Affirmative Action Defended

By Michael Seele
Chronicle Editor

Affirmative Action has played a critical role in diversifying the American workplace over the past 30 years and remains needed as the nation's population undergoes a demographic shift, according to two advocates who addressed a group of about 40 administrators and faculty at a Dec. 6 workshop in Conte Forum's Shea Room. The event was coordinated by Affirmative Action Director Barbara Marshall

Northeastern University Law School Dean David Hall and Kathleen Allen, director of the Institute for Affirmative Action at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also lamented the polarization of national debate on Affirmative Action, which characterizes the policy as either reverse discrimination or a panacea for the nation's racial maladies.

"The underlying issues of what type of society we want to be are clouded by this discussion," said Hall.

Allen added, "What we're missing in the Affirmative Action debate is the changing population. We are going to have an enormous change in the number of women and the number of people of color in the workplace."

Citing recent statistics, Hall said approximately 5 million people of color and about 6 million women are in better jobs today than they would have been in the 1960s, because of Affirmative Action.

Reverse discrimination, Hall added, is involved in no more than 3 percent of discrimination lawsuits and plaintiffs lose the majority of those cases. "Affirmative Action is now being used by white males to rationalize their own incompetence, fears and disappointments," he said.

"This should in no way distract from the society's quest for excellence," Hall said. "But it should remind us that the road to excellence is generally never straight and it certainly isn't all white."

Allen added that Affirmative Action is often misunderstood by managers of some institutions and companies. "It is not a sacred cow," she said. "It is a preventative set of programs that needs to be developed so they will respond to the particular needs of the institution."

Hall, who is black, said Affirmative Action programs enabled him to attend law school and gain a tenure-track teaching position at Northeastern, which eventually led to his appointment as dean.

"None of it would have happened the way it did without [Affirmative Action]," he said. "This policy did not give me life, nor was it a substitute for the values of hard work and dedication . . . But [it] did help to knock down barriers."

Despite the polarized debate, Allen said Americans are concerned about equal opportunities for all.

"We have a policy that has had some interesting successes and some failures," she said. "But people really do care that there is a level playing field and that we do give opportunity to women and people of color. That's encouraging."

Return to Dec. 14 menu

Return to Chronicle Home Page