The double-edged sword of affirmative action

August 09, 1994|By Linda Seebach

Los Angeles -- LIVE BY the quota, die by the quota.

The U.S. Postal Service, the nation's largest civilian employer, has recently come under attack because the racial composition of its work force doesn't match that of the nation as a whole. The mismatch is particularly bad in some of the largest cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Accusers are demanding that the Postal Service do more to "open the doors of opportunity to everyone," and administrators in the system are responding that their hiring practices are based on merit, not race.

To anyone who has followed the evolving debate over what's usually called "affirmative action," those arguments are predictable and familiar. But in this case the chief accuser is a Latino, Tirso del Junco of Los Angeles, who is the vice chairman of the board of governors of the Postal Service, and his complaint is that the Postal Service has too many African-Americans.

"The black leadership in the major cities who are driving the system must accept responsibility for bringing equality into the system," Mr. del Junco said last week.

Mr. del Junco has been on the nine-member board of governors for six years, but he said it had paid no attention to his previous complaints about underrepresentation.

"Not many board members are familiar with it -- I am because I am Hispanic and I live in California," he said. Mr. del Junco, the chairman of the California Republican Party, was born in Cuba.

Now he has figures from the General Accounting Office to get his colleagues' attention.

In the Los Angeles district, the GAO reported that:

African-American men are 29.4 percent of the postal work force, 4.7 percent of the total;

African-American women, 32.6 percent postal, 4.9 percent total;

Latino men are 10.7 percent postal, 21.1 percent total;

Latino women, 4.3 percent postal, 13.6 percent total;

Asian-American men are 10.5 percent postal, 5.6 percent of the total;

L Asian-American women, 4.9 percent postal, 4.8 percent total.

White men are 5.6 percent postal, 24.9 percent of the total;

White women, 1.7 percent postal, 19.8 percent total.

Those figures are pretty startling at first glance, and Postmaster General Marvin Runyon seems to accept Mr. del Junco's argument, agreeing that his agency needs to bring "Hispanics to parity with the civilian work force."

How to do that without provoking a riot of lawsuits is the question.

The usual remedy, when it's white males who are "overrepresented" in some sector of society and women or minorities who are claiming they have a right to some proportional share of the benefits, is to set up overtly discriminatory hiring practices in favor of the supposed victims.

It seems pretty clear that no such policies would be morally or constitutionally acceptable if exercised to favor one minority group at the expense of another. But if the assumptions and arguments that were used to justify using them to discriminate against men or white people were valid, they would be equally valid when applied to different groups. That's the definition of a valid argument in logic: It's one that always produces a true conclusion from true premises.

If you don't like the conclusion -- that the post office should stop hiring African-Americans until it has the "right" number of whites and Latinos -- you must question either the premise that every large employer's work force will match the color of its surroundings or the argument that statistical disparities prove discrimination.

Hiring in the Postal Service is colorblind, agency officials said. It's based strictly on the results of a test that is open to anyone and that is used to set up a register of people qualified for employment.

But that defense hasn't helped other employers facing lawsuits from disappointed applicants or enforcement complaints from federal and state civil-rights officials. They have been forced to abandon hiring standards that produced statistical imbalances, even though the standards were on their face neutral with regard to race or gender.

In other words, there may be a conflict between fair practices and demographic balance, between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. There are plausible reasons for choosing either, although for me the weight of American constitutional principles and moral justice are overwhelmingly on the side of equal opportunity. The point I would like you to consider, however, is that how you decide between equality of opportunity and equality of results should not depend on who benefits, and even more particularly, how you yourself benefit.

The postal service situation illustrates many of the factors that influence racial balance in employment. The demographics of Los Angeles have changed rapidly in recent years, with the African-American population declining as a share of the whole because Latinos have been increasing much more rapidly. (So have Asians, but from a smaller base.)

The current make-up of the postal work force reflects hiring decisions made over the past 30 or 40 years.

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