Affirmative Action policies were introduced in the 1960s by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The President recognized Black and Hispanic communities were not well represented in specific sectors. While the federal government did not have direct control over the hiring decisions in private business, it could exert some power in seeing increasing representation with federal contractors.
With now over fifty (50) years of experience, how have Affirmative Action policies shaped the US? What have some of the benefits been and what can other countries learn from America’s experience? I invited Professor Harry Holzer of Georgetown University to discuss these questions in more detail. Professor Holzer has spent many decades studying Affirmative Action and its impacts on the labour market.
Who is Professor Harry Holzer?
Professor Harry Holzer is an American economist and public policy expert. He is currently the John LaFarge Jr. SJ Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University, where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center on Education and the Workforce.
Holzer previously served as the Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, and has held positions at several other academic and policy institutions, including the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on issues related to labor economics, education and workforce development, poverty, and inequality.
Professor Holzer is widely recognized as an expert in his field and has authored or co-authored numerous books and articles on these topics. He has also served on several national and international advisory boards and commissions, including the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn.
What is Affirmative Action?
In general, affirmative action policies are intended to level the playing field for underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, in areas such as education and employment. The goal of affirmative action is to address the effects of past discrimination and promote equal opportunities for individuals from groups that have been traditionally marginalized.
In the United States, affirmative action was originally introduced in the 1960s as a way to address the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minority groups in higher education and employment. Affirmative action programs typically involve giving preference to individuals from historically disadvantaged groups in admissions, hiring, and other decision-making processes.
Why Did the Federal Government Pursue Affirmative Action Policies in the 1960s?
The federal government pursued affirmative action policies in the 1960s as a response to the widespread discrimination and segregation that existed in many areas of American life at that time. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment, education, and other areas. However, simply outlawing discrimination was not enough to address the deep-seated inequalities that existed in American society.
In order to address the lingering effects of past discrimination and promote greater diversity and inclusion, the federal government began to implement affirmative action policies in areas such as education, employment, and contracting. These policies were designed to ensure that individuals from historically disadvantaged groups, such as African Americans and other minorities, had equal opportunities to succeed and were not held back by systemic discrimination or biases.
Affirmative action was seen as a way to promote greater equality and to address the historical injustices faced by minority groups. It was also seen as a way to promote greater diversity in institutions such as colleges and universities, which had traditionally been dominated by white, middle-class students. While affirmative action policies have been controversial and have faced legal challenges over the years, they continue to be used in many areas of American life as a way to promote greater equality and diversity.
What Key Areas of the Economy did Affirmative Action Seek to Impact?
Affirmative action has been implemented in a number of different areas of the economy over the years. Some of the key areas where affirmative action policies have been used include:
- Employment: One of the primary areas where affirmative action policies have been implemented is in employment. Affirmative action policies in hiring and promotion are designed to help eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace, and to ensure that individuals from historically disadvantaged groups have equal opportunities for career advancement.
- Education: Affirmative action has been used in the education sector to promote greater diversity in colleges and universities. Affirmative action policies in college admissions are designed to ensure that students from minority groups have equal access to higher education and are not unfairly excluded on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
- Government contracting: Federal and state governments have implemented affirmative action policies in government contracting to help ensure that minority-owned businesses have equal opportunities to compete for government contracts.
- Housing: Affirmative action has also been used in the housing sector to help ensure that minority groups have equal access to housing and are not unfairly excluded on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
- Health care: Some affirmative action policies have been implemented in the health care sector to help ensure that individuals from minority groups have equal access to health care services and are not unfairly excluded on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
What have been some of the early results of Affirmative Action on the Labour Market?
The impact of affirmative action on the labor market has been a topic of much research and debate over the years. Here are some of the key findings from early studies of affirmative action in the labor market:
- Increased representation of historically disadvantaged groups: One of the primary goals of affirmative action in the labor market is to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and women. Research has shown that affirmative action policies can be effective in achieving this goal, by increasing the number of individuals from these groups who are hired, promoted, or enrolled in training programs.
- Improved job opportunities and earnings for minority workers: Affirmative action has also been shown to improve job opportunities and earnings for minority workers. Studies have found that minority workers who are hired or promoted as a result of affirmative action policies tend to earn higher wages and have better job prospects than they would have otherwise.
What About the Performance of Workers from Underrepresented Groups?
Professor Holzer notes there is little evidence to suggest that affirmative action policies are a direct cause of performance gaps between black and white workers. In fact, research has shown that the persistence of performance gaps between these groups can be attributed to a variety of factors, including historical discrimination, unequal access to educational and economic opportunities, and ongoing biases and stereotypes.
Affirmative action policies are designed to promote greater equality and to address the effects of historical discrimination, but they do not guarantee equal outcomes for individuals from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Instead, they seek to level the playing field and provide individuals from historically disadvantaged groups with equal access to opportunities, such as jobs or educational programs.
Research has shown that the impact of affirmative action on performance can be complex and depend on a variety of factors, such as the specific policies and programs implemented, the cultural and political context in which they are implemented, and the perceptions and attitudes of the individuals affected by them. Some studies have found that affirmative action policies can lead to improved performance and higher levels of productivity, while others have found that they can lead to resentment or backlash among some workers who feel that they are being unfairly disadvantaged.