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John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

From Subject
"Alison M. Navarrete"
REVIEW:, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Navarrete)
ryan snyder Review: THE IRONIES OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION (Snyder)
Tony Lenn Heiserman <tlheise@ilstu.edu> Review; The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Heiserman)
"Eric T. Knepper" <eknepp@ilstu.edu> Re: Review; The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Heiserman)

Date: Wed, 4 Mar 1998 00:34:52 +0000 
From: "Alison M. Navarrete" <amnavar@ILSTU.EDU> 
Subject: REVIEW:, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Navarrete) 

John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (The University of Chicago Press, 1996) Reviewed by: Alison M. Navarrete  

What is actually considered a crime now? Is it a crime to hire one person over another? Is it acceptable to give privileges to one type of person over the next? Do we really punish people for discrimination in the workplace or getting accepted to a university? Skretny gives the reader a historical recount of the birth of this proposition. Skretny gives a step-by-step process of why the affirmative action model came about. According to Skretny, it was not a new route to take by companies. Was it a mandatory option given to companies in order to balance out the numbers?

First Skretny defines this term. Affirmative action is often coined as a political term. It is best not to identify this term without tying it to the Civil Rights; it is only best not to identify this term with any event or law. In this tense, Skretny defines affirmative action as a model or 'a way of seeing an constructing the world that specifies what is real and important, and which tools are best for achieving goals.' In the historical sense the term took on a different meaning. What proceeded the civil rights movement was the color blind opportunity model. Though this is very similar to the usual debates, it had a purpose that was intended to view job applicants and candidates for promotion as abstract individuals, differing only in merit or qualification for the job or promotion. This would lead to one Skrentny's ironies that he mentions in the book.

To give a brief run down to the life of the term affirmative action as it was intended to be used and who created it, I will start out by what Skretny builds up in the majority of his book - a historical recount. The idea was actually introduced with Roosevelt. Not directly, but it certainly could have been inserted when President Roosevelt said, "The members of the armed forces have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and they are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems." He directed his Executive Order 8802 that stated that there should not be 'discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.' Everyone knew that Black Americans were the intention of this. The actual term first appeared in Kennedy's Executive Order 10925. Thinking that affirmative action would put blind folds on people and help everyone in the long run, that responsibility went over to Johnson. This would be called Executive Order 11246, which contracted with the federal government to not discriminate, and were also 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." This led to Title VII that said that all practices and plans that create a barrier towards any group for advancement should be vanished. This all continued with Nixon, but the important legislation could not be left out.

In cases such as Griggs v. Duke Power, the court ruled that in fact Title VII did make illegal those acts which may have been instituted for reasons irrelevant to race, but which had the result of harming protected classes. Legislation was made around antinepotism and veteran preferences. According to a union, it had violated Title VII by a nepotistic work-referral practice, explaining, "Since the relatives being preferred were disproportionately white, the nepotism discriminated against backs whether or not appellees (the union) acted with a discriminatory purpose." In other cases such as Mitchell v. Cohen, the veteran application to Title VII was curved around the idea and gave way to those who did deserve preferential treatment.

Groups and black leaders were one of the main focuses in the development of the colorblind opportunity, but were not the first preference that many agreed with. Blacks did not create affirmative action as Skretny describes as an irony of the plan later in his book. King and other groups such as: SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council), the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement for Colored People) were all groups that did not advocate this plan as their top priority but surely it was passed by the majority.

This is not just another book about affirmative action. It did not lay out the author's opinion and expect the reader to approve. This was an informative piece of work to let people know the truth without putting his two cents in. It has been the same arguments over again: the right has said that affirmative action is unmeritocratic, leads to reverse discrimination, and is an un-American guarantee of equal results instead of equal opportunity; the left says that this should be supported in order to make up for the past injustices that is guaranteed by the Constitution and refined by later statutes. So why do we need another book to reiterate those points? We do not. Skretny wrote this book to point out The Ironies of Affirmative Action. It was written in order to give us only the history of affirmative action such as where it came from and who created it.

Along with this model that employment was supposed to live by, ironies appeared in a lot of ways. This model would not be complete unless the negatives or puzzling questions were not included also.

