Bill Lann Lee/AP
Bill Lann Lee's nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights was rebuffed by the Senate because of his support for affirmative action. (AP)

Affirmative Action
Under Attack

By Dan Froomkin Staff
October 1998

Affirmative action is the nation's most ambitious attempt to redress its long history of racial and sexual discrimination. But these days it seems to incite, rather than ease, the nation's internal divisions.

An increasingly assertive opposition movement argues that the battle to guarantee equal rights for all citizens has been fought and won – and that favoring members of one group over another simply goes against the American grain.

But defenders of affirmative action say that the playing field is not level yet – and that granting modest advantages to minorities and women is more than fair, given hundreds of years of discrimination that benefited whites and men.

This essay provides an introduction to the following topics:

  • What Is Affirmative Action?
  • The Politics of Affirmative Action

    What Is Affirmative Action?

    Born of the civil rights movement three decades ago, affirmative action calls for minorities and women to be given special consideration in employment, education and contracting decisions.

    Institutions with affirmative action policies generally set goals and timetables for increased diversity – and use recruitment, set-asides and preference as ways of achieving those goals.

    In its modern form, affirmative action can call for an admissions officer faced with two similarly qualified applicants to choose the minority over the white, or for a manager to recruit and hire a qualified woman for a job instead of a man. Affirmative action decisions are generally not supposed to be based on quotas, nor are they supposed to give any preference to unqualified candidates. And they are not supposed to harm anyone through "reverse discrimination."

    The Politics of Affirmative Action

    President Clinton, asserting that the job of ending discrimination remains unfinished, strongly defends affirmative action. "Mend it, but don't end it," he says.

    Conservatives, however, see ending affirmative action as a powerful political issue. Heartened by recent Supreme Court decisions that have limited affirmative action – and by the passage in 1996 of a California ballot initiative abolishing sexual and racial preferences – Republicans are taking up the battle wherever they can.

    The debate over affirmative action takes on a particularly bitter tenor in the trenches. "Angry white men" blame affirmative action for robbing them of promotions and other opportunities. And while many minorities and women support affirmative action, a growing number say its benefits are no longer worth its side effect: the perception that their success is unearned.

    Judging simply by the results, the playing field would appear to still be tilted very much in favor of white men. Overall, minorities and women are in vastly lower paying jobs and still face active discrimination in some sectors.

    At this point in our nation's history, does affirmative action make things better or worse? The debate rages on.

    Dan Froomkin can be reached at

    Copyright 1998
    The Washington Post Company