Holy ‘Affirmative Action’?

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering lately: How do lessons from faith traditions play out in secular society? What are the things we have done or can do to embody the best of what faith has to offer outside places of worship?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation,” which encourages all of us to think in a broad context when making important decisions, examining the history surrounding a decision and what affect it will have in the future. It’s similar to karma, and the multi-generational view of time presented in the Bible. This concept is written into the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, which states that leaders must weigh the seventh generation in “your efforts at law making, in all your official acts.”

Though no such mandate exists in the U.S. Constitution, I think many of our policymakers sense the wisdom of considering the long horizon when creating new laws and guidelines, particularly when it comes to decisions about the environment and overall health of the planet. While I find this encouraging, I believe our leaders should apply it to far more decisions, especially those that determine the quality of schools in our country. Doing so would be consistent with the teachings of every religion I journeyed through, and perhaps every faith on the planet.

The only other policy in the U.S. that I can think of with this kind of “seventh generation” outlook is “Affirmative Action,” which is the right for employers and universities to consider characteristics such as race and gender in their hiring and admissions to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups. So surprised was I in realizing how unique Affirmative Action is—it is rooted in taking accountability and making amends, which is unusual among American laws—that I felt compelled to learn how it came about.

It actually didn’t start with such lofty ambitions. It was a term coined from an executive order signed by President John Kennedy in 1961, which included a provision that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson added to this. He signed an executive order that required government employers to take “affirmative action” to “hire without regard to race, religion and national origin.” He used the word “hire” and included “religion.” “Gender” was added to the list of characteristics in 1967.

These were anti-discrimination measures but they weren’t sure-fire diversity increasers. Employers could justify homogenous workforces as long as they based their hiring choices on qualifications alone—and it’s been shown that people are generally more inclined to see applicants that look most like themselves as best suited for a job. (It’s also difficult to prove instances of discrimination because they are usually not overt).

It wasn’t until 1989 that Affirmative Action as we know it today became official. That year, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a special branch of the United Nations that was created in the 1960s and in which the U.S. is a member, ratified that affirmative action programs may be required of countries to rectify systematic discrimination. The decision stated that such programs “shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”

The implication here was that instead of trying stay “blind” to characteristics such as race or gender, hiring committees and other gatekeepers should pay special attention to them. This flipped previous notions of affirmative action on their head: exercise unequal rights but in favor of underrepresented groups. The goal—to increase diversity—was the same but the approach was more active.

Some employers and universities were already using this version of Affirmative Action before 1989. When I began college at University of California Berkeley in 1989, it was a well-known fact that students who came from disadvantaged groups received special consideration during the admittance process. The results of these practices created a beautiful sight to behold: a student body with ample representation by race, religion, gender—as well as a spectrum of physical “disabilities.” Years later, when I worked for the federal government, I was again in an environment that had benefited from Affirmative Action policies.

Opponents of Affirmative Action say it is “reverse racism” and therefore unconstitutional. The practice has been the target of many lawsuits, usually filed by white students denied admission to a university, and often backed by The Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit organization that provides legal defense for white people who feel discriminated against. Since the first of these cases—filed against the University of California system in 1978—the courts have maintained the right for state universities to design their own admission processes that take into account race as one factor to build racial diversity on campus. In 2003, the Supreme Court preserved this decision, but with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor saying she believed such policies would no longer be necessary in 25 years. This summer—about half way to that goal—the Supreme Court upheld the right for universities to use Affirmative Action, though it was a narrow 4-3 decision.

Walking on the Berkeley campus today is a different experience than when I was a student. The University of California stopped using Affirmative Action in 1996, not long after I graduated, opting instead to take into account other factors, such as income, to promote diversity. Unfortunately, this tactic has been accompanied by a dramatic decrease in racial diversity on campus. In 1997, the year it was enacted, admissions of Black, Latino, and Native American students plummeted by more than 50 percent. In 2012, 54 percent of California’s high school graduates were Black, Latino and Native American but they comprised just 16 percent of UC Berkeley’s freshmen class.

Affirmative Action is a complicated issue and it’s no wonder our society continues to grapple with it. Technically, it is unconstitutional; but when the constitution was crafted, slavery existed. Perhaps no modern policy gets closer to the philosophy of “seventh generation”—or better embodies a concept so fundamental to most religions. Yet, some individuals, who may have done nothing wrong personally, will feel unfairly treated because of Affirmative Action policies. That’s why the Native American saying goes “we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

Can you think of examples of things taking place in a secular setting that you think represent the essence of faith teachings?