The first irony that Skretny addresses is that one of the principles that affirmative action was supposed to be based on is the idea of meritocracy. Meritocracy is based on the abilities of one and with that, they can obtain jobs with more responsibility and a higher wage. It was a merit system that put those skilled to the job better up at the top. Affirmative action turned into something that gave blacks a better bid to get a job. The glasses came off and targeted blacks to get the jobs over any other skilled employee.

A second irony that was mentioned was if the model was really helping out those who it was intended for. It was intended for the black minority. It was supposed to help them get their foot in the door, but it actually has helped other minorities such as women get those top jobs.

A third irony of affirmative action was what the actual intentions of it were for. Some thought that this was created to hush the rioters during the Civil Riots Movement of 1964. This was a time of dissolution and crowds were filled with frustration and anger. Affirmative action came at a time that blacks wanted to change the way things were going for their advancement. It was not that blacks even wanted this, but they did want some kind of resolution to help the blacks into the system. As Skretny wrote about the matter that black leaders nor black groups did not advocate affirmative action as their number one solution.

This would lead me to the next irony mentioned by Skretny. The fourth irony was that the Republican Party created it. For conservative sides take the side of a liberal decision, is ironic in itself. Republicans were taking the right side of the issue and pushing to follow the Constitution and its intents. Affirmative Action was not intent and this plan was not meritocratic. This went against all lines for meritocracy and put blacks at advancement - created by republicans themselves. One president was well known for his strong support in this action. His name would be Nixon. As strong as he was pushing for affirmative action, there has been proof that he spoke with a racist tone about blacks.

The fifth irony of this plan was that a neutral party created it. Actually white males created affirmative action. How could the one dominant group in our nation create a program? This led many to think that this was created and intended for continuing dominance of the white male. White males monopolized the situation and created a plan by their rulings and sketches that would supposedly help out the minority, which was the black male.

The sixth irony mentioned by Skretny are how easy candidates and presidents use the term affirmative action so easily. During campaigns, it is often seen that candidates use the term very liberally and once they take office, a conservative side is taken. It is used as a tool to draw voters closer and once they are convinced that something might be done the person in position sits back and may not even mention the term. One example of this is with the former president Reagan. He promised to "get the government of the backs of the American people," and in civil right he gave support to the color-blind model. But once he was in office, there were no anti-affirmative plans. Though he did appoint supporters to positions, he did very little to eliminate it.

I thought this book was very hard to follow. As much as Skretny used his numerous sources, he did not make the reading any easier. In fact, he found any source that could be used and created another textbook. He wanted people to know what the issues were, but just kept dragging on points that I thought could have been summed up in half the pages that he wasted. This should have been titled Another Textbook on Affirmative Action.

Skretny did not give any insight to the major issues. He drew a timeline and did not give me a feeling of what side he took. He never provided any solutions nor did give his stand on it. Therefore, I found it hard to understand what his main point to this book was.

I would recommend this book to a person that is ready to sleep on through the first 220 pages. Maybe then the reader can finds some point to this book.

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Date: Fri, 6 Mar 1998 08:40:18 -0600 
From: ryan snider 

re-posted for rs:

John David Skrentny The Ironies of Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press, 1996) Review by: Ryan Snyder E-Mail: rwsnyde@odin.cmp.ilstu.edu  

Another book on Affirmative Action? Yes, John David Skrentny provides the readers with another book that deals with the controversial subject of Affirmative Action. The justification of writing another book on Affirmative Action, according to Skrentny,was to find out how this controversial issue ever emerged The basic arguments of Affirmative Action are familiar, the Right resists Affirmative Action because it isunmeritocratic, leads to reverse discrimination, and is an un-American guarantee of equal results instead of equal opportunity. The Left supports Affirmative Action because it provides a compensation for past injustices, a guarantee of a fair share of the economic pie, and Affirmative Action is a civil right that is guaranteed by the Constitution. Dozens of books have dealt with these familiar arguments but there hasn't a book that has dealt with the question of where Affirmative Action emerged.In THE IRONIES OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, Skrenty attempts to answer this question.

