Is Affirmative Action Still the Answer?

April 14, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus


Affirmative action survived the Reagan administration's assault and is now an established fact, both in government and in big business. But with the success of the black middle class and the troubles of the largely black underclass, is affirmative action still relevant to the needs of today's black Americans?

Go to top


The Supreme Court is taking a “giant step backward,” Justice Thurgood Marshall bitterly asserted. But his protest last January was to no avail. By a 6–3 vote, the court ruled unconstitutional a Richmond, Va., ordinance setting aside 30 percent of the city's public works contracts for minority-owned firms. Only where a state or local government was trying to rectify the effects of “identified discrimination” might “some form of narrowly tailored racial preference” be necessary, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court's majority. Thirty-six states and 190 cities and counties had minority set-aside programs similar to Richmond's, and many of the governments have begun to re-examine them in the light of the court's decision.

Less than a week before its ruling in City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., the Supreme Court heard arguments in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Frank Atonio et al., an employment discrimination case that could be “very significant,” according to William L. Robinson, dean of the District of Columbia School of Law and former director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. A crucial issue that could be resolved by the court's ruling in this case is whether an employer whose practices have had a statistically “disparate impact” on minorities must prove (as he has in the past) the “business necessity” of his practices, or whether he must merely produce some evidence that the practices serve a legitimate business interest. If, as many anticipate, the court lifts the heavier burden of proof from the employer, the result, in Robinson's view, will be “to insulate the informal discriminatory practices which occur so frequently.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Affirmative Action
Oct. 17, 2008  Affirmative Action Updated
Jul. 11, 2003  Race in America
Sep. 21, 2001  Affirmative Action in Undergraduate Admissions
Jan. 23, 1998  The Black Middle Class
Feb. 23, 1996  Getting Into College
Apr. 28, 1995  Rethinking Affirmative Action
May 17, 1991  Racial Quotas
Apr. 14, 1989  Is Affirmative Action Still the Answer?
Jul. 31, 1981  Affirmative Action Reconsidered
Mar. 30, 1979  Affirmative Action Under Attack
Affirmative Action
Civil Rights: African Americans
Equal Employment Opportunity & Discrimination