Affirmative Action Policy, Diversity Practices:  Can The Two Work Together?



            There has been a growing debate about affirmative action policies and diversity practices and whether the two benefit each other or stand in direct competition. 

The basis of the discussion is focused on whether the highly touted diversity programs and practices that are headlined in annual reports, campaign slogans and college recruitment documents to signify that the presenting company, candidate or college is operating in a manner that is inclusive have become more of the norm than the hard fought and specifically designed affirmative action policy designed to correct historically discriminatory practices, particularly on college campuses and in government contracting.   

Each affirmative action policy was initially derived due to the racially motivated discriminations directed at African Americans; however, these same mandates have been expanded to include others who have been similarly discriminated against.

Some argue that diversity, which is more of a politically correct model versus a legally binding initiative, has taken away much of the steam that drove affirmative action policies that helped to level uneven playing fields. 

Others feel that the objectives within the diversity arena have been helpful towards achieving goals for those advocates who have been trying to follow through on the inclusion message outlined by President John F. Kennedy when he issued Executive Order 10925 that directed all government agencies in their contracting outreach to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” 

The affirmative action policy was put in place due to the long standing patterns of discrimination that impacted African Americans in the United States from the birth of the nation.  The purpose of the policy was to remove the vestiges of the slave mentality and the systemic exclusion of African Americans.

Legal decisions and laws that served as the foundation for this order date back even further to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose Executive Order 8802 in 1941 led to the Fair Employment Act that  outlawed discriminatory (then described as segregationist) hiring practices in defense related industries. 

Because many of these same practices were still in place, President Harry S. Truman provided strong language in the findings from his Committee on Government Contracts in 1953 when he urged the Bureau of Employment Security “to act positively and affirmatively to implement the policy of non-discrimination….”    

The primary objective behind an effective affirmative action policy was to break the historic, discriminatory practices that excluded African Americans from seeking their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of a job, government contract or an education wherever they wanted. 

On the other hand, diversity programs are a lot younger and are geared towards the inclusion of a wider ranged of people that goes beyond racial classifications to include: gender, sexual orientation, geography, religious belief, physical challenge, educational background, age, cultural influence et al.  

There are no legal mandates, as in the case of an affirmative action policy, for diversity programs. Diversity programs consist of activities that foster inclusion and seek input from diverse constituencies within the organization.

Due to the changing cultural environment and the emerging consumer base, it became a business imperative to incorporate diversity practices into the mix. Thus, diversity programs received their biggest boost through the private sector which has established a number of organizations and models to self-regulate the inclusion process and to reward the individuals and organizations that “lead by example”  to level the business arena.  

Companies with successful diversity programs have a broader understanding of the consumer base because they have internal representation that mirror and can speak to the multifaceted market place.  Those companies that have not diversified their employee and supplier bases often lag behind due to a disconnect with the global market and its varied, societal representations.  

Supplier diversity is the program geared towards increasing the number of diverse business owners in contracts with public and private sector organizations and workforce diversity is the component that addresses employee outreach and making all employees feel like they matter and are represented internally with opportunities to showcase their backgrounds.

While the debate will continue on, it is clear that an affirmative action policy and diversity programs are different and potentially competing forces.

However, diversity programs were derived as a direct result of each affirmative action policy and represent an extension of – and not a replacement for – this vital and necessary legal mandate whose history reflects a long fought battle for acceptance and inclusion. 

Without the guidelines implemented by government leaders over the years identifying the importance of “affirming action” to address discrimination, the diversity programs model would be a mere shell game. 

There is still much to be done on both fronts with these two crucial formats, they should and can work together with the right oversight to continue the inclusion they were both designed to achieve.

Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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