Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America
Affirmative action programs were originally established to begin a process of righting the wrongs of the past our countrys legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson established Executive Order 11246, which requires affirmative action on the part of employers and prohibits federal agencies from doing business with companies that discriminate on the basis of race or gender. Today, advocates of affirmative action argue that there is a continuing need for equal opportunity programs, since we still do not live in a color-blind society.
Affirmative action programs have been controversial since their inception, and today, they continue to be under attack. Opponents say that these programs lead to reverse discrimination. The arguments against affirmative action strike a responsive chord in many people that those who perform better, whatever their race, sex, or origin, have earned the opportunities; and if we want a racism-free society, we must eliminate race as a factor in determining rewards or punishments. Interestingly, both sides of the debate on affirmative action frequently claim the same goal ending racism of all types.
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Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America uses The Fred Friendly Seminars Socratic Dialogue format of hypothetical situations and role-playing to challenge a distinguished group of panelists to have a constructive dialogue on these issues. Starting with concrete dilemmas surrounding affirmative action, the panelists are challenged to solve them, sometimes working hand-in-hand with those with whom they disagree. The results are often surprising and inspiring, as productive dialogues replace the competing monologues now dominating debate. As Fred Friendly often said, Our purpose is to make the agony of decision-making so intense that one can escape only by thinking. We hope you think that weve succeeded.
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.
Jesse Climenko Professor of Law
Harvard Law School
Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America examines the dilemmas posed by our countrys remedies for discrimination. It uses the Socratic Dialogue format developed by Fred W. Friendly to explore many of the challenging questions related to affirmative action.
Beyond Black and White begins with a hypothetical scenario about college admissions and race, in which Big State University sends out its acceptance and rejection letters. The scenario branches out, with the moderator and panelists examining other issues, including voter initiatives, outreach, and employment practices.
The purpose of Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America is to clarify the issues, focus on key questions, and encourage constructive dialogue on problems that have an important place on the public agenda.
This Guide includes the following:
- An essay that examines questions about affirmative action raised by the program
- Two hypothetical scenarios that provide ideas for group discussions
- Resources, including organizations, books, and Web sites, that may be helpful for learning more about issues discussed in Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America.
What is a Socratic Dialogue?
The Socratic Dialogue format uses role playing, hypothetical case studies, and a roving inquisitor to compel panelists to confront what they would do in situations where the right choice is not clear. The question What would you do? is different from What do you think? in that it drives a participant to reveal how he or she would confront a specific problem. The exercise is designed to identify the perceptions and decision-making processes of all sides and to enable participants to better understand both their own positions and the imperatives driving others actions. As panelists wrestle with the hypothetical situations, the drama created helps illuminate complex issues in an enlightening way.
There are three important elements of a Fred Friendly Seminar: a well-thought-out hypothetical scenario, panelists who are able to play the game, and a well-prepared moderator. The scenario serves as a road map that ensures that the dialogue proceeds in a controlled manner. It is based upon many hours of consultation and research. Panelists are chosen for their knowledge about the subject and their ability to imaginatively project themselves into hypothetical situations.
Because the scenario is hypothetical, discussion is more unfettered than would be possible in other situations. Because all parties to the issue are represented on the panel, one-sided thinking does not go unchallenged. Because of the experienced moderator, the discussion stays focused and results-driven.
As our program begins, several students wait to learn whether they have been admitted to a prestigious state university. Imagine you are on the admissions committee of the university. You seek to create a student body who will learn from each other and make the university a better place. To enhance diversity, you consider it a plus when an applicant is from an unusual part of the state; to enhance your sports teams, you consider it a plus when an applicant is a star athlete; and, to enhance alumni loyalty, you consider it a plus when an applicant is the child of an alumnus.
Is it any different when, also to ensure diversity, you consider it a plus when an applicant is a minority?
Of course it is, many advocates of affirmative action would say. Some other preferences may be of questionable value; but given a national history that includes centuries of slavery, decades of legally enforced segregation, and bitterly fought struggles for civil rights, it is especially important that students at your university learn in a racially diverse environment, and that, as this elite university develops the next generation of leaders, minority students are part of that group.
Opponents of affirmative action would agree: To give a preference to an applicant based on race or ethnicity is indeed different. Given the constitutional commands of equal treatment regardless of race, it is of fundamental importance that race not be considered in any way in the admissions process, even if many other factors besides grades and test scores are considered.
