Why is Equal Opportunity Important?

August 20, 2008

President Lyndon Johnson explained the rationale behind the contemporary use of affirmative action to achieve equal opportunity in a 1965 speech: “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 believe that you have been completely fair.”

The debate over affirmative action carries enormous implications for the lives of women and people of color, since such programs have created opportunities too long denied them.

Critics of affirmative action sometimes disingenuously inject the issue of “quotas” into the public debate. Such divisive tactics have misled many to believe that affirmative action and “quotas” are the same thing – for example, that employers are required by law to hire fixed percentages of members of specific groups, regardless of their qualifications. Such claims are clearly erroneous: the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that quotas are illegal and that properly-designed affirmative action programs simply create opportunities for qualified women and people of color.

While these programs do not guarantee success, they do allow factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender to be among those considered in evaluating qualified candidates.

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