Column: The Biggest Affirmative Action Program of Them All

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

On June 25, I suggested that Affirmative Action was responsible for my securing an academic job in 1980. I am from the majority race, of the male gender, and I was 40 years old at the time. I found Affirmative Action to give great advantages to white males. Quite simply we are the leading category of job seekers, and Affirmative Action requires that jobs be widely advertised so everyone can find out about them. If everyone does, that means more white males than any other group finds out about them. More white males apply, more white males get the jobs. Still, I am not sure that the argument is persuasive for many who feel they have been"victimized" by Affirmative Action. And these many do include white males.

Affirmative Action is not a new program for groups of government job seekers. It has been around in one form or another for over two centuries. In other incarnations Affirmative Action has been an accepted policy, one that was on the political agenda until it was established and then quickly off as no one seemed to challenge it. It was not a contentious issue, and it won very wide support in society. Perhaps if we can look at the dimensions of an Affirmative Action program that did have near universal acceptance, we can design new programs with the same qualities and the same political results--that is acceptance and willing compliance.

The program of hiring preferences for Native Americans in the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been widely accepted, but lets look at the biggest Affirmative Action program of all--Veterans Preference. Veteran's preference was practiced in very limited ways as early as the George Washington presidential administration--and probably earlier in the days of the Articles of Confederation. Washington established a firm principle in his hiring practices that left preferences for those who served with him during the Revolutionary War unchallenged. Only qualified persons would be selected for government jobs. If a veteran was not qualified to do the job (notice the concept of job validity came early into the system), a qualified non-veteran would be given the job.

Veterans Preference programs were formalized after the Civil War and again after World War I and II. In 1889 the notion of extra points on examination scores was introduced. In 1919 veterans were moved to the top of hiring lists if they passed examinations. In 1923 President Warren Harding distinguished between veterans and disabled veterans giving extra preference to the latter group. Our present system is based upon 1944 legislation. As revised, the program keeps Washington's key point--no preference unless the job candidate is qualified. Only veterans having passing scores on exams won preference points. The preference points given were exact. A veteran was given five additional points to his/her passing score--which had to be at least 70 on a 100 point basis. Disabled veterans (also their spouses, as well as war widows under some conditions) were given ten points, and placed into a separate group from which hires had to be made as long as persons were in the group. Under pressure from women's groups, the program was restricted to persons of major rank or less, and limited in use for promotions, and also limited for a number of years after the veteran left the service.

The program worked and works today because only qualified people are hired under its rules, and more importantly, because its rules are open, known by all, and applied in an exact manner without ambiguity. It is also tied to a policy of helping deserving persons.

Thomas Jefferson enunciated the concept that the bureaucracy--government job holders--should"represent" the public they served. His thoughts were that if the society at large was 50% Democrat and 50% Republican, the parties should have the same 50-50 representation among job holders. When Coleman Young became mayor of Detroit, he enunciated exactly the same policy for city employees--except his focus of representation was on the racial composition of the population.

In contrast to veterans preference programs, Affirmative Action--while helping the masses by requiring open advertising of all jobs--falls very short on honesty and openness, and on its simplicity and understandability for the general public. It uses quotas, but quotas are never used. It is overt discrimination, but it is called everything else. Veterans Preference is overt discrimination and it is not denied. The ambiguous inexact quality of Affirmative Action turns it into a meaningless exercise in bothersome paper work in some agencies, and a rigid abusive form of bigotry in the hands of other agencies. Each agency seems to come up with its own approach. At our university the vice president can make"opportunity hires" from selected groups whenever he wishes without any strict guidelines. For regular hires, all departments go through the paperwork nightmare of counting just how many of what group applied for each job. The"group" membership is defined by the job applicant--no D.N.A. testing. A white spouse with an Hispanic name qualifies sometimes, doesn't some other times. One judge orders that an agency must hire one African American for each white person hired in some endless future; another judge mandates targets. No exact rules. No certain policy. This invites cynicism, this hinders policy acceptance. Moreover, there is no enunciation of a public policy goal in the programs.

To make Affirmative Action acceptable exact rules for its operations should be put into place. We should recognize that there is a realistic merit in the concepts advanced by Thomas Jefferson and Coleman Young--bureaucrats do represent those they serve. There is a validity in the notion that the type of service given and received from many bureaucrats can be affected by personal attributes of the civil servant. Discrimination is rampant in many ways in government service, a limited controlled policy that involves some new discrimination for specific policy goals should not be difficult to accept. All Affirmative Action programs should utilize the ideas of George Washington and the 1944 Veterans Preference Act as revised. Only qualified should be hired.

How many preference points? Five for agencies where the group in question had less than half the representation that they had in the population represented by the agency. If the group was not represented at all, or critically under represented, qualified applicants could receive ten points. As soon as the agency achieved a condition of representativeness, the points would no longer be used in hiring.

Top preference should be given to ALL basic racial ethnic groups (African American, White, Asian American, Native American) as well as males and females, and the handicapped. There would be devils in the details, of course, but vague ambiguous conditions that exist today might be lessened to such a degree that Affirmative Action could become a widely accepted and non-contentious policy of governments.

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solutrian - 9/4/2001

Mr. Williams is talking about two different things, probally to confuse the issue and its readers. Veterans preference is open to all who are veterans, male, female, black, white or whatever. In addition, one must have done something to obtain such preference: serve in the military. Affirmative Action is open to those of only preferred racial stock under governmental decree. Nothing need have been done except serve up the acceptable genotype.
Mr. Williams, I hope, would agree that all forms of preference are to be decried and eliminated.