• Last updated on November 11, 2022

In its first major case dealing with affirmative action in employment, the Supreme Court held that private employers could voluntarily establish programs using racial preferences, including some quotas, in order to eliminate manifest racial imbalance, even without evidence that the employer was guilty of discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal “to discriminate against any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Within a few years, federal agencies were using racial imbalance as evidence of possible discrimination, and they encouraged the use of numerical goals, timetables, and sometimes quotas to increase participation of minorities in employment areas where they had been traditionally underrepresented.Affirmative action;United Steelworkers of America v. Weber[United Steelworkers of America v. Weber]

In a Kaiser Aluminum plant in Louisiana, African Americans occupied only 2 percent of the craft positions, although they made up 39 percent of the local workforce. Fearing that this imbalance might jeopardize government contracts, the company and the union agreed to a special training program for craft positions. Admission was based on seniority, except that half of the positions were reserved for African Americans regardless of their seniority. Brian Weber, an unskilled white employee, was passed over in favor of black employees with less seniority. Claiming that the racial preference violated Title VII, he sued both the union and the company.

By a 5-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Kaiser program did not run counter to Title VII. Writing for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.,Brennan, William J., Jr.;United Steelworkers of America v. Weber[United Steelworkers of America v. Weber] looked to the spirit more than the literal words of Title VII. Because the purpose of the statute was to advance employment opportunities for racial minorities, he reasoned that Title VII did not prohibit reasonable means calculated to achieve that purpose. Brennan found that Kaiser’s program was a “temporary measure” that did not “unnecessarily trammel” the interests of white workers and had the modest goal of ending “a manifest racial imbalance.” In a strongly worded dissent, Justice William H. Rehnquist, emphasizing congressional intent, argued that Title VII prohibited all preferences based on race and gender.

Adarand Constructors v. Peña

Affirmative action

Civil Rights Acts

Employment discrimination

Private discrimination

Race and discrimination

Categories: History