Affirmative Action was legitimated very quickly, in a matter of a few years, in very turbulent time, and by a variety of people pursuing very different goals. The seeds of Affirmative Action were contained in the color-blind model. In 1941,President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted to stave off the international embarrassment of a threatened march on Washington, and signed Executive Order 8802, which protected against discrimination in defense industries and government. This order set up the Committee on Fair Employment Practice, designed to receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order. The order was novel in that it marked the first serious federal government involvement in equal employment opportunity regulation, but its color-blind, classically liberal approach was similar to other laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act, as well as discrimination laws at the state level. The end of World War II ended federal government involvement in protecting citizens from discrimination but in 1945 New York passed the Ivies-Quintile which set up a similar commission-based process in that state, this time regulating private hiring and promotions, and other states began to copy this model.By 1960, seventeen states had Fair Employment Practice Commissions (FEPCs) enforcing this color-blind model of justice, with jurisdiction over both public and private employment.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 which enforced non-discrimination by government contractors and in that same year, the Civil Rights Act was passed. Primary agencies that were created for civil rights enforcement was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), created to enforce Title VII (the employment section) of he Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC), created to enforce Executive Order 11246. The machinery of federal civil rights enforcement created in 1964, was safely designed to enforce equal employment opportunity law following the color-blind model. Group differences did not exist. Originally their task was to eliminate race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and national origin from the reality perceived by American employers. This color-blind model was seen as legitimate and in the interests of blacks because at this time it was unreflectively attached to a causal principle: it was believed to result in black equality. If discrimination produced unemployment of blacks, color-blindness then was understood as a model that would result in gains in employment, gains that could be measured easily with the same statistics. Colorblindness was supported in civil rights by so many because color blindness meansuniveralism and abstract individualism, and appears to be a simple extension of the primary institutions of modernity- a money economy, capitalism, and citizenship.Equality of results would naturally follow from equality of opportunity. The Color-Blind model was suppose to provide equality of opportunity.

During the enactment of civil rights programs and civil rights acts in the60's, there was no mention of the idea of Affirmative Action. The dominant view among both mainstream liberals and conservatives as Congress wrestled with the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the demand for adherence to a color-blind, abstract individual model, with merit as the basis of moral desert. Mainstream civil rights groups, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Roy Wilkins's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, supported color blindness. The interests of the mainstream civil rights groups and liberals were peculiarly limited. It can be assumed that racial preference was in their interests then as it is now so why didn't they demand it in 1964? The problem was that anything beyond color blindness had a strange, taboo like quality. Advocacy of racial preference was one of those third rails of American politics. In other words,advocate racial preference and lose your legitimacy as a serious player in American politics. As a result, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was color-blind. The term affirmative action first appeared in President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 and repeated in President Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order11246. Firms under contract with the federal government were to not discriminate, and were also 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." Affirmative action came to mean something quite different from the color-blind approach. It came to mean race-conscious rather than color-blind.Affirmative action idea began to emerge during the race riots and the idea of black power. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not that effective and couldn't control the outrage of blacks in American society.Affirmative action was evolving, the taboo like quality was disappearing and politicians took notice of this idea. The problems facing African-Americans in the1960's were surfacing and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not effectively solving them. A new plan or strategy was needed to combat these problems and affirmative action was legitimated. Affirmative action was legitimated with a discourse that justified advocacy with the belief or promise that the policy would bring about control or order in a climate short on both.

There is also another story which shows the rise of affirmative action following a very different logic and carried by a very different discourse. The government administrators who were to enforce the color-blind law were also led to affirmative action. They were guided by the logic of what Skrentny called administrative pragmatism. Following this logic, affirmative action was justified.Affirmative action was effective because it was technically necessary and it worked.The behavior of government agencies that were created to enforce both Title VII and the Lyndon Johnson executive order that was directed at preventing discriminatory practices among government contractors tends to follow the logic of administrative pragmatism. In other words, the behavior of these agencies was the pursuit of cost-effective ways to achieve the agency's goal or purpose. In order for the agency's purpose or goal to be accomplished, the concept of affirmative action was used.Affirmative action gave the agencies the results they wanted.

The focus of this book had no political agenda, instead the focus was on using sociological and historical tools to show why conservatives resist affirmative action and liberals support it. The major question addressed by Skrentny was how affirmative action emerged and not in judging the arguments of affirmative action. The author uses numerous citations and examples to illustrate the history of affirmative action which is important to understand. However, to be brutally honest, I had extreme difficulty in reading this book. Skrentny did not excite me nor did he keep me interested. I would suggest to the author to not use as many citations and to add passion to his book. True, people need to understand the history of affirmative action and how it emerged but in order for the reader to understand they must be awake. Back to top...

