American Exeptionalism

For more than a generation, the policy strategy referred to as affirmative action has retained its status as one of the most controversial issues confronting the American society. It has been pummeled by attacks from the citizenry, scholars, and even individual lawmakers and jurists. But the attacks have actually come from both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, with liberals demanding a more quickened pace to affirmative action programs and conservatives demanding an end to those same programs.

This debate seems to have escalated significantly in the 1990s, especially in areas like California and Texas where diversity has been woven into the pattern of life. Generally speaking, advocates of affirmative action point to lingering differences between the races in regard to employment, earnings, and poverty as providing the justification for claims that only by taking into account one's race can disparities be eliminated.

Overall, they make three arguments to support both the maintenance and expansion of affirmative action programs: (1) the need for some kind of compensation for the victims of past injustices; (2) an effective method of addressing current social and economic inequalities; and (3) an effective approach to achieving equal employment opportunity, or non-discrimination, in the workplace. Those who question the usefulness of affirmative action strategies contend that it is counterproductive, divisive, and ineffective.

Some stress that affirmative action is discriminatory, the term 'reverse discrimination' is often used, fails to reward merit, denigrates individuals as a result of stereotyping, and leads to enduring racism. Others point out that diversity in the work force, a growing reality for the American workplace, can be advanced more effectively through internal and service-oriented incentives rather than by externally-imposed affirmative action-based requirements. Needless-to-say, the future of affirmative action has significant implications for the public and private sectors.

Its status will define or redefine procedures pertinent to a wide variety of issues: job recruitment; promotion, retention and termination; awarding of governmental contracts; the design and development of workplace training programs; and educational opportunities and matriculation. Quotas or preferential treatment and meritocracy: In this section, we will closely examine the two major complaints about affirmative action that American public and politicians are mostly concerned about.

The two specific opponentsi?? grievances that are considered to have backfired against the majority are: quotas, in other words preferential treatment and meritocracy. Quotas: Quotas are numbers or percentages of people to be hired in the future who must be of a certain race or sex. The harsh opponents of the programs claim Nixon administration led to establishing quotas, set-asides and preferences to individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender alone.

Although many of these linked to this particular policy denied these allegations, they agreed to have given rise to promoting regulations and administrative practices, rigid goals and timetables. All this complemented by publicity campaigns and aggressive litigation created intense pressures on institutions to employ de facto systems of preference. In addition, the reason why Nixon fought for the Philadelphia Plan was partially political, which detracts from its "beauty". It is known from the diaries and notes of John Erlichman and H. R.

Haldeman1 that Nixon thought of his "quota" plan as a wonderful way to pit two key Democratic constituencies, blacks and labor, against each other and endorsed it partly for that reason (quotas, of course, played a crucial role in his Machiavellian thinking). The "Nixonians" are often blamed for digressing from the original " Johnson's" approach. His administration saw the policy especially as a way to recruit, motivate and train individuals from wide range of backgrounds for schools and jobs from which minorities had long been excluded.

There was a major shift in the interpretation of the set of programs. Johnson's administration perceived it more as "equality of opportunity" whereas Nixon's one took more aggressive approach and made it "equality of outcome". What generates a lot of controversies are the two Federal affirmative bureaucracies-the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance-both defined by their opponents as being to promote affirmative action aggressively. They quickly began to deal with companies in terms of numerical racial hiring "goals".

As far back as 1974, Bayard Rustin, Chairman of Social-Democratic party 1995, wrote: "What the imposition of quotas, and the resulting furor they have generated, have accomplished is to exacerbate the differences between blacks and other racial and ethnic groups. And to the degree that these tensions and divisions have been provoked, the time when black people are accepted into American social and economic life as full and equal participants has been that much delayed. " 2 This is an opinion shared by the majority of white citizens in California voting for revocation of the preferential treatment in 1996 ( Proposition 209) and many others.

The policy of goals very often associated with quotas gives rise to plenty angry remarks. There is one example of public opinion: …. "how do racial quotas help us achieve this goal? They do not. Racial quotas actually pushes us further away from that goal. They create resentment and anger among white males, who are discriminated against in favor of everyone else. Racial preferences even create problems for racial minorities, who (when they are given positions of responsibility) are often looked down upon, for fear that they were only hired because they were "the right trace.

"3 On the contrary, the proponents claim that the Philadelphia Plan did not establish quotas. Flexible goals are created only in order to evaluate progress. Affirmative action simply asks that a sincere effort be made to include persons who have previously been set aside due to legal and illegal discrimination. Shultz and Flatcher from the Nixon Labor Department office distinguished between racial quotas that compelled employers to hire a set of number of African Americans and goals that simply established numerical ranges for minority employment.

Under a quota system, employers who failed to hire a specific number of minorities would face immediate sanctions. The Policy of numerical ranges only punished contractors who failed to demonstrate a good faith effort to meet their goals. Accordingly, Labor Department solicitors found no conflict between the Philadelphia Plan and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meritocracy: We can define this term as the opportunity for everyone to move forward, to achieve better education and qualification on the egalitarian basis.

