Affirmative Action:
A Bluff Gone Bad
by Wendy McElroy
Saturday, October 30, 1999

Affirmative Action is unlikely to survive the millennium. As the 20th century closes, communities and states are rejecting this Orwellian experiment in social engineering. In California, proposition 209 (1997) barred preferential treatment of women or minorities in public employment, education and government contracts. More recently (August 1999), the Southeastern Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Atlanta, protesting that the "set aside" of city contracts for businesses owned by women and minorities was unconstitutional. There is a growing trend against this social policy that victimizes men and does not benefit women.

Affirmative action is an attempt to redistribute economic power by forcing employers - through law and court precedence - to prefer women (and minorities). In other words, social planners take choice away from individuals. Despite decades, affirmative action has not cured sex segregation in the work place nor closed the wage gap. Instead, it has left a human tragedy.

I witnessed the tragedy. A good friend was passed over for the tenure he had been promised. He had been teaching at the university for several years and was immensely popular, with the students and within the department. Added to this was a well-reviewed book and a slew of journal articles to his credit. But he was a white male in a department that needed more visible women. Never mind that the woman hired had far less experience and fewer credentials. Or that the department head could not even look him in the eye while breaking the news. My friend is now so embittered that he tells his son to never pursue an academic career because ability does not matter. Tenure depends on what you have between your legs.

Advocates of affirmative action dismiss such horror stories by pointing to the noble intention that underlies 'preference for women.' Namely, the policy is meant to compensate for past discrimination against women. Men as the oppressing class have to pay for their past actions, regardless of whether any individual man that suffers has committed any wrong. Given that affirmative action draws upon its honorable intentions, let us examine how the policy - as applied to women - came into being.

On June 19, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent a Civil Rights Act (CRA) to Congress to counter racial discrimination in the work place. The CRA, intended primarily for blacks, met stiff political opposition. Then, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. His successor Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."  The CRA became a candle at the altar to a fallen leader.  But opposition was still stiff.

On February 8, 1964, Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia made a colossal blunder in the House of Representatives. In an attempt to block the CRA, he announced, "...I offer an amendment." He wished to insert the word 'sex' after the word 'religion' whenever it appeared in Title VII, which guaranteed 'fair' employment practices. By tying it to the controversial women's movement, Smith hoped to kill the CRA.

J. Edward Pawlick, in his book chronicling the CRA's passage (Freedom Will Conquer Racism and Sexism...), comments on reaction in the House."[T]he laughter became too great... and Congressman Smith had to stop." Disingenuously, he assured the House that he was serious. The bluff backfired.  The CRA passed. Thus the seeds were planted for a social policy that would alter American society. Within decades, government had imposed de facto quotas and fair practice standards for women throughout the work place. This had not been Kennedy's intention. Affirmative action for women was not based on noble principles. It was based on an ill-advised political bluff and - arguably - a bad joke.

Regardless of its origins, how have women fared in this Brave New World of legal privilege? Not well. In his book Illiberal Education, Dinesh D'Souza remarks on a strange phenomenon happening on campuses. Under affirmative action, incidents of racial hostility seem to be increasing.  D'Souza concludes that a new kind of racism is appearing. One that has been created by affirmative action - that is, a racism that stems from the understandable resentment felt by students who are discriminated against.  Women in the workplace face a similar dilemma. The black free-market economist Thomas Sowell has commented on another bitter irony: blacks who advanced through merit are being victimized by preferential policies. They are not given due credit for their accomplishments. The same is true of women in the marketplace.

Affirmative action embodies assumptions against which I - as a woman - have fought all my life: I need the government to protect me; and, that I cannot compete on merit with men. Moreover, I tenaciously cling to the belief that whatever people peacefully do behind closed doors - whether the door leads to a bedroom, a university class or a factory floor - is not the business of Big Brother. Or Big Sister.