I've recently read Affirmative Action without Quotas in Northern Ireland, by Christopher McCrudden and his colleagues. McCrudden is a human rights professor at Oxford and at the University of Michigan Law School. The paper is published in The Equal Rights Review, Vol. Four (2009).
The paper evaluates positively Northern Ireland's affirmative action program (I didn't know Northern Ireland had an affirmative action program did you?), which is an attempt to reduce discrimination against both Catholics and Protestants in both public sector and private sector employment. I highly recommend this very short paper (7 pages).
The key highlights of Northern Ireland's successful approach involve "detailed monitoring for firms' composition, plus agreed action plans, where necessary, to ensure for both groups 'fair participation' in employment, avoiding the setting of quotas." Employers must conduct periodic audits of their workforce composition to determine whether there is fair participation and they must take remedial steps where necessary. The process was monitored/facilitated by a government agency, which entered into both voluntary agreements and legally-biding agreements with employers.
Some key findings from the study: (a) the affirmative action program was successful; (b) voluntary agreements were more effective than legally-enforceable agreements; (c) the affirmative action program also increased the share of managerial workers in the targeted group; (d) there was a "spill-over" effect on non-regulated employers whose employment practices were more fair as a consequence of the practices of the regulated employers.
This study raised two questions for me. First, can we in the US learn anything from the Northern Ireland experience? Second, given that affirmative action is practiced in many countries around the world to redress discrimination of various kinds and in many cases quite effectively, should it not have greater moral authority as an important tool for addressing the effects of discrimination in the United States?