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- Defining Affirmative Action
- Development of Affirmative Action Policies
- Affirmative Action Backlash
- Types of Affirmative Action Programs
- Executive-Ordered Programs
- Court-Ordered Programs
- Voluntary Programs
Equality is one of the fundamental elements of the American political creed. At the birth of the nation in 1776, the principle was emphatically stated in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, even at the founding of American democracy, it was evident that full equality did not extend to all groups in society. Nearly two centuries later, American political leaders initiated a policy known as “affirmative action” to overcome existing patterns of discrimination against groups that had been denied equal opportunity.
As in most policies that govern the distribution of public goods and services, affirmative action proved controversial. Indeed, it remains one of the most controversial issues in American politics. While proponents see it as a necessary means of addressing past and current discrimination, opponents see it as synonymous with “quotas,” “reverse discrimination,” and “preferential treatment.” The United States today remains deeply divided over the policy of affirmative action. Before exploring the reasons behind this polarizing issue, it is necessary to define the concept, understand how it was conceived, and examine why it has caused such a strong backlash.
Defining Affirmative Action
Affirmative action is a set of public-policy initiatives designed to help rectify past and prevent future discriminatory practices based on race, gender, religion, or national origin. Developed in the early 1960s, it encourages the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of qualified minorities and women by private and public employers. The policy requires that special consideration be given to minorities and women in employment, education, and public contracts. When it was first conceived, employers were required to set goals and timetables for achieving diversity and to institute appropriate measures for meeting these goals. To enforce the policy, the federal government rewards companies and institutions that comply with the policy by doing business with them, and penalizes companies and institutions that do not comply with the policy by refusing to do business with them. The rewards can take the form of grants in federal contracts or increased federal funding. The penalties can take the form of lawsuits or denial of government funding and contracts.
In their efforts to eliminate discrimination, policymakers were faced at the outset with the dilemma of whether to simply provide guarantees for “equality of opportunity” and adopt color-blind policies or to take affirmative steps by guaranteeing preferences to victims of past discrimination. In other words, should they guarantee equality of opportunity or equality of results? Political scientists Sidney Verba and Gary Owen believe that when affirmative action provides guarantees for equality of opportunity—ensuring a level playing field for everyone, irrespective of race or gender—it is likely to gain widespread support. But, they maintain, when affirmative action focuses on equality of results, by adopting quotas and gender or racial preferences, it draws widespread opposition from groups that do not fall within the targeted categories.
For policymakers, the initial goal apparently was to establish a level playing field, in which everyone was guaranteed equality of opportunity. According to political scholar David Rosenbloom, “it was not a program to offer special privilege to any one group of persons because of their particular race, religion, sex, or national origin.” This appeared to conform with the fundamental principle of equality on which the nation was founded. This principle was later restated in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and reiterated in Title VI and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Faced with employers’ reluctance to voluntarily implement nondiscrimination and color-blindness in their hiring practices, and impatient with the slow pace of progress toward equality of opportunity, policymakers decided to take affirmative steps to mandate the adoption of programs that would lead to equality of results. Accordingly, the goal of civil rights organizations shifted from equality of opportunity through nondiscrimination to affirmative action policies that provided specific goals and timetables for achieving racial and gender equality.
Development of Affirmative Action Policies
Affirmative action policies in the United States have been formulated and implemented largely through the president’s constitutional power to sign executive orders. In the 1960s, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all chose to exercise this constitutional prerogative. Political lessons from the two previous decades reminded them that Congress was a hostile forum regarding any policy aimed at promoting equality of opportunity between blacks and whites.
The first lesson was President Harry Truman’s 1946 decision to integrate the U.S. armed forces. This decision provoked an angry reaction from members of Congress from the South, giving impetus to a political realignment. Prominent members of the southern congressional delegation abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the newly formed Dixiecrat Party. Among these was South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who won the 1948 presidential nomination of the Dixiecrat Party. Campaigning on a platform that stressed states’ rights, the party failed to win the White House but succeeded in setting the stage for the transformation of the South from a Democratic bulwark into the Republican stronghold it is today. The Democrats under Truman won the White House, however, and in 1953 his Committee on Government Contract Compliance urged the Bureau of Employment Security “to act positively and affirmatively to implement the policy of nondiscrimination.”
The second lesson was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation. Just as in Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces, the decision to integrate public schools provoked a rancorous reaction from southern members of Congress. The rancor was manifested in a 1965 document known as “The Southern Manifesto,” which harshly criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for usurping the powers of Congress and unduly interfering with states’ rights.
Reminded by these two lessons, the executive branch saw that the chances of getting an affirmative action bill passed in Congress were bleak. As a result, most presidents, since the 1960s, have increasingly resorted to the use of executive orders to formulate race- and gender-sensitive policies such as affirmative action. Thus, in 1961, President John Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, instructing federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” It was the first time the U.S. government officially used the term “affirmative action.” As an indication that the law was intended to provide for equality of opportunity rather than for equality of results, the order established a body known as the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, which required all government contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to expand job opportunities for minorities. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance was established to administer the order, which in 1967 was amended and expanded to include affirmative action for women.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed yet another regulation, Executive Order 11625, requiring federal agencies to develop comprehensive plans and specific goals for a national Minority Business Enterprise contracting program. Following up two years later, the Nixon administration issued “Memorandum-Permissible Goals and Timetables in State and Local Government Employment Practices,” mandating the establishment of goals and timetables for reporting purposes. The fact that the push toward increased reliance on statistical evidence and mandatory goals and timetables came from a Republican president is noteworthy, defying the widely held perception that affirmative action is a liberal policy formulated by liberal Democratic presidents for their liberal constituencies. Not only was Nixon a Republican, he was a conservative Republican.