Many of the inconsistencies in American racial attitudes show a deep contradiction between two values that have always been at the center of the American Creed: individualism and egalitarianism. Americans believe strongly in both. Special racial, ethnic, and gender-based preferences have introduced a new approach to promoting equality in American life. The old approach initially incorporated in the Declaration of Independence, emphasized equality for individuals, equality of opportunity (meritocratic approach).

The recent one, brought about by the policy closely linked by the critiques to affirmative action, focuses on equality for groups, equality of results. It is this collision of the two views on equality that has sparked off the debate over the 'unalienability' of the individualistic, achievement-oriented element in the Creed as opposed to preferential treatment. The opposition to various forms of special governmental assistance for blacks and other minorities is partly caused by general antagonism to a preference for personal freedom in the American value system.

This system includes classical liberalism, which strongly distrusts the state and emphasizes competitive meritocracy. Although Americans are less willing than Europeans to use government as an instrument of income distribution, their egalitarian values lead them to approve of programs providing more opportunities for Afro-Americans. They favor more expenditure on education, special schools, and other intensive programs such as the Recruitment and Training Program developed for the labor movement during the 1970's. However, as the famous American sociologist S. M.

Lipset claims: "Opinion surveys taken in various developed countries indicate that Americans are much less prone than Europeans or Canadians to endorse measures to help the underprivileged generally. Thus in 1987 only a fifth (21%) of Americans agreed that the government should provide everyone with guaranteed basic income, as opposed to 50% or more in the most European countries. "4 These findings reinforce the interpretation that the American opposition to governmental enforcement of group rights for blacks is more of a reflection of general principle than racism.

Nevertheless, there is a quite strong anti-meritocratic opinion, whose one of the biggest proponents was president Johnson. His best statement regarding the logic of his policy was included in his Howard University speech in 1965. He said that we wanted all Americans include in the race, but some are not able to do so, because they arrive at the starting line with shackles on their legs. 5 He called for policies to remove these chains so that they could compete equally.

Another thing which must be taken into consideration, and which is connected with Johnson's speech is the fact that the treatment of the blacks has been the foremost deviation from the American Creed throughout the history of the country. The blacks have been in America since the 17th century, spending their first two and a half centuries in slavery. For a hundred years after 1965 they largely served as a lower caste group working under the Jim Crow policies, with almost no opportunity to gain financial of educational resources. I believe the numerical, education-based meritocracy is bad news for Afro-Americans.

It renders the key affirmative action concept of creating biracial pools of equally qualified applicants meaningless, because now everyone is supposed to be ranked serially. This is an example of post 1996 California. This trend apportions opportunity on the basis of performance in the one area where blacks were most disadvantaged: education. For as long as there have been standardized test, blacks have on average scored lower than whites. As education for the blacks has improved, the gap has closed substantially and it is now at an all-time low, but it is still large.

This system admitting purely on the basis of educational credentials would produce extremely low count of blacks, Latinos and American Indians. On the other hand, it seems to be unjust as well to reject some whites that scored better than the Afro-Americans who were hired or admitted. An education-based meritocracy makes its judgments about people before they have ever really done anything. Based on a measure, school performance that depends heavily on who their parents are and what kind of environment they create.

Conclusion: The history of affirmative action can be seen as a struggle over the fairness of meritocracy, with minorities arguing that educational measures shouldn't be the deciding factor in who gets ahead and opponents of the policy saying that to bend the criteria for blacks is to discriminate unfairly against whites. On the one hand, it is understandable that the white majority attempts to get rid of the goals and timetables, which do not fight racism, or more appropriately anger towards minorities, especially to blacks.

The preferential approach has been bringing about the move upward, however enrooted the residual hate even deeper. On the other, the American society has to deal with both issues at the same time and try to find a plan B. This portrays the Proposition 209 as being rather destructive, offering no alternative to coping with inequality. No consideration is given to the need to overcome a widening economic and cultural abyss in contemporary America: a gap in skills, education and experience that is again beginning to divide Americans into two economic nations.

I believe affirmative action can only succeed when combined with programs which have as their objective a much more fundamental transformation than affirmative action could bring about. The central premise of such programs is that equal opportunity could be created for those from disadvantaged backgrounds by recruiting such individuals for intensive education. In addition, the programs would motivate the individuals and teach them to meet stiff qualification for entry into apprenticeship in the skilled trades.

These programs should be put into effect for young people from all disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race, gender or ethnic origin. Poverty should be the only distinctive line to be seen. The strategy should be to help people rise to levels of skills and competence so that they can sustain themselves in our social market economy, not to create new criteria for entitlement.


Seymour M.. Lipset: American Exeptionalism. N. Y. , 1996. Thomas Sowell: Taking affirmative action apart. Forbes. vol:158. Iss:5,1996,p. 43 S. E. Ambrose:Nixon. Simone&Schuster. N. Y. 1992. P. 375