Sommaire N°21

Novembre 2008

Jean-Pierre ROCHE


Éducation, politique, santé, génétique... : les multiples facettes de la sélection

Frédéric WORMS

Limites et critères de la sélection


De la sélection naturelle à l'élection culturelle


L'identité sur la sellette

Philippe BRAUD

Du bon usage de la sélection dans les régimes démocratiques

Christian LEQUESNE

France/Grande-Bretagne : deux approches de la sélection

Jean-Louis SERRE

La sélection génétique : jusqu'où ?


Les résultats mitigés de la discrimination positive aux États-Unis


Jean-Michel LEFÈVRE

L'égalité contre l'équité


Solidarité et sélection des risques en matière de santé

Pays émergents et nouveaux équilibres internationaux

Christophe JAFFRELOT

Le phénomène «pays émergents»

Mary-Françoise RENARD

Quel développement économique pour la Chine ?


Les incertitudes du modèle politique chinois

Frédéric LANDY

L'Inde ou la disparité

Jean-Joseph BOILLOT

La nouvelle place de l'Inde dans l'industrie


Le Brésil : un BRIC… qui reste encore Belindia(1)

Olivier DABÈNE

Le Brésil de Lula entre difficultés intérieures et projection internationale


Pas de nouvelle guerre froide entre Nord et Sud


François JULLIEN

Intégrer les cultures de l'autre


Chocs pétrolier et céréalier : la responsabilité limitée des pays émergents


La recherche d'une main-d'oeuvre moins chère trouve ses limites


Le réchauffement climatique : un « dilemme du prisonnier » planétaire


Concilier sécurité alimentaire et développement durable

Jean-Louis MARTIN, Sylvain LACLIAS

Les « Prochains 13 »


John D. Skrentny est professeur de sociologie à l'université de Californie - San Diego.


The limits of affirmative action in the United Sates

Any assessment of the effectiveness of a policy must begin with a deceptively simple question: for what, exactly, was the policy intended? As is true with most policies, the makers of America’s current affirmative action intended it to accomplish quite disparate goals. And not surprisingly, affirmative action has a mixed record. It has been both a success and a failure.

“Affirmative action,” in the American context, can mean many things, but most generally it refers to policies that require doing more than being neutral in the allocation of opportunity in, for example, employment and university admissions. One could simply sit back and wait for applications to come in, and then—rather than preferring white males, which had been common for most of American history-- select job seekers with the most experience and university applicants with the highest grades and standardized test scores. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made this passive (though revolutionary) nondiscrimination stance a requirement for all employers with at least fifteen employees and any program or institution receiving federal funds.

Affirmative action, however, makes these opportunity gate-keepers active. They should see to it, at the least, that the applicant pool is representative of color and gender diversity (there has never been affirmative action for ethnic or religious groups in the US). This may require targeted recruiting directed at racial minorities and women. It might involve targeted training efforts for these groups. It might involve having percentage goals in mind for the end of the process. But by far the most controversial type of affirmative action is when, at the moment of decision for whom to hire or admit, opportunity gate-keepers give a preference to racial minority or women applicants. Understood in this way, we can find affirmative action in federal, state and city regulations for employment and voluntary policies at the most selective universities.
Is affirmative action effective? In some ways, the answer is an emphatic yes. One must remember that modern affirmative action had its beginnings during a time of horrific violence in the nation’s cities. News media relayed endless of images of burning cities, angry African Americans, and a total breakdown of order. Between 1966 and 1968, 169 persons were killed in the violence, while 7000 injured and more than 40,000 arrested. In one riot in Los Angeles in 1965, 977 buildings were destroyed. It was in this context of mass unrest and crisis that affirmative action kicked into high gear, and policymakers hoped it would bring peace to the cities.

It did. There could have been other factors, but it appears that affirmative action played a role in ending the racial violence by the early 1970s. Especially but not only in the cities, affirmative action brought more alienated blacks and other minorities into jobs in manufacturing, services and construction. Universities reached out to and admitted more minority students, thus giving them hope for the future.
Crucially, police departments made aggressive efforts to recruit, hire and promote racial minorities. Many cities now have large and growing numbers of nonwhite police officers working all neighborhoods, but especially nonwhite neighborhoods. This is significant because white police brutality directed at black citizens triggered much of the racial violence of the 1960s (as well as the major riot in Los Angeles in 1992). Now, most police departments aim to reflect the racial make-up of their populations. Police brutality still occurs in the US, but a significant minority presence on police forces helps to maintain social peace.
Most advocates of affirmative action, however, intended affirmative action to prevent discrimination and create equal opportunity. Has it been successful? The record here also shows some success. Especially in university admissions, affirmative action—specifically, race preference-- has clearly prevented discrimination against minority applicants and brought new opportunities.

