Case for Affirmative Action Must Be Made Stronger

The case for affirmative action is still to be made, as Monday's federal court ruling against the University of Georgia demonstrates. What is needed is more hard data on the actual benefits, not only to women and minority men, but also to our nation.

Dr. Silas Lee

(WOMENSENEWS)-The decision of the federal appeals court in Georgia this Monday, stating that the affirmative action policy of the University of Georgia is unconstitutional, is certainly disappointing to many African Americans. More disturbing is the fact that three white women were the challengers to the plan, for white women are, or at least should be, the natural allies of blacks and Hispanics when it comes to ensuring access to education.

The three women who brought the case challenged a reverse gender preference as well: The university gave nonwhite males extra points because the university was predominantly female. That policy was dropped when the women sued and was ruled to be in violation of federal law-not the U.S. Constitution.

The women's objection to that gender-based bonus may have been understandable, but their court victory may have lost much ground, not only for women and African American men. And the case may be appealed further.

Yet the court's ruling points to the reality that the research and data necessary to determine whether in fact affirmative action is valuable, and to whom, has yet to be compiled.

Over the past 11 years, as a professor of sociology at Xavier University in New Orleans and as a public opinion researcher, I have evaluated and researched the overarching effectiveness and impact of affirmative action policies for several public institutions.

As I reflect on those assignments, I can still hear the voices of program administrators searching for a strategy to rescue affirmative action from the jaws of its detractors.

Federal Court: Including African Americans Does Not Ensure Diversity

For some legislators, affirmative action is a stale policy whose purpose has been supplanted by equal rights laws, while other policy-makers wrestle with protecting the policy from the tornado of color-blind and race-neutral policy advocates who have views similar to the Georgia federal court's-that ensuring an institution includes African Americans does not ensure diversity and that the value of diversity must be proven as a compelling interest.

In their quest for the salvation of the policy, decision-makers often lacked the ammunition to fortify their supporters or neutralize the opponents.

In fact, the Georgia trial court said the university's asserted interest in diversity was too “amorphous” and was critical of the testimony of Charles Knapp, the university's former president, on the value of diversity, describing it as a “syllogism and speculation.”

Because various audiences, depending upon the circumstances, have defined affirmative action differently, fueling misunderstandings, distortions and misperceptions, deep feelings have arisen on all sides based on limited knowledge about and analysis of the policy's intent and effectiveness. As local and national administrators and citizens remain unclear about affirmative action's purpose, goals and effectiveness, they wrestle with enforcing, abandoning or restructuring a purposeful, yet complex policy.

As Monday's decision illustrates, often absent from contemporary discussions and analysis of affirmative action are empirical data and objective analytical research on the topic.

Into this affirmative action debate come Harry Holzer of the U.S. Department of Labor and David Neumark, an economist from the University of Michigan, together embarking on a judicious journey to evaluate the effectiveness of a policy in a society still struggling with the distribution of equality, while acknowledging the existence of discrimination.

Researchers Examine Affirmative Action From Standpoint of Economic Outcomes

After acknowledging that an analysis of affirmative action as a policy is handicapped because it resembles a disjointed recipe to correct discrimination, rather than a structured and coherent social policy, Holzer and Neumark depart from traditional methods of affirmative action analysis, and undertake an ambitious review of the relevant applications and dimensions of affirmative action.

They identify their goals as “to delineate the key questions economists should be asking about affirmative action to adequately assess the set of policies it represents and to point out the shortfalls between what we do and what we would like to know.”

From education to contracting, Holzer and Neumark attempt to redirect the current discourse and analysis on affirmative action away from a social and legal perspective of justification or elimination, to an economic performance analysis that attempts to defuse the conventional arguments of critics and enlighten its supporters.

The challenge for affirmative action is that it is positioned between the desire to achieve equality and the need to do so without disturbing the equilibrium of justice in a society still hostile to social and economic redistribution. By virtue of this paradox, there exist competing theories surrounding the necessity and effectiveness of affirmative action.

How do we evaluate the policy?

I agree that some of the studies of the past have produced flawed results because they have not measured the efficiency and performance of the policy on employees and institutions. To address this omission, Holzer and Neumark cross-examined the theories of supporters and opponents. What is invigorating about their approach is they interject the voices of the opponents and supporters, and then present the facts from various data to liberate affirmative action from this either-or limitation-keeping or eliminating the policy.

They frame the prominent questions that haunt most affirmative action debates, such as:

  • What has been the impact of affirmative action on the employment status of white males?
  • What are the effects of affirmative action on college enrollment?
  • What has been the impact of affirmative action on contracting with minority and women-owned businesses?

So, what are their conclusions about affirmative action in conjunction with the available data? The authors suggest:

  • Existing methodologies do not facilitate factual data to measure the effectiveness of affirmative action. Unfortunately, current research methodologies lack labor sector or institutional focus and produce ambiguous results that many mistakenly apply to analyzing the effectiveness of affirmative action. In the future, more sophisticated research methodologies that have a limited objective should produce data tailored to measuring the impact of affirmative action in specific institutions.
  • Before advocates or opponents of affirmative action take their respective ideological positions, many questions need to be answered about the policy's effectiveness and impact on educational institutions and businesses.

Needed: A Strong Analytical Scaffolding to Preserve Affirmative Action

As a researcher and advocate for affirmative action, I agree that we need to erect strong analytical scaffolding to preserve the policy.

And yes, part of the methodological structure should include an economic performance analysis. Clearly, that was what was needed in the University of Georgia case-hard data on the value of diversity and the impact of its admission policies on all parties.

However, I unequivocally argue that any attempt to understand affirmative action is incomplete without also examining the external economic and political institutional forces that impact its success or failure.

This must be the next stage of research. Detailing the trickle-down effects of racial and gender discrimination so that it is clear to everyone that, while certainly women and African American men are not monolithic in their experiences, interests, intellectual capacities and characters, all African Americans in the United States are negatively affected by racism and all women are hurt by pervasive gender discrimination.

What also must be documented is that this racism and gender bias hurt the quality and performance of our nation as a whole.

Only when it is clear that affirmative action benefits not only women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, but also our communities, schools, corporations and institutions, will the programs survive the persistent court challenges.

Then we as a country can honestly say we are upholding the principles envisioned in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness ... .”

Dr. Silas Lee, a part-time sociology professor at Xavier University, New Orleans, has been a public opinion and market research pollster for nearly 20 years and a consultant to numerous businesses, governmental agencies, and public and private corporations.

For more information:

Johnson v. Board of Regents of the University of Georgia decision: