by J. Edward Kellough. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 2006. 200pp. Paper. $19.95. ISBN: 9781589010895.

Reviewed by Daniel Lipson, Department of Political Science, Kalamazoo College. Email: dlipson [at] kzoo.edu.


Although there is no shortage of recent scholarship on affirmative action in the United States, students and practitioners of affirmative action have until now lacked a simple, clear, brief handbook. J. Edward Kellough’s UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION fills this void with a well-organized, compact, and accessible survey of the historical developments and impacts of varieties of affirmative action policy, procedures, and judicial opinions. Given that Kellough is a professor of public administration and policy, it is not surprising that the book is especially strong on affirmative action policies and procedures in government employment and contracting. This book will serve as a good resource for students, scholars, and practitioners of affirmative action. While it will be most useful as a reference for affirmative action specialists, it could also serve as a valuable book for undergraduate or graduate courses in public policy, public administration, and racial politics.

Any author who summarizes and distills a complex issue such as affirmative action into a brief book must make difficult choices about what material to leave out and what approach(es) to employ in summarizing and simplifying. In the case of UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, Kellough draws primarily on historical institutionalism to illustrate “how the character of our political institutions helps to shape the formation of policy initiatives” (p.33). To his credit, Kellough surveys an impressive range of literatures (including sociology of law, organizational behavior, judicial politics, socio-legal studies, public opinion, public administration, presidential and congressional politics) that draw on a wide range of theoretical approaches. However, the focus on executive, legislative, and judicial actions crowds out space that could have emphasized the role of public opinion, political culture, and the social construction of race.

The book does not pay adequate attention to one of the key controversies stemming from this marriage: namely, the debate over whom affirmative action policies target. When the debate is portrayed as a clash over competing American values that either justify or preclude affirmative action, such portrayals of the “why” question sidestep the controversies surrounding the “who” question. Much of the debate over – and development of – affirmative action over its short history concerns the difficult question of how to identify who is a proper recipient of diversity-based, disadvantage-based, or anti-discrimination-based policy. Which of America’s “official minorities” – African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and/or American Indians – [*192] merit affirmative action (Skrentny 2002)? Which subgroups (e.g. Cuban Americans v. Mexican Americans v. Brazilian Americans) are and should be targeted? Should international immigrants (e.g. South Africans rather than African Americans) be targeted? And how do organizations go about determining the authenticity of applicants’ claims of group membership in one of these “official minorities,” especially given the insidious history of the “one-drop rule” and the growth of multiracial self-identification. UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION largely avoids the issues of whom affirmative action targets. But it does provide a cogent account of the developments of – and controversies surrounding – the various justifications for, and methods of, affirmative action.

While UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION surveys research in areas that are becoming increasingly important and central, such as organizational sociology, the book nonetheless largely puts forth a conventional account of affirmative action as a parity policy that is controversial for its group-based, redistributive nature. As the subtitle of the book reveals, the author views affirmative action conventionally as a policy seeking justice. While Kellough briefly incorporates innovative strands of scholarship, the book does not adequately acknowledge the challenge that innovative lines of research pose to the conventional account that the book legitimizes. Chapter 1 (Affirmative Acton: The Concept and the Controversy) puts forward a redistributive, rational choice approach, based on Lasswell’s definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ (p.5). The chapter provides a clear and useful section on the “varieties of approaches to affirmative action” (p.6). This approach could have been bolstered by accompanying it with Skrentny’s examination of affirmative action via a cultural approach as symbolic policy through which political elites enact reforms within the perceived “boundaries of legitimacy” of American political culture (Skrentny 1996). The material, self-interested approach could be improved upon by relying on the insights of cultural approaches to politics that focus on morality and symbolic politics to better understand the development of the varieties of affirmative action.

Chapter 2 provides a good historical overview of the early history of affirmative action, particularly the role of executive authority (p.22), congressional action, and social movements (p.23). The chapter pays particular attention to the role of segregationist southern Democrats (p.34), who cut off funding of executive branch commissions (p.26). In this chapter, Kellough reviews the transformation from soft affirmative action (that is, individual-based enforcement of anti-discrimination measures) to hard affirmative action (that is, the conscious targeting of women and people of color as a way of making up for a history of racial and gender exclusion) (p.31). Chapter 3 continues the focus on the transformation from “soft” to “hard” varieties and highlights the impact of the civil rights movement. This chapter also [*193] traces the role of the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I administrations along with the importance of the GRIGGS and WARD’S COVE Supreme Court decisions.

