Since the 1960s, we have gradually come to embrace diversity. But there is a long road ahead.
President Lyndon B. Johnson analyzed the complexity and depth of implementing and managing affirmative action policy within a society unwilling to embrace change. In 1965 he said “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.” These powerful words embody diversity.
The dual celebrations of the observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 57th inauguration of President Barack Obama are poignant reminders that the United States has come a long way embracing diversity. The significance of America being represented by a minority leader celebrates our diverse ethnic and racial community that represents the nation’s population. Several Presidents promoted diversity agenda by issuing various executive orders and taking legal actions. These have been important in giving impetus to eliminating discriminatory practices. However, there is much work remaining to achieve equality in its purest form.
The affirmative action movement historically evolved, removing barriers to equal opportunity in Federal government workforce. Several policy orders issued by our Presidents took this movement beyond race, religion and gender.
The movement for ‘affirmative action’ emerged within the backdrop of the civil rights movement in early 1960s as a response to ending racial segregation in national public schools. Legally, the notion of affirmative action expands on the 1868 ‘Equal Protection Clauses’ of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Fifth Amendment at the state level. However, the term affirmative action itself was used in 1961 when John F. Kennedy introduced a government policy for fair treatment of employees regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.
The affirmative action policy further expanded in 1967 to include the clause of sexual discrimination. In 1969, President Nixon introduced the quota system. This order put numerical goals to ensure that the government agencies and contractors met certain targets in hiring discriminated groups of people and minority businesses. Henceforth, several efforts by various Presidents attempted to mainstream the idea of affirmative action further.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order and introduced a government policy to create “National Women’s Business Enterprises” by mandating government agencies to include women owned business enterprises. The Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced in 1990 to end discriminatory practices against citizens with disabilities. In 2000, President Bill Clinton recommended additional policies to eliminate the under representation of Hispanics in the Federal and civilian workforce. In 2009, President Obama reestablished the initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islander community promoting their participation in Federal programs. Building on the past Presidential initiatives, in 2011, President Barack Obama introduced diversity and inclusion initiative which calls for specific plans and strategies to remove barriers to equal opportunity in Federal workforce.
These policies issued by several Presidents have been instrumental in mainstreaming historically marginalized groups. However, several stones have been unturned during the past few years. The Violence Against Women Act requires reinstatement. Women’s legislative rights are put at jeopardy. Reproductive rights have been placed in the hands of legislators. Inclusion and diversity in immigration laws are unfulfilled. Safeguards and safety nets to support our seniors, disabled, veterans, the poor and uninsured remain weak. Equal pay for equal work has remained a political slogan.
As President Obama officially begins his second term at the White House, will he work towards safeguarding the rights of minorities and in advancing diversity and inclusion agenda for under-represented groups?