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Affirmative action: a steeper climb for US minorities?

IN its campaign to stamp out racial quotas in public hiring, the Reagan administration is sending out a worrisome signal about the strength of its commitment to end discrimination in the United States. It's not so much what is being said. It's what is not being said that troubles civil rights activists.

What women and blacks and other minorities want to hear is that the White House is broadly committed to alleviating bias in the workplace and elsewhere through positive programs to end job discrimination. What they are hearing from the Justice Department is a sharp condemnation of quotas and goals, which they say are depriving whites of their constitutional rights to jobs.

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Unfortunately, little is said about equal opportunity or how to achieve it through means other than quotas.

Affirmative action -- enhancing job opportunities for minorities -- is generally accepted as a worthy cause. Those committed to social fairness, including the courts, have seen this concept as an important remedy to redress the years of lockout from the work force of ethnic and racial minorities.

On the other hand, job ``quotas'' -- perhaps the most controversial tool of affirmative action -- have addressed discrimination with more discrimination. At times of layoffs, quotas have sometimes resulted in displacing a disproportionate number of whites with lesser numbers of blacks, browns, and women to achieve racial balance. Of late, the courts have been prone to discard the idea of quotas -- at least as it applies to job promotions.

Last year, for instance, the US Supreme Court upheld the seniority rights of a group of white firefighters in Memphis facing layoffs, over less tenured blacks.

But in a similar situation in Boston, where black police and firemen were retained and more senior whites furloughed during an economic crunch, the high tribunal, in effect, left a lower court's approval of a quota system intact by refusing to review the issue. (The justices decided the issue was moot after those laid off were later hired back.)

What the Supreme Court has not decided, as yet, is the broader issue of whether a racially-based formula for public hiring is, in and of itself, illegal and unconstitutional. Since several federal courts differ on the matter, it will almost certainly reach the nation's highest judicial forum for resolution.

In fact, the high court has just agreed to review a Michigan ruling that upholds an affirmative action plan calling for layoffs of nonminority teachers before less-experienced minority teachers to maintain a racial balance.

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But for now, the White House, through the Justice Department, has made its position clear: It opposes any race-related quotas or goals for hiring or promotion of public workers.

And the US attorney general has gone an important step further by initiating court action against Indianapolis, to prod that city (and by inference, others) to modify affirmative action programs used by its police and fire departments.

The administration is arguing that the Supreme Court's upholding of seniority over affirmative action in the Memphis case sets the stage for striking down all preferential quotas in hiring and promoting public workers. Predictably, civil rights groups vigorously disagree.

The Justice Department would have Indianapolis modify an agreement which now mandates that the city open at least 25 percent of its training classes for police and firefighters to black applicants. Also, it would alter a decree which requires that women constitute at least 20 percent of new appointments to the police department.

These quotas should be replaced by a more vigorous minority recruitment program and more specific rules to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring, the administration's legal arm says.

Critics say scrapping quotas totally is too sweeping a move. Voluntary programs and anti-segregation rules might be well motivated, they say, but probably would do little to encourage the hiring of women and minorities.

Federal district Judge Charles R. Richey recently struck down as illegal a promotion quota adopted by the District of Columbia fire department. He said it unnecessarily tramples the rights of white firefighters.

However, Judge Richey stressed that neither the Supreme Court nor federal law precludes the use of ``race conscious'' affirmative action plans.

Such plans, the jurist reasoned, legitimately encourage whites to share the burden for remedying past discrimination.

By adopting this approach -- and preserving the spirit of affirmative action -- the administration could show its commitment to ending segregation in the workplace. Quotas certainly can be dispensed with. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A Thursday column

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