of all members. Traditional diversity initiatives have taken the form of affirmative action programs, which focus on quotas and equal opportunity initiatives which address diversity by attempting to "melt everyone in" (Carr-Ruffino, 2003, p. 3). The issue is no longer affirmative action; instead diversity and inclusion are the problems of the global marketplace (Klein, 2006).

Many use the terms diversity and affirmative action interchangeably, however, these terms are not equal. Diversity is the springboard that leads to the need for affirmative action, while the controversy and race-based focus of affirmative action spurs the need for diversity and inclusion. Forward thinking leaders have embraced the concept of inclusion and created dynamic, highly functioning workplaces. The changing workplace raises a number of issues for its members.

Looking specifically at the members of the workforce, Carr-Ruffino (2003) uncovered some of the specific issues faced by organizational members. These issues include:

* Women--find themselves struggling to balance work, life and family while meeting corporate expectations of decisiveness, and control.

* Men--struggle to adapt to the changing corporate culture, which calls for cooperation and teamwork rather than aggression and pride. More men are beginning to struggle with balancing home and family life.

* African- Americans--who in general are straightforward, aggressive and honest communicators must fight to overcome the stereotype of being threatening, and violent.

* Asian- Americans--who are taught to control emotions and behavior, are often considered closed, and secretive.

Each of these groups has stereotypes and biases that they must overcome. Old style means of dealing with these issues, such as "separate but equal", "a color blind society" and "one way for all", will not work in addressing these issues. The "diversity in a box" approach is no longer a reasonable means by which to address the cultural, ethnic and racial differences, which exist in society and the workplace (Miller and Katz, 2002).

Proponents of diversity training, like the Corporate Leadership Council which offers diversity training programs, believe that it leads to cost savings and profitability and cite the following examples as support:

* Nextel communications calculated the ROI of its diversity training to be 163%, which equals $3.2 million of savings. In addition, Nextel's diversity training enhanced employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

* A recent Urban League study shows that at eight companies where diversity is embedded in the organization, productivity growth in the past four years exceeded that of the economy as a whole by eighteen percent.

* As advocacy organizations such as Stonewall and The Human Rights Campaign publish information regarding companies' diversity practices, research suggests that greater weight will be placed on companies' diversity initiatives. Attracting positive publicity in this area via training provision may therefore prove profitable (

Opponents find diversity programs to be a waste of time and money. Thomas Kochan, a management professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and a respected human resources management scholar asserts that diversity is not a solid business objective, and does not contribute to improved performance and achievement of goals. He states that "the diversity industry is built on sand" and that the evidence to support diversity is largely anecdotal or based on limited data (Hansen, 2003). Kochan believes that there is no business case for diversity, and that the current measures of recruitment, promotion and turnover rates are inaccurate measures which have no correlation to financial performance. He concludes that "there is virtually no evidence to support the simple assertion that diversity is inevitable good or bad for business" (Hansen 2003).

As Miller and Katz (2002) discovered, one of the biggest barriers to the success of diversity initiatives is the long-standing belief that "diversity is a problem which must be solved" (p. 12). Likewise, Schwartz and Post (2002) noted that the "failure to manage workforce diversity effectively exposed the organization to dysfunctional conflict, litigation, employee underperformance, absenteeism and turnover" (p. 137).

The inherent differences between people do not elevate one group above another, is simply means that different people bring difference attributes, skills and competencies to organizations. Recognizing and embracing these differences can and will lead to more productive, adaptive and profitable organizations (Miller & Katz, 2002, p 13).

Until these antiquated and ineffective techniques for workplace diversity can be overcome, and replaced with truly inclusive, realistic approaches, organizations will continue to struggle to make progress in the areas of culture and diversity. Gilbert, Stead, and Ivancevich (1999) concluded that in order to "mange diversity effectively, an organization must value diversity must have diversity and must change the organization to accommodate diversity and make it an integral part of the organization" (p 61, para 2). They propose following the Golden Rule. "If you want to be treated fairly treat others fairly" (Gilbert et al, 1999). Treating others fairly is the issue at the heart of the affirmative action debate. It is the unfair treatment of minorities which led to the need for legislation to create a sense of fairness, although only on paper.

