In the Public Interest

Last year in February, APA's Council of Representatives adopted a resolution on affirmative action and equal opportunity. Interesting timing, but a little behind the civil rights curve.

Following 10 "whereas" statements, ranging from affirmative action as a remedy for past discriminations to a restatement of APA's mission statement, the council resolved that APA "reaffirms its commitment to affirmative action...supports equality of opportunity for persons regardless of race, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation and national origin." Furthermore, the resolution states, APA "encourages psychological and public policy research that illuminates sources of bias in institutional policies and practices that lead to discrimination against the aforementioned groups and favors research that suggests avenues for elimination of discrimination."

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 executive order requiring federal contractors to take "affirmative action" to ensure hiring and fair treatment of persons without regard to race, creed, etc., APA has met the various tests regarding affirmative action and equal opportunity. In fact, since 1992, the council has provided close oversight and required its chief executive officer to give progress reports regarding APA's compliance with not only the legal requirements but also the spirit of the law. Both council and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission appear pleased with the employment status of minorities and women within APA.

But why, one might ask, given the corporate leanings of APA, did it take almost 35 years to take a position on affirmative action?

First, it is important to understand that APA cannot support or attempt to influence legislation unless the council adopts a position. However, it appears over the years some considered APA's embrace of affirmative action and equal opportunity--which also required council action--to be sufficient and permitted political advocacy and lobbying on those issues.

That understanding prevailed in September 1995 when APA Divisions 9 (Society for the Study of Social Issues) and 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) organized a briefing for Congress and its staff. Some psychologists believe that APA's prominence and advocacy on this social justice issue caused others to challenge its right to do so--although the briefing's objective was to demonstrate how behavioral and social science research could contribute to the policy debate on affirmative action and, by implication, related matters.

However, people who were apparently opposed to the espousal of affirmative action searched for the council policy that would legitimize such actions. Not finding a clear position--i.e., "APA endorses affirmative action"--they challenged APA leadership. As it turned out, although over the years APA had supported civil rights, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, advocated for human rights legislation on health, mental health and social justice and as a corporate entity supported and abided by the affirmative action and equal opportunity laws, there was no council position on affirmative action per se.

What next?

In 1998, the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest was assigned responsibility for creating the governance item and shepherding it through the boards and committees of APA governance--a daunting task in a climate of varied legal challenges to affirmative action policies across the nation. It was likely that psychologists who challenged APA's advocacy in this area would have allies in governance that would place obstacles in the path of the approval process.

Those fears were not realized. The only governance challenges to the proposed resolution were those designed to enhance it by recognizing disability issues incorporated in the Americans with Disability Act and efforts of lesbians, gays and bisexual people to achieve protection in employment settings. In a year, the "Resolution on Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity" was moved from the boards and committees, to the Board of Directors, then onto the floor of APA's Council where it was approved and became official APA policy on Feb. 20, 1999.

Lessons learned

We are once again reminded that, if we are going to lobby or advocate for issues that are important to APA's membership, policy matters must be addressed. When the nature of the issue is both important and socially sensitive, as was the case with affirmative action, special care must be taken.

We also learned that APA boards, committees, Board of Directors and Council of Representatives continue to understand that affirmative actions and equal opportunities are important considerations for groups that continue to experience discrimination and unfairness in educational and employment settings. They not only understood, but took an affirmative policy stance to address them.