Affirmative Action Reconsidered

July 31, 1981

Report Outline
Retrenchment under Reagan
Development of Affirmative Action
Dealing With Job Discrimination
Special Focus

Retrenchment under Reagan

Existing Program's Official Re-Evaluation

Affirmative action to overcome or prevent racial and sexual discrimination in employment and education has been extremely controversial since the first program was started in 1964. The business community has been particularly critical, saying that affirmative action requires time-consuming personnel work and often results in discrimination of another sort: hiring women or minority applicants who are less qualified than competing white males. Many political conservatives go further, saying that it is nothing more than an unconstitutional government-mandated quota system.

Affirmative action still has a legion of defenders who argue that it is a necessary corrective to centuries of job restrictions, but they feel more embattled than ever. It is no surprise that affirmative action has come under fire from the Reagan administration. Today there is an “all-out attack against affirmative action mounted by the administration, the Congress and the business community,” said a recent report by Working Women, a national organization of office workers. President Reagan expressed skepticism about affirmative action in his first news conference after assuming office, “I think we've made great progress in the civil rights field,” the president said Jan. 29 at the White House. “I think there are some things, however, that … may not be as useful as they once were, or that may even be distorted in the practice, such as some affirmative action programs becoming quota systems….I'm old enough to remember when quotas existed in the United States for the purpose of discrimination. And I don't want to see that happen again.”

Attorney General William French Smith announced May 22 that the Department of Justice had begun a “re-evaluation” of affirmative action programs. Smith, speaking further about the re-evaluation before the American Law Institute in Philadelphia, said: “For a quarter of a century we have devoted considerable governmental resources to the task of fashioning remedies to assist members of minority groups that have historically been the victims of discrimination. Too often, some of those remedies have proved ineffective…. [W]e must begin to take a more practical and effective approach to the problem of equal education and occupational opportunity.” Fred Barbash of The Washington Post observed that the “re-evaluation” amounted to a “major departure from two decades of civil rights policy.”

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
Undergraduate and Graduate Education