Major U.S. media create confusion on Affirmative Action


Major media coverage of Affirmative Action has done away with a general social acceptance of the necessity of maintaining equal employment opportunity for long term fairness in society.

In its place -- reactionary attitudes toward race, class and gender.

Major media tend to collapse the term 'affirmative action' into a single concept covering the three distinct institutional issues of employment, college admissions and government contracting. Each of these areas has had a separate historical development, covers different laws and assumptions and has been addressed in an unlike manner.

Affirmative action in employment was defined by the Civil Rights Commission in 1977 as "any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for a past or present discrimination from recurring in the future."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was very clear in making it illegal for employers in the United States to discriminate in "any term, condition of privilege of employment," based on ". . . race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

Employer-based affirmative action gradually became a combination of several positive activities that were initiated and practiced by many large firms and government throughout the United States in the early 1970s. These positive employer-based efforts for equal employment opportunity focused in three broad areas:

1. Large firms and governments started extensive recruitment and specialized outreach to underutilized populations throughout the areas from which they drew employees.

2. Firms and governments conducted a full review of minimum qualifications for all jobs to insure that only bona fide job related requirements were used while the hiring process also was monitored to ensure that interviewing and testing procedures did not unfairly screen out women and minorities.

3. Efforts were made to eliminate overt racial and gender discriminatory practices by staff and managers and to create a positive work environment free of ethnic bias, sexual innuendo, racist statements, offensive jokes, and other cultural insensitivities.

Affirmative-action employment programs in the United States very rarely utilize hiring quotas based on race or gender. Employment selection based on race or gender is a direct violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and an illegal act. Hiring quotas are only legal on the rare occasions when they are court ordered or approved because of prior proven discrimination of a specific class of people by a particular employer. Such measures are usually for a specific period of time and never exclude other groups from employment access.

In the area of educational admissions, universities have in recent history included race in consideration for admission along with numerous other factors including SAT scores, GPA, essays, letters of recommendations, geography, age, parental income, parental alumni status, life experiences and numerous other categories. Each of these areas has the potential of bias in favor or against various groups in society. The media's focus, almost exclusively, on the race issue misleads the public on a very complex issue.

Recent Supreme Court decisions in government hiring cases have disallowed quotas for minority- and women-owned companies. Thus, that issue is moot at this time and yet this area continues to find its presence in the media today.

Public understanding of affirmative action has often been based on white urban legends that tell tales of gender and minority preferences and the passing-over of better-qualified white applicants for jobs, university admissions and government contracts. It is media's responsibility to present factual accounts of these issues without feeding bias and misunderstandings. Superficial simplistic media coverage of affirmative action and the perpetuation of misinformation only serves to continue bias and racial prejudices.

Peter Phillips is an assistant professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and the director of Project Censored.

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