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Affirmative Action: A Counterproductive Policy

Ernest Pasour is a junior at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“That teacher was selected for affirmative action reasons.” That is how I first heard the term used—implying a lack of ability on the part of a teacher at my high school.

The phrase “affirmative action” was first used in a racial discrimination context in Executive Order No. 10,925 issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. This executive order indicated that Federal contractors should take affirmative action to ensure that job applicants and employees are treated “without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.” The civil rights legislation of the 1960s followed in the same vein.

As initially presented, affirmative action referrer to various activities to ensure the fairness of hiring and promotion decisions and to spread information about employment opportunities. Emphasis was placed on encouraging previously excluded groups to apply for jobs, admission to colleges, and so on—after which the actual selection was to be made without regard to group membership.

Affirmative action was originally conceived because it was thought that simply stopping discrimination against minorities would not overcome the results of past employment and promotion patterns. Prior to the 1960s, employers frequently hired by word of mouth and, consequently, friends or relatives of current employ ees were more likely to be hired.

Kennedy’s executive order implied equal access and nothing else. The system that has evolved since is a perversion of the original intent of affirmative action.

A shift in emphasis from equality of prospective opportunity toward statistical measures of results was already under way by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was debated in Congress. Quotas and the right of minorities and women to have a “correct” percentage of their population employed have since become rallying cries for civil rights activists. Affirmative action as it has been applied is detrimental to the operation of the job market, to white males, and to the groups it is supposed to benefit.

First, affirmative action promotes the hiring of less skilled workers. It sometimes forces employers to choose the best of the minority workers they can find, regardless of whether they have the required job skills. For example, Duke University recently adopted a resolution requiring each department to hire at least one new black for a faculty position by 1993. However, only six blacks received Ph.D.’s in mathematics in 1987 in all of the U.S., casting doubts as to whether it would be possible for each department to find a well-qualified black, much less hire one.

Colleges and universities frequently also have quotas for how many blacks it is necessary to admit to “round out” their freshman classes. An example is the admission practice at Berkeley. Only 40 percent of the entering class in 1988 were selected solely on the basis of academic merit. While whites or Asian-Americans need at least a 3.7 grade point average in high school to be considered for admission, most minority candidates who meet a much lower standard are automatically admitted. Berkeley continues this practice of preferential admissions for minorities even though the graduation rate of minorities is very low. Sixty-six percent of whites or Asian-Americans graduate while only 27 percent of blacks graduate.

An Influence on Curriculum

The practice of affirmative action in employment and admissions policies is now being extended to the selection of writers to be studied at universities. At Stanford, race, gender, and nationality of authors are to be considered in book selection—not merely the quality of their work. Requiting that books be selected on the basis of such criteria is absurd. The selection of books should be based on merit rather than on the race, gender, or national origin of the authors. The effect of affirmative action based on quotas rather than merit is that quality suffers, regardless of whether the issue is employment, college admissions, or book selection.

A closely related point is that affirmative action causes reverse discrimination. Discrimination against white males is just as bad as discrimination against minorities. Some people say that affirmative action is justified as a way of making up for past discrimination. Although discrimination still exists in the U.S., as it does in the rest of the world, most blacks entering the job market today were born after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and have suffered little or no prejudice in terms of salary.

When this Civil Rights Act was passed, its spirit was not one of reverse discrimination but of getting employers to consider applicants objectively in filling jobs within their companies. Hubert Humphrey, a major sponsor of the Act, swore that he would eat the bill if it were ever used for discrimination of any sort. The past cannot be changed and we should stop compensating people who were never hurt at the expense of people who have done them no harm. The Alan Bakke Supreme Court case held that it is reverse discrimination to accept a minority student at the expense of a white student with better credentials. Unfortunately, this decision has had little influence in subsequent cases of reverse discrimination.

Another problem caused by affirmative action is that it places a stigma on groups which receive preferential treatment, especially on individuals in those groups who earn their positions because of their ability. Consider an employer who hires a member of a minority group for a high position on the basis of merit, not for affirmative action reasons. Other employees, however, are likely to assume that it was an affirmative action hiring, as are many other minority hirings. As a result, such employees can suffer from lack of respect which makes them less useful to the company.

The increase in racial tensions between whites and blacks at U.S. colleges, as described in recent news articles, is also related to preferential admission policies. It is not surprising that racial tensions have grown worse since affirmative action policies were implemented. At colleges in North Carolina, for example, black students recently stated that they were treated like affirmative action cases even if they were not. Professors, seeking to help, asked them if they needed tutoring or other assistance, already assuming that blacks were unqualified.

Affirmative action also appears to have been generally ineffective for blacks in the job market. Economist Thomas Sowell shows that in certain places, including some prominent companies and public utilities, there have been gains. But overall, the economic position of minorities has changed little since “goals and timetables” (quotas) became mandatory in 1971.

As originally conceived, affirmative action may have been a constructive policy, but it has been counterproductive in practice. I hope by the time I am in college that students, teachers, and others will be selected on the basis of ability—not according to quotas based on race or sex. If so, we will have finally achieved true civil rights for everyone.

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