One weakness of this chapter is its perpetuation of the problematic myth of affirmative action as generally dividing along partisan lines. According to Kellough, “[t]he two major political parties have gradually split on the question, with Republicans now generally opposed to such programs and Democrats supportive of them, although Republicans during the Nixon years had embraced this approach” (p.52). This common popular conception of affirmative action as a battle between Democratic supporters and Republican critics has long been challenged by scholars at the level of public opinion (for example, see Sniderman 1997) and party politics (for example, see Glazer 1988). Anti-affirmative action legal activists are acutely aware that they cannot count on support from Republican lawmakers. Most recently, the conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos joined many other prominent Michigan Republican lawmakers in supporting affirmative action and formally opposing Proposal 2 (which nonetheless passed by a landslide in November 2006, with 58% of voters supporting the constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action). This claim of partisan division is not entirely inaccurate, but it misses out on important trends. Few Republican lawmakers actively oppose affirmative action, and even fewer succeed in enacting bans. Neither is affirmative action coterminous with partisan identification at the mass public level.

One of the best features of Chapter 3 is the overview of ballot measures, gubernatorial proposals, and legislative proposals over the past decade. This section covers the successful bans on affirmative action in California via Proposition 209 and Washington State via Initiative 200, in addition to the One Florida initiative pushed by then-governor Jeb Bush. This section also highlights the numerous anti-affirmative action bills in state legislatures that did not pass. One small quibble with this chapter is that Kellough identifies Ward Connerly – who has spearheaded the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative drives in California, Washington state, and now Michigan – as “a prominent African American businessman” (p.53). Connerly objects to being labeled as African American. He is part African American, part Irish, and part Choctaw Indian. But he objects to the multiracial label too and has stated that he would prefer not to be labeled by others on the basis of race.

The material on the rise of diversity management is one of the strongest sections of the book. UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION uncovers the tensions surrounding the marriage of affirmative action and diversity management. Kellough distinguishes between traditional affirmative action – which is rooted in principles of equality – and diversity management – which is rooted in utilitarianism. Kellough points out that the original vision of diversity management was antithetical to early [*194] diversity management advocates who “argued strenuously that their efforts were distinct from, and indeed transcended, affirmative action” (p.68). Today, the meaning of diversity management is ambiguous; one variety of diversity management “may be seen as a successor” to affirmative action, whereas another variety “look[s] very much like traditional affirmative action (p.69). However, the book could have been improved by assessing the extent to which diversity management has supplanted traditional affirmative action. Kellough largely portrays affirmative action as a policy that is devoted to the “search for justice.” In contrast, many scholars have argued that affirmative action in many respects is becoming transformed into an instrumental, diversity management policy that is losing its civil rights core (Edelman, Fuller, and Mara-Drita 2001; Kelly and Dobbin 1998; Wilkins 2004). UNDERSTANDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION could be improved by elevating the tension between traditional affirmative action and diversity management to a central theme of the book rather than bracketing this issue into one small section of one chapter.

Chapter 5 provides a concise overview of the Supreme Court’s constitutional and statutory interpretations. Chapter 6 traces the recent developments from HOPWOOD v. TEXAS, Proposition 209, and Initiative 200 in the mid-1990s to the GRUTTER v. BOLLINGER and GRATZ v. BOLLINGER decisions in 2003. Chapter 7 reviews the literature on the effectiveness of affirmative action in employment, contracting, and education. The book concludes in Chapter 8 by reflecting on the likely future for the policies in the 21st century. Kellough ends the book with cautious support for affirmative action: “Affirmative action programs properly constructed can be an effective means of helping to ensure that society will enjoy the benefits of the great diversity this nation offers” (p.150). Kellough walks the fine line between putting forth his case for affirmative action in a book that provides a balanced overview of this explosive topic. In the end, the book is very much worth reading and retaining as a concise, handy, and readable guide that clarifies knowledge on an important and much misunderstood issue.

Edelman, Lauren B., Sally Riggs Fuller, and Iona Mara-Drita. 2001. “Diversity Rhetoric and the Managerialization of Law.” 106 THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY 1589-1641.

Glazer, Nathan. 1988. “The Affirmative Action Stalemate.” 90 THE PUBLIC INTEREST 99-114.

Kelly, Erin, and Frank Dobbin. 1998. “How Affirmative Action Became Diversity Management: Employer Response to Antidiscrimination Law, 1961 to 1996.” 41 THE AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST 960-984. [*195]


Skrentny, John David. 2002. THE MINORITY RIGHTS REVOLUTION. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sniderman, Paul M. and Edward G. Carmines. 1997. REACHING BEYOND RACE. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wilkins, David B. 2004. “From ‘Separate Is Inherently Unequal’ to ‘Diversity Is Good for Business’: The Rise of Market-Based Diversity Arguments and the Fate of the Black Corporate Bar.” 117 HARVARD LAW REVIEW 1548-1614.

GRATZ v. BOLLINGER, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).

GRUTTER v. BOLLINGER, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

HOPWOOD v. TEXAS, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Daniel Lipson.