Date: Fri, 06 Mar 1998 16:00:43 -0600 
From: Tony Lenn Heiserman <tlheise@ilstu.edu>
Subject: Review; The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Heiserman) 

Skrentny, John David. THE IRONIES OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: POLITICS, CULTURE, AND JUSTICE IN AMERICA. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1996. By Tony Heiserman

One of the greatest controversies to face the United States in the
last half of the century has been affirmative action. As with every controversy, there are two sides to this debate. "The basic arguments are familiar. The Right has told us to resist affirmative action because it is unmeritocratic, leads to reverse discrimination, and is an un-American guarantee of equal results instead of equal opportunity. The left has told us to support it as compensation for past injustices, a guarantee of a fair share of the economic pie, and because it is a civil right, guaranteed by the Constitution and refined by later statutes." (Skrentny 1) This book by Skrentny is an attempt to cover the history of affirmative action, the transformation of politics caused by affirmative action, and as the title says, the ironies of affirmative action.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 set the stage for what would be the standard in keeping discrimination out of the workplace. This law made the hiring process a color-blind model because it was now against the law to practice discrimination because of the color of one’s skin. The color-blind model’s logic came from a very unlikely source: _The Communist Manifesto_ by Karl Marx. Only instead of arguing for opportunity for everyone by economic standards, here the opportunity needed to be addressed for societal standards. The logic is not simply a Marxist idea, though, one can trace back these ideas to the teachings of Christianity and the Stoics. But both serve the same message, equality of everyone. One of the most influential men of this century, and of our recorded history for that matter, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pushed for this color-blind model. But soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was put in place, many groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Urban League saw the color-blind model as too utopian in this society and thought that it would not work.

Along with the color-blind model and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came considerable legislation and court cases that were designed to help the case for affirmative action. But this was not the first piece of legislation designed for this cause, there had been many attempts before. President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed the first antidiscrimination measure in his Executive Order 8802. It basically condemned the policy of discriminating by race, creed, color, or national origin in the employment of workers. And almost every President, from Truman and Eisenhower to Kennedy and Nixon, has enacted an order of antidiscrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was conceived to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII essentially says that employers cannot discriminate because of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. After all this dispute legislatively, there was an abundance of debate judiciously. Court cases like Quarles v. Philip Morris Inc. (a move away from discriminatory intent), Weiner v. Cuyahoga Community College (defended Quarles and Executive Order 11246), and U.S. v. Local 73, United Association of Plumbing and Pipefitting (corporate nepotism was condemned), all fought to achieve an antidiscrimination stance. But perhaps the most important legitimation of affirmative action was with the case, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. "The decision supplied a theoretical basis for preferential treatment as well as a practical incentive for extending race-conscious discrimination: employer’s desire to avoid charges, based on racial imbalance, of discrimination. (Skrentny 166) These cases would serve as transforming racial politics for years to come concerning affirmative action.

Because Skrentny’s title is _The Ironies of Affirmative Action_, he decided to include a few ironies that plague this significant debate. There are a several crucial ironies surrounding affirmative action such as: the color-blind model is unmeritocratic, affirmative action was created to stop the rioting not create equality, affirmative action helps the people it does not need to help, republicans (who are seen as conservative) are the ones who created this liberal policy, the creators of affirmative action were supposed to be a neutral party, not white males (who are not a minority), and finally, candidates for office generally take a liberal stance in support of affirmative action to get elected and then when they are in they take a more conservative stance. Each of these ironies are very significant in the affirmative action debate.

The first irony is that the color-blind model is unmeritocratic. This basically means that with all of the discussion over earning merit to get positions in the workplace, affirmative action is not based on worth. Skrentny discusses the huge controversy that involves meritocratic means with American veterans and the use of nepotism (hiring based on giving the job to family relation). In the hiring process of government selection, if one is an American veteran, they are allowed certain bonuses to help them get a job in return for their services for their country. In the corporate field and educational field, the use of nepotism is widespread and accepted. Skrentny argues that this is unconstitutional when comparing it to affirmative action. Why should in one case, veterans and nepotism, the government accept no meritocratic means of selection, but in the use of affirmative action there is so much debate over minorities unjustly getting compensation? This is obviously an excellent point by Skrentny. The second irony is that affirmative action was created to constitute equality. This is not the case because it was in part enacted to stop the rioting of minorities in the 1960’s. The US government thought that by passing legislation to accept affirmative action, this might influence or even stop the rioting that was destroying the nation and that some thought could cause another civil war. This did not create equality but it was an attempt at reimbursing some for past discrimination and hurting those that discriminated or were a part of that racial class.

