restricted access Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice (review)
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Reviewed by
J. Edward Kellough. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006. 191 pp. Paper: $19.95. ISBN: 1-58901-089-2.

Affirmative action continues to be one of the most discussed and least understood public policy topics relevant to higher education today. Most discussions have an emotional overlay that seems to drive conversations toward a simple evaluation of the desirability of a particular program, as opposed to a careful consideration of the many social elements involved. Since affirmative action is, in reality, a blanket term referring to a complex and highly differentiated range of efforts to fairly allocate opportunities to individuals, a simple evaluation is not particularly productive.

In a new book, Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice, J. Edward Kellough has provided an important resource for those interested in a serious consideration of affirmative action. In developing this work, Kellough, Professor of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia, presents a nuanced and balanced discussion of the history, implementation, and arguments associated with affirmative action.

This achievement is important, especially given the contentiousness found in most considerations of this topic. It is important to note that throughout the work Kellough wisely chooses to address conflicting viewpoints rather than to ignore them and does so by presenting contrasting claims and evidence on all sides of this divisive issue.

To help readers step outside of the existing language that has been blurred by the heated conversations surrounding affirmative action, Kellough structures the presentation by suggesting a set of three facts that need to be considered to understand the range and scope of affirmative action programs.

First, he argues that we need to recognize the wide range of policy options in place that can be legitimately described as affirmative action and acknowledge their variations, rather than simply considering them as though they were one. Second, regardless of their form, Kellough reminds us that affirmative action policies, by their very nature, redistribute opportunity. In practice this means that affirmative action essentially concerns the question of who gains and who loses opportunity, which helps explain the vociferous discussions surrounding the topic. And third, Kellough points out [End Page 326] the need to carefully consider, not only different settings associated with legal issues, but also the precise nature of the legal arguments associated with specific decisions and their future applicability to other settings.

After clearly defining these important elements in a serious consideration of affirmative action, Kellough next provides a lucid history of policy development and, in doing so, differentiates between affirmative action (involving goals and preferences related to opportunity) and equal opportunity (intended to prohibit discrimination) programs. He also distinguishes between reactive (individually based) and proactive (group-based) efforts. Chapters 2 and 3 chronicle policy and program development and foundational court cases that set the current legal and policy stage for affirmative action.

He then considers the rationale for affirmative action in depth in Chapter 4, reviewing the fundamental arguments that have been offered for and against affirmative action. Kellough offers three kinds of arguments supporting affirmative action and five against it. Then he briefly considers the claims and evidence associated with each position. This approach is an effective way of neutralizing the contentiousness inherent in the arguments and sets the stage for a more careful consideration in the chapters that follow.

These chapters are organized chronologically. Chapter 5 concentrates on early considerations in policy, statutory, and legal development, while Chapter 6 focuses on more recent developments (1995–2003). Of interest to most readers of this journal, he provides a substantial focus on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting higher education as explored in the suit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action in admissions.

The basis of Chapter 7 is a summary of the evidentiary base for claims about the effectiveness of affirmative action in employment and higher education. It will be particularly useful for those interested in conducting additional affirmative action research. Kellough effectively outlines future work in this area before offering a final chapter that is a short but useful consideration on the future development of...