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Affirmative Action in the United States: Past, Present, and Future

Affirmative Action in the United States: Past, Present, and Future
To the writing of books on affirmative action there will be no end.( n1) Every year more and more ink is spilled on a public policy question that has divided the United States for some thirty years. The three books selected for review offer a window into the past, present, and future of affirmative action. Although open to the charge that what follows is, in effect, more spilled ink, it is nonetheless important for scholars who study contemporary America to follow a debate that shows no sign of letting up. According to University of Pennsylvania sociologist John David Skrentny, the debate over affirmative action lacks historical depth. Jaded historians might well ask what public debate takes history seriously. Still, Skrentny’s point is a valid one and his attempt to explain “how the controversial issue ever emerged in the first place” is outstanding ( 1). As suggested by its title, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America seeks to explain the ironies inherent in the origins of affirmative action as public policy.( n2) In the early 1960s, mainstream civil rights leaders pushed for, and Congress passed, civil rights legislation based on the concept of colour-blind justice and not on the concept of race-conscious justice.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. In other words, race cannot be used to discriminate against an individual but nor can it be used to promote an individual. Indeed, section 703 (j) very clearly states that “nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any employer… to grant preferential treatment to any individual or group” (121). Within five years, however, racial preferences in employment, unthinkable as a formal policy in 1964, became a legitimate policy alternative. This enormous change took place in the absence of public debate and in opposition to public opinion. Ironically, then, affirmative action “was largely the construction of white male elites who traditionally have dominated government and business” ( 5). In explaining this irony–in addition to lesser ironies along the way–Skrentny takes the reader on a brilliant and dispassionate journey to the beginnings of what has become a protracted, divisive debate.
In chapters 2 and 3, Skrentny examines the resistance to affirmative action. Those who oppose affirmative action–and they constitute the majority–do so on the ground that it violates classical liberalism and its commitment to the abstract individual. Preferential treatment based on group membership runs counter to the founding principles of the Republic.
The idea of the ontological individual prior to society, and the notion that a social contract refereeing self-interest was all that was necessary to provide justice, led the United States to the celebration of individual rights and individual dignity. The land of opportunity was thus meritocratic: one deserved all that one could attain by talent and industry. (27) From its beginnings, employment law in the United States has therefore prohibited discrimination. Adhering to a colour-blind model, Title VII is part of this tradition. But as Skrentny quickly adds, “American society is replete with preferences and categorical separations of various sorts” (36). Most notable is the Veteran’s Preference Act of 1944 which “amounted to a comprehensive affirmative action package” for veterans, disabled veterans, the wives of disabled veterans, and the widows of veterans (143).

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