With the passage of Proposition 209, California voters eliminated affirmative action as a tool to redress long-standing racial discrimination practices. By a nearly identical vote, residents in Houston decided to retain affirmative action.
Clearly there is a deep difference of opinion nationwide about whether or not affirmative action is still needed and/or if it has in any meaningful way been beneficial. What is most interesting, however, is the paucity of empirical evidence regarding the significance of affirmative action as a viable tool to improve the chances of minorities in obtaining employment.
A recently completed PhD dissertation by Ward Thomas, a student in UCLA's urban planning department, provides some interesting evidence that the presence of affirmative action in Southern California's electronics industry does make a difference, at least for African Americans.
The electronics industry, which includes computers, office and communications equipment, electronic components and accessories, has had a significant impact on Southern California's economy for the last three decades, according to Thomas. In 1959, for example, it employed 32,840 people. By 1985, the number of people employed in the industry had increased to 98,319, but it declined to 23,677 by 1994.
Recent evidence suggests that African American employment in electronics has been exceedingly low. Thomas cites data collected by UCLA researchers Alan Scott and Mark Drayse that show that in 1991, African Americans made up only 3.6% of production workers in the industry. In a 1992 study, Scott found that in the electronics assembly industry in greater Los Angeles, African Americans constituted less than 1% of the labor force.
Are these low employment rates a function of persistent discrimination by employers? Or do they reflect growing displacement by immigrants who increasingly are recruited through an informal network from which African Americans are excluded? Has affirmative action helped to secure employment for recent immigrants to the detriment of African Americans?
To answer these questions, Thomas interviewed the owners and senior managers of 50 electronics firms in the region. What he found was that for entry-level jobs, employers do in fact discriminate against African Americans because they believe they do not make good workers. They prefer to hire for these positions by the easier and cheaper route of networking among immigrants.
Interestingly, Thomas also found that employer discrimination against African Americans and the importance of networks in recruiting immigrant workers decline as the level of skill for which employers recruit increases.
Finally, Thomas found that employer discrimination against African Americans and the importance of networking are significantly modified by affirmative action regulations. That is, among those firms in which affirmative action has been required by law as a result of doing business with the government, employers tend to provide African Americans with greater employment opportunities and at better jobs. In spite of this, however, the number of African Americans actually obtaining employment in the electronics industry remains very small.
These research findings tend to support the view that at the entry level, employers are likely to inhibit opportunity for African Americans while expanding it for immigrants. But the results also show that these same employers are not as likely to discriminate against potential African American employees with higher skill levels.
The report also strongly suggests that having affirmative action laws on the books further assures that African Americans can gain access to employment. But even with affirmative action, African Americans remain woefully underrepresented in Southern California's electronics industry.
Given that the growth in the region's economy is now composed heavily of service-sector employment, which tends to hire relatively unskilled individuals, one can only wonder how a balanced and representative work force can be maintained in the absence of affirmative action.
Lessons from the electronics industry suggest that more, not less, affirmative action will be needed if all Americans are to have an equal opportunity to participate in California's economy in the coming millennium.