Advocates of affirmative action seek a nation of true racial, ethnic, and gender equality. Many opponents of affirmative action claim to be seeking the same goal. But whether in fact each side does seek the same goal and whether elimination of affirmative action today could help us achieve equality rather than hobble that endeavor is the subject of passionate debate.
Affirmative action programs have been with us for decades, at federal, state, and private institutions. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 prohibiting federal agencies from contracting with firms that were not committed to affirmative action. In a speech at Howard University, President Johnson said:
Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries. You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race saying, You are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough to open the gates of opportunity.
Since that time the concept of affirmative action has been embodied at every level of government in a very wide variety of programs, from government contracts with explicit set-asides for women- and minority-owned businesses, to admissions and employment policies that include race, ethnicity, and sex among the factors considered in evaluating applicants.
Today, however, many of these programs are under attack, both in the voting booth and in the courtroom. In November 1996, the voters of California approved Proposition 209, which provides: The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting. And in November 1998, the voters of Washington state endorsed the same language in the form of Initiative I-200. In our program, the voters of Westrailia are faced with the same initiative. Although the effects of these initiatives are open to debate, they undoubtedly will require changes to or elimination of a great many state affirmative action programs. Indeed, they may hamper outreach efforts to increase diversity that even some initiative supporters endorsed. Moreover, programs in other states are now being challenged in court. In 1996, a federal appellate court declared the admissions program of the University of Texas Law School unconstitutional because of the way it took applicants race into account to obtain a diverse student body.
Yet, at the same time affirmative action is under unprecedented attack, its proponents can point to substantial successes. In 1997, the voters of Houston soundly rejected a proposition to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities in employment and contracting. That result, as well as those of various polls, suggests to some that when the question is made explicit, a majority of Americans still support affirmative action. A recent statistical analysis of the effect of 30 years of affirmative action at academically selective American universities concluded that these schools have been highly successful in using race-sensitive admissions policies to advance educational goals important to everyone. (William Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions.) Moreover, support for affirmative action appears to be strong at major corporations, where a diverse workforce is seen as a key ingredient to business success. In Washington, opponents of I-200 included large corporations such as Microsoft and Boeing. Most impressive of all may be the experience of the United States Army, which has explicit goals of promoting minority members; the Army holds all candidates to the same standards, and invests heavily in training to bring candidates up to those standards.
Can the diversity achieved to date and the still-distant goal of true equality be reached without programs that are conscious of race, ethnicity, and sex? This is the question now facing California, Washington, and our hypothetical state of Westrailia; as the initiative movement and judicial challenges move forward, it is a question that will soon be facing the entire nation.
Joan I. Greco (Harvard Law School 84; Law Clerk to Justice Sandra Day OConnor, 1986-87) is a senior writer for The Fred Friendly Seminars.
On November 5, 1996, the voters of California passed Proposition 209, by a 55 percent yes vote. The proposition provided:
The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
In November 1998, Washington state passed a nearly identical measure, I-200, by a margin 58 percent to 42 percent. Although the words affirmative action appeared nowhere in the propositions, both initiatives are understood to eliminate any state affirmative action programs that provide any sort of preferential treatment or assistance to women or minorities.
Organize a Discussion
If you would like to organize and lead a discussion on affirmative action in your school, workplace, or organization, you may use the following hypothetical scenarios as a starting point. As in Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America, you may use role-playing and the Socratic method, which involves a search for truth through discussion. (For more on the methods used by the Fred Friendly Seminars, please see the Introduction to this guide.) You may want to hold your discussion after screening the program.
Moderators should assign roles to participants before the discussion. When leading the discussion, please keep the following in mind:
- Act as a facilitator, rather than an authority figure.
- Draw from participants experiences.
- Guide the discussion by keeping your questioning strategy flexible, asking open-ended questions, probing participants responses by challenging their statements, and enlivening the discussion by taking the role of devils advocate when participants agree.
- Before the discussion, review Issues to Highlight. This will help you direct the discussion.
- Insist that participants explain how they reached their conclusions.
