Affirmative action has been fiercely debated for more than a quarter of a century, producing much partisan literature, but little serious scholarship and almost nothing on its cultural and political origins. The Ironies of Affirmative Action is the first book-length, comprehensive, historical account of the development of affirmative action.
Analyzing both the resistance from the Right and the support from the Left, Skrentny brings to light the unique moral culture that has shaped the affirmative action debate, allowing for starkly different policies for different citizens. He also shows, through an analysis of historical documents and court rulings, the complex and intriguing political circumstances which gave rise to these controversial policies.
By exploring the mystery of how it took less than five years for a color-blind policy to give way to one that explicitly took race into account, Skrentny uncovers and explains surprising ironies: that affirmative action was largely created by white males and initially championed during the Nixon administration; that many civil rights leaders at first avoided advocacy of racial preferences; and that though originally a political taboo, almost no one resisted affirmative action.
With its focus on the historical and cultural context of policy elites, The Ironies of Affirmative Action challenges dominant views of policymaking and politics.
Most of those who debate affirmative action, notes University of Pennsylvania sociologist Skrentny, don't examine how the issue emerged. Thus, his textured, lucid explication of a complex controversy is a vital contribution to American political discourse. The Right proclaims color blindness; however, its members condone other preferential policies, such as those for veterans. The Left, which once also embraced color blindness, never lobbied for affirmative action; instead, it was the work of white male government and business elites. Skrentny describes how the color-blind model, at least until the early '60s, was thought to lead to black equality. But meritocratic procedures don't always work Thus in response to urban riots, black nationalism and Cold War pressures, affirmative action seemed a solution. Also, the author adds, the policy--which produced measurable hiring statistics--fit into the pragmatism of government agencies pressured by civil rights groups. Soon affirmative action became linked, in public discourse and court decisions, to older civil rights or equality traditions. The author offers no policy prescriptions; rather, he suggests that global changes--including the end of the Cold War and the rise of nationalism--have made arguing against affirmative action popular.