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National NOW Times >> Winter 2004/2005 >> Article

Affirmative Action Suffers a Conservative Backlash

by Leanne Libert, Managing Editor

As affirmative action succeeds in increasing the representation of women and people of color in the workplace and in higher education, a conservative backlash continues to thwart this progress.

College enrollment of African-American students dropped in 2004, with The Washington Post reporting that only 350 black first-year students enrolled at the University of Michigan last fall, down from 410 the previous year and 500 in 2001. The University of California and the University of Georgia also enrolled fewer black first-year students.

Last year, in U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative action, the Court ruled that the University of Michigan could continue using race as a factor in shaping university admissions, as was the practice in the UM Law School, but struck down the system of issuing points for race in undergraduate admissions, even though points were allocated for many other non-academic factors.

This "yes, but no" decision created confusion for both prospective students and the admissions departments using the policy to grant students admission. The case's publicity may have intimidated black students, creating pessimism about the chances of admission.

At universities and colleges, some admissions personnel say that they are hesitant to continue affirmative action efforts because of the number of lawsuits threatened and complaints filed, such as the May 2003 complaint against the University of Virginia alleging that their admissions policy discriminates against white applicants, despite the fact that only 9.3 percent of incoming students are black.

A study by the Center for Equal Opportunity in Virginia and the National Association of Scholars, Virginia affiliate, both vocal opponents of affirmative action, suggested that the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia and North Carolina State University use admissions policies that discriminate against white students.

The misleadingly-named Center for Equal Opportunity filed a complaint in the fall with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and plans to use the study's finding to add weight to their pending complaint that affirmative action equals discrimination.

Admissions officials at these universities maintain that their admissions policies follow the guidelines set by the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling, yet complaints continue to be filed by opponents of affirmative action, who are determined to intimidate schools into folding their plans.

Another contributing factor to lower enrollment of black students is the rising cost of tuition, compounded by fewer scholarships available to minority students. Even the funding for PELL grants was reduced by the Bush administration for 2005.

The number of need-based scholarships has not increased at the same rate as so-called merit-based scholarships (which are often based on standardized tests that have a demonstrated race and gender bias), leaving fewer options for low- and moderate-income families.

Race-exclusive scholarships have declined in number as well. In response to a 2001 complaint, federal civil-rights officials and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction agreed in November to rename its Minority Pre-college Scholarship Program and declare white students eligible in the next round of awards.

While black students encounter difficulties in gaining admission to historically all-white schools, they also face obstacles at schools that were historically all-black.

Fewer spaces remain open for black students at historically all-black colleges and universities. In the name of diversity, many of these schools have begun recruiting white students. Bluefield State College in West Virginia now has a majority white enrollment.

In the professional world, the struggle for minority parity continues. After 30 years of success in diversifying the Boston Police Department, affirmative outreach hiring came to a screeching halt with a federal judge's decision Nov. 23.

U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris granted the request of eight white men denied officer positions last year to end the department's practice of hiring one minority candidate for every white candidate hired.

The 1974 consent decree required the percent of Hispanic and black officers to reflect the population in the community, in an effort to change the historic discrimination that had created an all-white police department which was viewed as an occupying force in minority communities.

The judge ruled the practice obsolete since the goals were met more than a year ago, but without taking into account the fact that it took 30 years to reach that point, which doesn't exactly demonstrate willingness to change. A similar ruling ended the Boston Fire Department's affirmative action hiring last year.

Without affirmative action, the Boston PD hiring will be based solely on an outdated and job-irrelevant civil service test.

According to the Massachusetts Human Resources Division, which oversees civil service, only two people of color would have been hired for the October 2003 class if the department has chosen strictly by test scores, which only measure a candidate's reading and math abilities, but not communication skills and judgment-both tasks associated with police work.

Civil service promotional exams for sergeant, lieutenant and captain also discriminate.

The tests rely heavily on textbook knowledge and little on job experience, rewarding officers on injured leave or working desk assignments because they have more study time, and the system does not reward creative and energetic officers.

A silver lining does exist in this cloud of repression. Boston's Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole and lawyers on both sides agree that hiring strictly by test scores would create a predominately white police department over time.

To prevent this backsliding, O'Toole plans to make radical changes in police hiring practices, including eliminating the civil service test and focusing on more subjective factors such as background, training and foreign language skills.

While people of color have reached parity in the department, she wants to develop a system that would prevent backsliding to a majority-white police department unrepresentative of the population it serves.

The struggle to protect and expand affirmative action must continue.

Using affirmative action admissions policies in colleges and universities completes the first step in achieving diversity. To complete the next step, the professional world must apply affirmative action in its hiring practices. The conservative backlash cannot be allowed to rob another generation of the right to equal education and employment.

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