Roles: Moderator, admissions committee members, commission overseeing police recruitment and hiring
The Situation (1)
Moderator: You are the admissions committee of Big State University, before passage of Initiative 222. Your pool of qualified applicants is far larger than the number of available spaces. Decide amongst yourselves what factors you should consider in determining who is admitted.
Issues to Highlight in the Discussion
One member of the committee argues that the fairest way to admit applicants is simply to accept those with the highest grade point averages and test scores, in order, until all the places are filled. Does anyone else agree? Why or why not?
Many of the committee members believe that an applicants extracurricular activities and accomplishments should be taken into account. But what about those characteristics that an applicant did not choose, but were, in essence, born with? If the overwhelming majority of applicants grew up in cities or in the suburbs, should the fact that an applicant grew up on a farm be considered a plus? If the majority of applicants come from middle-class or wealthy families, should it be considered a plus if the applicant grew up poor? If the majority of applicants to the liberal arts college are female, should the fact that an applicant is male be considered a plus? If the majority of applicants to the engineering school are male, should the fact that an applicant is female be considered a plus? If the great majority of applicants to the school are white, should the fact that an applicant is African-American be considered a plus? How would consideration of such factors affect the students involved, the university, and the entire state, many of whose leaders have graduated from Big State?
The Situation (2)
Now you form the commission overseeing recruitment and hiring of the Metropolis police force. A majority of Metropolis residents are members of minorities; but a large majority of the Metropolis police are white. Discuss: Does this matter? Why or why not? If it does matter, what should be done about it?
Final Discussion Question
For those who would use some form of plus factor for race, ethnicity or sex to achieve diversity at the university or the police force, a rejected applicant comes to you and says: I heard that another applicant with lower scores than me was accepted because of his race. I thought this country was dedicated to the principle of equal treatment regardless of race. How can you justify discriminating against me because of my skin color? How would you answer?
Roles: Moderator, Governor, initiative proponents, advisors
Moderator: You have been summoned by the Governor of Westralia to attend a meeting with his advisors and an outside group. The outside group supports an initiative that would result in the disappearance of most affirmative action programs.
The Governor explains to his advisors: Sitting here at the table are the leading proponents of an initiative to eliminate all preferences based on race, ethnicity, or sex in our state education, employment, and contracting. This initiative would probably end all affirmative action programs.
They believe that, if placed on the ballot, the initiative would pass. But, instead, they are here to discuss another possible path: a long-term program to achieve diversity and equality while phasing out the use of preferences. If I, the governor of Westrailia, commit to such a plan, they will not place the initiative on the ballot.
The Governor now asks the advisors: Is such a plan desirable? Is it possible?
Issues to Highlight in the Discussion
The Governor and several of his advisors suggest to the initiative supporters that a long-term plan would have to include a massive commitment to improve the quality of education in the state, particularly in poor communities. Would the initiative supporters be willing to support such an effort?
The United States Army uses goals for minority promotions but applies equal standards to all applicants. To achieve its success in minority promotion, it has invested heavily in programs to train candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete on an equal footing with candidates from more privileged backgrounds. Would this approach provide a possible model for a plan? How might you apply this principle to Westrailia?
Advisors, what would the long-term program need to accomplish before you would accept the phase-out of most state affirmative action programs?
Final Discussion Question
The goals of the long-term program would be to create a pool of applicants of such diversity and ability that the resulting student body, workforce, or group of contractors would reflect the diversity of the population even if race, ethnicity or sex were not taken into account in the selection process. Initiative supporters, are you willing to wait however long it takes for this goal to be achieved? Or do you wish to hold the state to a specific timeline even if, at the end of that time, the elimination of most affirmative action programs leads to far less diversity?
Is some compromise between the Governors advisors and the initiative supporters possible?
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Books on Affirmative Action
Caplan, Lincoln. Up Against the Law: Affirmative Action and the Supreme Court. Washington, D.C.: Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1997.
Carter, Stephen L. Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
Curry, George E., ed., The Affirmative Action Debate. Don Mills, Ont.: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Edley, Jr., Christopher. Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.
Guinier, Lani. Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1998.
Jacoby, Tamar. Someone Elses House: Americas Unfinished Struggle for Integration. New York: Free Press, 1998.
Kahlenberg, Richard D. The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Steele, Shelby. The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Bowen, William and Derek Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1997.
Moskos, Charles C. and John Sibley Butler. All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
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