Dispelling Myths About Affirmative Action

Over the last decade, the term "affirmative action" has become more controversial than the actual racial and gender inequities it was originally designed to address. However, regardless of your feelings about the term, the fact remains that women and people of color have yet to achieve the type of equality many others have in our society. Solutions need to be developed to address this issue, and affirmative action does play a role.

The purpose of affirmative action was to address the discrimination that blacks, Latinos, Asians and later, women were experiencing in education and work environments in the 1950s. Since the term "affirmative action" was first used in Executive Order 10925, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the word and the idea behind it has sparked debate -- which still continues today. As the leader of an organization committed to eliminating racism and empowering women, I believe it's important that we understand exactly what affirmative action is and isn't, so let's dispel a few of the myths about affirmative action that persist:

Myth: Affirmative action is "reverse discrimination."
I believe affirmative action levels the playing field so women and people of color have the opportunity to contribute and succeed in our professional environments. We've yet to reach the place where, in general, race and gender no longer carry negative economic implications. Just look at the statistics. In 2010, women made 77 cents for every dollar a man earned. The disparity becomes even more apparent during tough economic times like we are experiencing today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rates for whites is 8.1 percent; African Americans 15.9 percent; and Hispanics 11.3 percent. Affirmative action programs simply acknowledge the fact that hundreds of years of discrimination in this country cannot be eliminated overnight. Our laws have changed, but unfortunately, inequity still exists. Affirmative action becomes a tool we can use until our culture catches up to the law.

Myth: Affirmative action should be determined by economic disadvantage rather than gender or race.
Affirmative action was originally created to end race and gender discrimination and provide a diverse pool of qualified candidates. Racial and gender discrimination are still a problem in the workplace. Continuing a 10-year pattern, the most frequently filed charges with the EEOC in 2010 were those alleging discrimination based on race and sex. Of the 99,922 charges filed, 36 percent were based on race and 29 percent on sex discrimination. While I believe economic disadvantage could be used in addition to gender and race, it should not take its place.

Myth: Affirmative action doesn't work.
Over the last 30 years, several studies have attempted to assess whether affirmative action programs lead to greater employment and advancement of women and minorities. Because of the variety in the design of affirmative action programs, data on its impact is difficult to find. But the general consensus is that women and people of color have benefited from affirmative action. For example, one study found that employment rates for women and minorities increased faster in firms with federal contracts (who were thereby subject to affirmative action), than at otherwise equivalent firms without such contracts. Studies like these make it clear to me that we must continue to support affirmative action programs if we don't want to see a loss in the gains we've made.

Myth: Affirmative action involves quotas and allows unqualified people to get ahead.
Contrary to common beliefs, affirmative action does not mean using quotas to hire unqualified candidates. These activities are actually prohibited by law. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, you cannot base a hiring decision on a person's race or gender. Affirmative action gives competent and qualified women and minorities the opportunity to compete in areas where they are or have been under-represented. Laws have changed, but discrimination persists. Affirmative action helps open doors to qualified applicants who are often prevented from having access to these opportunities.

Many believe that with the election of President Obama, we no longer have a need for affirmative action or diversity programs in this country. However, despite the many gains made by the civil rights and women's rights movements, women and people of color still face unfair obstacles in business and education. Many critics look at affirmative action from an individual standpoint, but I feel it's equally important to examine it from the collective as well -- and collectively, there is still much inequity to address. We can spend our time debating the problem or finding solutions. And my vote is always for finding solutions.