The third irony is that affirmative action will help those people who were unjustly discriminated against get a "foot in the door" in the hiring process. This is definitely wrong because, though the policy was designed to specifically help African-Americans, it has helped other minorities and women more. The benefits of affirmative action should assist those discriminated against for the last few hundred years, granted other racial minorities and gender minorities have been discriminated against, and that is the people of African-American lineage.

The fourth irony is that Republicans were the ones who started the policy of affirmative action when they are known for their conservative stance. The policy of affirmative action is seen as a very liberal standpoint so it seems very paradoxical that conservatives would start liberal procedures. The fifth irony is that the policy of affirmative action would seem to have been created by a neutral party but in reality it was created by white males, which incidentally are not a part of a minority. The political satire of this country is great but this seems to be very strange for stereotypical conservative white non-minority males to originate such a progressive policy that is affirmative action.

The sixth and final irony addressed in _The Ironies of Affirmative Action_ is that when it comes to running for a political office, most candidates will take a liberal position on affirmative action but when they get in office their stand changes to a more conservative approach. This is a great tragedy to the voters of this great nation because when the candidate says that he/she will defend your beliefs in office and then betrays that trust, it creates a serious skepticism of our government. The government of the United States does not have the best reputation for honesty and integrity (see also Watergate and Interngate-my name for the Monica Lewinsky scandal with President Clinton). There needs to be more integrity in our public offices.

So in conclusion, and in a very critical analysis, Skrentny accomplished his job of writing a dissertation on the ironies of affirmative action in politics, culture, and justice in America. This is not a positive review. Skrentny focused so much on relaying everyone else’s thoughts and ideas that he never came up with enough ideas of his own. For example, there is fifty pages of notes that he used in this paper and I believe every book that has ever been written concerning anything remotely associated with affirmative action was used within those notes. This was one of the most difficult, tedious, and asinine books I have ever read. In approaching this book, it sounded as if it would cover some deserving issues of the ironies of affirmative action. That is unjustified. The book covered a basic history of affirmative action and court cases involved but never an in depth perception of what John David Skrentny really felt about writing it. There was no feeling of compassion in those 242 pages. It was a worthwhile effort by Skrentny to write a book on ironies but the real irony is that his monotonous insistence on fact and other’s opinions gave way to no conviction of his own.   Back to top...

Date: Fri, 06 Mar 1998 16:01:39 -0600 
From: "Eric T. Knepper" <eknepp@ilstu.edu>
Subject: Re: Review; The Ironies of Affirmative Action (Heiserman) 

Your criticisms of Mr. Skrentny's book are completely unjustified. Mr. Skrentny does not show any compassion because he does not want to. Had you read the first paragraph of the book you would have realized his position: (see the PREFACE, page ix)

"Readers may justifiably expect this book to have a political agenda, either for or against affirmative action, since almost everything written about that controversial policy has such an agenda. This book, however, has no political agenda, unless one considers the desire to question fundamental assumptions on both sides and move tired debates forward to be a political agenda. The goal of this book is to use sociological and historical tools to show why conservatives resist affirmative action and liberals support it. If social scientists can find ideas that will help them better understand or rethink their study of American politics, policy, or law, and if interested individuals on both sides of the issue can find ideas that will help them better understand or rethink their positions on affirmative action, the book will have succeeded."

If you want someone's opinions, look elsewhere. However, as a reference of how the affirmative action policy began this book is a great success and worthy of reading despite being "one of the most difficult, tedious, and asinine books (Tony Heiserman) ever read."

Have a great day! Eric Knepper eknepp@ilstu.edu

PS: You also wrote: >For example, there is >fifty pages of notes that he used in this paper and I believe every book >that has ever been written concerning anything remotely associated with

>affirmative action was used within those notes.

Are you also criticizing Mr. Skrentny for thoroughly researching the topic and properly citing his sources?  

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