There are many types of affirmative action in universities. Many oversee programs of recruitment and special orientation or training programs for racial minorities to ease their transition to university life and culture. For example, workshops in the summer before classes start will introduce to students of color—who may have attended substandard primary and secondary schools—what professors will expect of them in the classroom and what a good essay should look like.
But the more controversial practice has been for admissions officers to give a little boost, or a “plus factor,” to applicants who are black, Latino, Native American, and in some contexts (especially law schools) Asian American. In fact, as Mitchell Stevens has shown in his book, Creating a Class, admissions officers commonly give other preferences, such as for applicants from rural areas, or those whose parents can pay full tuition. But Americans do not understand these preferences as “affirmative action” and it is racial preferences that have engendered the greatest resentment and even legal challenges from some white students (the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that limited racial preference may be constitutional).

Not surprisingly, race preferences in admissions have been effective. We know this because some universities ended the practice—and they saw their minority enrollments go down. When the University of California ended preferences in the mid-1990s, black and Latino undergraduate enrollments, which had been 21 percent of the students in the nine-campus system, fell to 15 percent. Moreover, the minorities who were admitted were concentrated in the least selective campuses of the system. Research has shown that ending race preferences nationally would lower black and Latino undergraduate enrollment from 12 percent to 4 percent, and black enrollments in law schools would fall by about half. There is some dispute about whether students admitted with racial preferences perform as well as other students, but there is little doubt that more minority students graduate because of affirmative action.
Regarding employment, it is more difficult to show effectiveness because affirmative action came into being at the same time as the Civil Rights Act’s requirement of nondiscrimination, and enforcement has waxed and waned over time. Typically, Democratic presidential administrations enforce the regulations more vigorously than do Republicans. However, studies that have sought to isolate the effects of affirmative action in employment indicate success here as well: increases in black employment of 20 to 25 percent. There is also evidence that affirmative action has helped minorities and women break through the “glass ceiling” that prevents them from attaining the best jobs in a firm, though the numbers here are not very impressive. The percentage of managers who are black women grew from 0.4 percent to 2 percent between 1971 and 2002, and black men saw a rise from 1 percent to 3.1 percent of managers. Moreover, it is now good public relations if the public face of a company is not entirely white and male. Of the one thousand largest corporations in the US, 76 percent have a least one minority on the board of directors, and 47 percent have a least one African American.

But what about aiding the poor? Though fighting poverty was never an explicit goal of affirmative action, the problem of poverty often lurks in the background of debates on affirmative action. In debates about civil rights in the 1960s, advocates for strong government action commonly referred to black unemployment rates, which were then double that of whites. Decades later, there are many inspiring stories of individual success where affirmative action almost certainly played a part. For example, at the recent Democratic Party national convention, Deval Patrick, an African American and current governor of the state of Massachusetts, described a childhood of poverty that turned around when he was given the opportunity to attend an exclusive private school.
However, the greatest failure of affirmative action is that the anecdotes do not seem to add up to a great impact on overall inequality. More than a quarter of blacks are in poverty, and black unemployment is still double (8 percent) that of whites (4 percent; Latino unemployment is about 5 percent).Moreover, affirmative action in university admissions has disproportionately helped relatively more advantaged black immigrants and their children, as well as mixed-race students, rather than the descendants of black slaves. One study showed almost two-thirds of Harvard University’s black undergraduates were immigrants or the children of immigrants. In other words, the Barack Obamas in America (mixed-race son of a Kenyan immigrant) are getting proportionally more help than the Deval Patricks.
Affirmative action, understood as racial preference, has also been a failure politically. Though Republicans continually criticize affirmative action, they are too timid to end the policy because they do not want to appear racist. However, when given a chance on state referenda in California, Washington and Michigan, voters (mostly white) ended racial preference. Some Democrats blame their party’s support for affirmative action for driving white working class voters to the Republicans.

Partly for this reason, the phrase “affirmative action” is increasingly anachronistic in the contemporary United States. Instead, Americans—of all political stripes-- talk about the importance and benefits of American institutions reflecting the nation’s diversity. The acceptance of “diversity” as a value is an indicator of affirmative action’s final success: elites in government and business now commonly sense there is something wrong when the institutions they oversee are totally white or totally male, and seek (at least) the appearance of inclusiveness. This suggests a cultural change, what Alexis de Tocqueville called a “habit of the heart.” If it broadens and holds, it may make affirmative action policies less controversial, less politically sensitive--and ultimately unnecessary.
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