Op-ed column: Affirmative action has long way to go in hiring for city projects

Affirmative action, a phrase coined by President Kennedy, was given life as a policy by the passage

Affirmative action, a phrase coined by President Kennedy, was given life as a policy by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Johnson’s expressed intent concerning Executive Order 11246 was to eliminate discrimination in government employment, contracts and sub-contracts on the basis of sex or race.

No instant cure

But government did not prohibit discrimination one day and see it end the next. Whites, including those in charge of government agencies, resisted. Consequently, agencies were ordered to show that they were making progress in the attainment of affirmative action goals. In some cases they were directed to establish minority hiring levels proportionate to the group’s percentage in the surrounding community. This led to what some said was a quota system and “reverse discrimination.”

What those who make these assertions fail to acknowledge is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246 in themselves were race-neutral and prohibited every form of discrimination. It was white resistance to giving up bad behaviors without prodding that was the impetus to the more aggressive implementation of affirmative action that they now decried as “reverse discrimination.” In other words, the privileged were unwilling to give up their privileged treatment without additional governmental intervention.

If white resistance to fairness and change in the work market were a thing of the past, the need for affirmative action would be lessened, and I would probably not be writing this. However, this resistance is as evident today as it was 44 years ago.

Glaring example

In no place is it more evident than in the construction industry and projects in the city and county of Schenectady. One needs only to travel around Schenectady and visit the various construction projects under way. The common feature at most of them is the absence of minorities even in the position of laborers.

The city of Schenectady itself received HUD money for a lead-based paint removal program. In its application, the city committed itself to working with the Minority Contractors Technical Assistance Program (MCTAP) in implementing the program. In actuality, solicitation of minority participation at any level of the program has been kept at a minimum or is nonexistent. Area contractors aren’t likely to take the city seriously concerning affirmative action if the city isn’t serious in its own activities.

As President Johnson said, poignantly, “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 justly believe that you have been completely fair.

“Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

“This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Clear message

President Johnson’s message here recognizes that for many years during and after slavery, equals were treated as unequals. As a result, man-made inequalities were created between the races. To attempt to rectify the resulting condition today by treating these unequals as equals in all situations is neither fair nor effective.

Larry Bratton lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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