The University Record, May 10, 1999

Affirmative action: 'Mend it, don’t end it, ’Igasaki says

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

When Paul Igasaki, a third-generation Japanese American and vice chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), visited Japan last year, he felt more foreign than anywhere else he had been. “They hadn’t a clue about civil rights as we understand it,” he said. “Their strong cultural traditions define the Japanese people; what defines the United States is our differences, and affirmative action works to balance those differences in our society.”

With those thoughts in mind, Igasaki discussed “State Ballot Initiatives and the Elimination of Affirmative Action” in the Kuenzel Room of the Michigan Union on April 23, sponsored by Dialogues on Diversity.

Balancing our differences has been a difficult, often violent process, but “we have a history of trying to work things out,” Igasaki said, citing as examples the experiences of European immigrants who came to the United States in the early 20th century. “Nevertheless, the history of discrimination and redress goes on and on. We have not yet reached a level playing field for all Americans,” he said, noting challenges to be faced with the growth of the non-white population. California will soon be the second state–the first was Hawaii–with a non-white majority.

Igasaki believes that a ballot initiative is not a good way to make public policy in general. He said that many Californians are disillusioned with Proposition 209, which barred affirmative action in all state activities. According to California law, a reversal can happen only through another ballot initiative.

Affirmative action in employment began with voluntary compliance by businesses and was expanded during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Affirmative action was conceptualized as a way to overcome decades of discrimination, Igasaki said. It has worked well in many areas, citing the example of near gender equality in admissions to graduate and professional schools, he noted.

On the other hand, he pointed out that 90 percent of the senior managers in the Fortune 500 companies are white males. “That’s caused by a lack of qualified women and minorities in the pipeline feeding upwards to those positions,” Igasaki said.

“People tend to hire people who are like themselves; it isn’t necessarily a conscious thing. Affirmative action at its best helps us to get around our natural prejudices and it helps us think through the issues,” Igasaki said. He pointed out that although Asian Americans are doing well in higher education admissions, they still are having problems with employment.

“Below the level of senior management there’s a large gap between perception and reality regarding the notion that white males are victims of affirmative action,” Igasaki said. “Claims filed with the EEOC simply don’t bear this out. Though affirmative action is not a panacea and it can certainly be improved, affirmative inaction is not an option,” Igasaki noted.

Commenting on the discussion of whether diversity is a necessary element in a good education, Igasaki said: “A school is about learning and it’s a place for students to learn about the differences in our national culture. If we eliminate affirmative action in admissions we will go backwards. Mend it, don’t end it.”