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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Why You Should Care about Equal Opportunity

Equal opportunity means taking positive steps to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence, and to create new opportunities that were previously denied qualified minorities and women.

Impact

President Lyndon Johnson explained the rationale behind the contemporary use of equal opportunity programs to achieve equal opportunity in a 1965 speech: "You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still believe that you have been completely fair."

The debate over equal opportunity carries enormous implications for the lives of women and people of color, since such programs have created opportunities too long denied them.

Critics of equal opportunity programs sometimes disingenuously inject the issue of "quotas" into the public debate. Such divisive tactics have misled many to believe that equal opportunity and "quotas" are the same thing - for example, that employers are required by law to hire fixed percentages of members of specific groups, regardless of their qualifications. Such claims are clearly erroneous: the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that quotas are illegal and that properly-designed equal opportunity programs simply create opportunities for qualified women and people of color.

While these programs do not guarantee success, they do allow factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender to be among those considered in evaluating qualified candidates.

Background

For most of the nation's history, women and people of color faced insurmountable legal barriers depriving them the ability to compete for positions in colleges and workplaces or for government contracts. Even after these legal obstacles were removed in the 1960s, Congress has repeatedly recognized that women and people of color still encounter systematic illegal discrimination that deprives them an equal opportunity to secure success.

Equal opportunity programs in the employment context are designed to ensure a fair chance at job opportunities through:

  • Identifying and dismantling discriminatory barriers such as biased testing or recruitment and hiring practices
  • Conducting outreach to under-represented women and minorities by targeting colleges, ethnic media, or women and minority organizations
  • Instituting and reviewing mentoring and targeted training programs
  • Addressing hidden biases in recruitment, hiring, promotion and compensation practices, such as unnecessary job requirements
  • Setting flexible goals for managers and supervisors

Affirmative efforts to extend equal educational opportunities to qualified women and people of color have significantly increased the participation of underrepresented groups in the mainstream of our society -- to the benefit of our entire nation. Indeed, gains in the employment context have often been made possible by equal opportunity programs that have created educational opportunities for women and people of color in colleges, law schools, medical schools, and elsewhere.

In the 1978 Bakke decision, the Court ruled that diversity is a compelling state interest, so when these affirmative efforts extend equal educational opportunities to qualified women and people of color, increasing the participation of under-represented groups in mainstream society, the entire state's interests are served.

Opponents of the programs, however, argue that the playing field has been leveled, therefore rendering equal opportunity futile. But "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" (Washington Post, October 1998).

Similarly, federal economic development programs counter the effects of discrimination that have raised artificial barriers to the formation, development, and utilization of businesses owned by disadvantaged individuals, including women and people of color.

Each year, government entities purchase goods and services from private vendors. For most of the nation's history, women and people of color faced insurmountable legal barriers depriving them the ability to compete for these government contracts. Even after these legal obstacles were removed in the 1960's, Congress has repeatedly recognized that women and people of color still encounter systemic illegal discrimination that deprives them an equal opportunity to secure the federal government's procurement dollars.

To ensure that government contracting does not inadvertently continue this cycle of discrimination, Congress has created several equal opportunity programs that help such businesses mature by providing opportunities to compete for and secure federal contracts.

Congressional opponents of equal opportunity made several attempts to roll back such programs in the mid-1990s. As discussed below, every one of these attempts was defeated by broad, bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Following the 1994 congressional elections, equal opportunity emerged as one of a number of "hot-button" issues that threatened to divide the nation along racial, ethnic and gender lines; these efforts were further emboldened by the Court's 1995 Adarand decision. This contentious national debate brought the introduction of the so-called "Equal Opportunity Act of 1995" (later 1996), commonly referred to as the "Dole-Canady" bill because the chief sponsors of the legislation were then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R. Kan., and Rep. Charles Canady, R. Fla. The "Dole-Canady" legislation would have prohibited virtually all federal equal opportunity programs for women and people of color.

The bill was re-introduced in the 105th Congress as the misnamed "Civil Rights Act of 1997" by Representative Canady and Senator Mitch McConnell, R. Ky., (S. 950 and H.R. 1909). While this bill was favorably reported out of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution on July 9, 1997, the House Judiciary Committee killed the bill on November 6, 1997 by a 17-9 vote. Four Republicans joined 13 Democrats in supporting the motion and the bill was set aside. The legislation has not resurfaced since.

In March of 1998, Sen. McConnell again attacked equal opportunity, offering an amendment to the multi-billion dollar transportation bill commonly referred to as ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act) that would have effectively eliminated the Department of Transportation's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program (discussed above). By a 58-37 vote, a bipartisan majority overwhelmingly defeated this effort. Just a few weeks later, a similar amendment offered by Rep. Marge Roukema, R. N.J., was defeated in the House of Representatives by a bipartisan 225-194 margin.

Also in 1998, Rep. Frank Riggs, R. Calif., offered an amendment to the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill that sought to eliminate equal opportunity programs in higher education programs receiving federal funding. In an effort to make the bill more acceptable to his colleagues, Rep. Riggs excluded private colleges and universities from the scope of his amendment. A second modification specifically excluded tribally-run institutions -- colleges and universities on tribal reservations, or Indian lands -- even though most of them are public universities. The amendment was defeated by a 171-249 margin. Rep. Tom Campbell, R. Calif., also offered an anti-equal opportunity amendment to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, only to face defeat by a 189-227 margin.

Opponents of equal opportunity saw some success on the state level, as California enacted Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibits all equal opportunity programs in employment, education, and contracting. The state of Washington quickly followed suit and enacted a similar statewide ban. The effect of such efforts soon became clear, as the number of African Americans and Latinos admitted to California's top public universities quickly plummeted.

Anti-equal opportunity initiatives, however, met with failure in other jurisdictions, such as Houston and the state of Florida. In Houston, for example, voters soundly rejected a proposal to end the city's equal opportunity programs in employment and contracting.

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