Fairness and Justice

In June of 1978, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a detailed opinion of the situation of blacks in America in which he stated "The position of [blacks] today in America is the tragic but inevitable consequence of centuries of unequal treatment, measured by any benchmark of comfort or achievement, meaningful equality remains a distant dream" (Richey, 2003, p1). Many, like Marshall, view affirmative action programs as a means of righting the wrongs of the past, especially in its application to African Americans who suffered through slavery and the ensuing generations of racism and discrimination. Opotow (1997) states that the "debate about affirmative action is essentially [a simple] claim about justice" (p 232). While on the face, these programs are positive and just, they raise issues of fairness and justice from an ethics viewpoint.

According to Libertella et al (2007), the fairness of an idea or concept is a matter of perspective. It is clear that blacks are significantly underrepresented and underpaid in most advanced and high-paid professions such as law, medicine, architecture, academics, journalism, corporate management, and higher-level government positions. However, are affirmative action programs the best means to address this issue or do they create more unfairness and injustice than they resolve?

Velasquez (2006) discusses three types of ethics based justice: distributive, retributive and compensatory. Distributive justice enforces that equals should be treated equally, and the unequal should be treated unequally (Velasquez, 2006). It raises the hat question of affirmative action and focuses on whether societal resources are fairly distributed (Opotow, 1997). This idea raises the question of who decides equality. In the time of slavery, slaves were not considered equal to white men, and thus their enslavement was just. The ensuing disparities in the races were not problematic because they fit the norms, and values of that society. However, as society evolved, slavery was abolished as a vile and wrong action. However, little was done to significantly correct the social and economic disparity until programs like affirmative action were enacted. The egalitarianism form of distributive justice states that, every person be given exactly the same share. However, this type of justice neglects individual effort and inherent uniqueness of each person. During slavery and beyond, blacks were given very little, mistreated, humiliated and abused.

The desire of affirmative action programs to right these past wrongs encompasses not only distributive justice but also retributive and compensatory justice. Retributive justice is the imposition of punishments and penalties (Velasquez, 2006). By providing the mistreated and overlooked an advantage, however slight, affirmative action indirectly punishes the wrongdoers. However, in order to be effective and applicable, wrongdoing must be confirmed, and the penalties and punishments must be consistently and proportionally administered (Velasquez, 2006).

The penalties imposed by affirmative action do not measure to the injustices performed; however, they provide a starting place to mend. Compensatory justice restores to the wronged person what was lost as a result to the wronging (Velasquez, 2006). The amount of the compensation is difficult to determine. Some African Americans in conjunction with the Rainbow coalition feel that the compensation should include monetary reparations to elevate the financial status of African Americans.

Affirmative action programs are often criticized because many view them as a means to allow less qualified, less educated persons to obtain employment, admissions or other types of preferential treatment (Miller & Katz, 2002, p 5). Other arguments opposing affirmative action rest upon Kant's theory, which states that each person has the right to be treated equally; affirmative action does not treat all employees equally (Velasquez, 2006). In fact, the very nature of affirmative action is to create an advantage for one group over another. Many believe that affirmative action creates a form of reverse discrimination based on sex and race (Velazquez, 2006). Compensatory justice is found wanting by opposers who assert that it is impossible to identify "between the victims of the wrong and the recipients of the preferential treatment" (Fiss, 1996). As a result, the burden of compensation is not distributed in a "way that is proportionate to the responsibility for or benefits from past unjust acts" (Kershnar, 1999). Additionally, naysayers argue that the need for affirmative action programs no longer exists because blacks and women have reached the same level as whites and males in corporate America.

