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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Impacts of Affirmative Action: Policies and Consequences in California
Paul Ong (ed.)

Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press
224pp. Index. Hb.: 31.00 ISBN 0-7619-9055-0. Pb.: 14.99 ISBN 0-7619-9056-9.



In 1996, California was at the center of a heavily politicized national debate over affirmative action when it became the first U.S. state to pass an initiative (Proposition 209, the "California Civil Rights Initiative") banning "preferential treatment" of individuals based on race and gender in government programs. Adding to the expanding literature on affirmative action, this important new contribution provides a fascinating analysis of the backdrop to Proposition 209 by exploring the effects, impacts, and outcomes of California's affirmative action programs over the last half century. The writers of this edited volume also attempt to answer the difficult question of what will be the impact of ending affirmative action in California, a state representing one-third of the total foreign-born population in the U.S., and the eighth largest economy in the world. To date, there have been no comprehensive evaluations of affirmative action policies at the national or California state level due to the complexity of issues involved in trying to measure the impact of these policies. Given both the dearth of research in the field and the emotionally-charged nature of the issue, the book's writers choose to employ a targeted approach in the development of a framework by which to understand the impact of affirmative action. The authors use California-specific data to limit their analysis to public-sector practices, which include government employment and business opportunities, as well as admission to colleges and universities in the state. The result is a well-researched, fair analysis of the current debate, which effectively moves the highly polemical rhetoric surrounding the issue to a substantive discussion of some of the strategies available to address discrimination-based inequality. One of the most interesting features of the book is its treatment of the question, "Why California?". According to the authors, there are many factors which contribute to the fact that California is the first U.S. state to pass such an initiative. By the mid-1990's, California was in the midst of a prolonged economic recession. The authors contend that California was "fertile ground" for such an initiative since it was undergoing an "immigration-driven demographic re-composition that created a backlash from an increasing number of whites who felt uneasy and displaced by the cultural changes"(p.21). Apart from the economic and nativist reasons, the authors also pose a more provocative explanation as to why Proposition 209 represented the first of many recent state initiatives to scale back affirmative action programs across the country. They rightly point out that affirmative action policies are not typically the product of a public plebiscite or broad public opinion, but rather of Presidential or executive action. The authors argue that historically, civil rights and affirmative action policies were "often moderated by other concerns and priorities, and conceded as a compromise to maintain social order." (p. 10). Given this historical legacy, it should be no surprise that while the majority of Californians, and Americans believe that minority groups and women face discrimination, there is great controversy over the government's role in addressing that discrimination --especially during times of economic recession. This book serves as an excellent primer for understanding the essential issues involved in the debate of whether to end affirmative action programs, and should be a point of departure for further scholarly research in the field.


Heather McPhail, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC



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