On the surface, this argument may seem reasonable, but the statistics and data show that this assertion is false. Statistics from The US Census and US Labor Department noted the following in 1978:

* Four times as many black families lived with incomes below the poverty line as white families. In 2003, that ratio remained unchanged.

* The unemployment rate for adult blacks was twice that of whites, in 2003 the statistics were unchanged.

* The median income for a black family was 60 percent of the median income of a white family. In 2003, black family income is 66 percent of white family income (Richey, 2003).

Based on this information, it is clear that affirmative action has not achieved its goals of equality; the playing field remains titled toward white men. Opponents of this and other programs have misstated the status of blacks and minorities in the US and corporate world.

Other arguments against affirmative action note that while the programs benefit all who were potentially harmed by the injustice, they also punish those who may or may not have participated in the wrongdoing (Velasquez, 2006). White males in particular, whether they were directly involved in the discrimination of the past, have benefited in the form of better positions, more pay and the ability to perpetuate the discrimination which led to the need for affirmative action programs (Velasquez, 2006).

Lastly, the utilitarian view evaluates actions or policies based in the benefits and costs they provide or impose on society (Velasquez, 2006). By measuring the effects and benefits of actions, it can be determined, which actions provide the greatest benefit. Affirmative action programs have the potential to benefit a large group of people, and increase utility. However, they also create anger and frustration among white males in the workforce who feel that they are being mistreated because of the program (Velasquez, 2006). Unitarianism argues that all people have been impoverished and harmed by discrimination. The ultimate goal of affirmative action is equal justice, therefore, this practices is morally legitimate (Velasquez, 2006). Conclusion

The affirmative action debate is a heated one. Both supporters and opponents argue fiercely for their stance on the issue. Opponents criticize affirmative action as a program based on 30-year-old premises that badly need revising (Thomas, 2000, p. 107). While proponents argue that affirmative action is a "necessary remedy the deleterious effects of segregation" (Fiss, 1996). Regardless of one's personal view on the issue, there is merit to affirmative action discussion.

"The unlevel playing field is a metaphor for unfairness" (Schwartz et al, 2002). The ability to overcome unfairness is a task that cannot be achieved on an individual level, it requires a group effort. And in the case of discrimination it required a legal remedy. But, affirmative action is not a long term cure, and the question of when will the playing field be level is a valid one, without a simple answer. Issues of diversity management continue to abound as the marketplace becomes more global and heterogeneous.

Neither affirmative action nor diversity in their current from are appropriate nor effective in addressing the bigger issues, which include inclusion, discrimination based on physical ability, weight, height, sexual orientation and gender. Coupled with their ineffectiveness, these approaches have created an exclusionary nature and greater bias and exclusion in the workplace. Organizations focused simply of finding the right "mix of faces" are falling short in their efforts to create a diverse, highly functioning organizational team.

Creating and implementing an effective affirmative action program is an arduous challenge that influences all organizations. It is not simply enough to strive to create a balanced workforce and hire people based on the breadth of skills they can bring to the organization, it is important to create a plan that is attainable, realistic and value-added (Miller & Katz, 2002, p 13-16). Future affirmative action plans must include a way to ensure that minorities and women are not merely hired into organizations or admitted into schools and university, but that there are programs and resources designed to (1) promote their success, (2) create a sense of belonging and (3) provide access to the same unspoken, undercover networks and buddy systems that white males have used for generations to succeed. Without this type of radical change and commitment, affirmative action will continue to be a nice ideal, but an unsuccessful program.

The debate continues it is clear from the research and conclusions of both opponents and proponents of affirmative action, that the playing field if far from level. As President Lyndon B. Johnson stated in a 1965 speech at Howard University, "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 say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair" (Finkelman, 2006).


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Jacqueline Awadzi Calloway, Ph.D.

Capella University

Winston Awadzi, Ph.D.

Delaware State University

Dover, Delware
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Author:Calloway, Jacqueline Awadzi; Awadzi, Winston
Publication:Consortium Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Management
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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