Until 1972 the enforcement of affirmative action was aimed primarily at eliminating discrimination in organizations that conducted business with the federal government. The 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure state and local compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in employment. The Commission was empowered by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act to investigate and bring suit against private and public employers accused of violating Title VII prohibitions against discrimination.
Finally, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12138, establishing the National Women’s Business Enterprise Policy and requiring all government agencies to use affirmative action to support women’s enterprises.
The practice of presidents formulating affirmative action policies by means of executive order has led the political scientist Thomas Dye to characterize affirmative action as an elite-driven policy. In what he describes as “elite-mass conflict,” Dye argues that when elite preferences differ from those of the masses, the former inevitably prevail. In spite of opposition from the masses, he claims, elites see affirmative action policies as a necessary tool in achieving equality of opportunity. To avoid legislating these laws through Congress, says Dye, the elite allow their will to prevail over that of the masses. This is why, according to Dye, the policy remains in force despite opposition from a majority of the white male population.
It is important to note that throughout their struggle for civil rights, blacks have rarely if ever campaigned for special privileges or preferential treatment. What Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rest of the civil rights leadership ardently campaigned for was the right to vote. Blacks were convinced that to have equality with whites, all they needed was the right to cast their ballots. To deny them that right was to deny them equality. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act granted them the right to vote. Blacks felt that this, along with the protections provided in the Civil Rights Act the year before, sufficiently eliminated barriers against equality to allow them to compete evenly with whites for political representation and economic opportunity. Two years later, in an unprecedented statement of national contrition, President Johnson delivered a speech justifying the establishment of an affirmative action policy. In that speech, Johnson argued that you cannot take a man whose hands and feet have been tied for 300 years, bring him to the starting line of a race, and tell him that he is now free to compete equally. The speech marked the launch of new affirmative action initiatives by the Johnson administration. Aware that sooner or later the policy was going to draw partisan attack, blacks, women, and other beneficiaries of the policy began mobilizing to defend it.
Affirmative Action Backlash
In the face of elite intransigence, the masses in a democratic society often turn to other decision-making institutions for remedies. Thus, in the United States, all three branches of the federal government at one time or another have been called on to address the affirmative action controversy. It is appropriate to begin by examining the role that the judicial branch, the ultimate arbiter of social controversies in American society, has played in addressing the controversy over affirmative action. As the nineteenth-century social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observes in his classic Democracy in America (1835–1840), scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved sooner or later as a judicial matter. Thus, the largely white male population that felt excluded from the benefits of affirmative action finally was compelled to seek remedy from the institutions of the judicial branch.
The first affirmative action case to be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court was a controversy over a University of California admissions policy that gave special consideration to minority medical school applicants. The policy reserved 18 seats for disadvantaged minority students in each entering class of 100. When Alan Bakke, a white male applicant, was denied admission, he sued on grounds that the admission of less-qualified applicants was “reverse discrimination” and therefore a violation of his equal protection rights. The phrase “reverse discrimination” entered the American vocabulary for the first time. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that the use of quotas or set-asides in university admissions was unconstitutional but that the university was welcome to count race as a “plus” in the admissions process. Bakke was ordered admitted, and the university was instructed to develop an admissions policy that did not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.
The ruling failed to resolve the controversy over affirmative action. Supporters of the policy believed that the ruling was in their favor, as it accepted race as a valid criterion in university admissions. On the other hand, opponents of affirmative action also saw the ruling as in their favor because it ordered the admission of Bakke and outlawed racial quotas in university admissions.
One year later, in 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in United Steel Workers of America, AFL-CIO v. Weber that affirmative action programs designed to correct for past discriminatory racial imbalances in the workplace are constitutional. The ruling gave the green light to an affirmative action plan developed by Kaiser Aluminum Corporation and the United Steel Workers of America to reserve 50 percent of higher-paying skilled jobs for minorities. In a community where 39 percent of the workforce was black, only 2 percent of skilled jobs in the company were held by blacks. To correct for this imbalance, blacks with less seniority were selected for training in higher-pay jobs. Brian Weber, a white employee who was not selected, sued on grounds that he had been discriminated against in violation of his equal protection rights. The Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “left employers and unions in the private sector free to take such race-conscious steps to eliminate manifest racial imbalances in traditionally segregated job categories. We hold that Title VII does not prohibit such … affirmative action plans.” In the opinion of the Court, it would be “ironic indeed” if the Civil Rights Act were used to deny voluntary, private race-conscious efforts that are taken to eliminate the lingering effects of past discrimination.
Meanwhile, in yet another case dealing with seniority, the Supreme Court ruled in Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts (1984) that a city could not lay off white firefighters in favor of black firefighters with less seniority.
In 1987, the Supreme Court made two important rulings upholding affirmative action protections for minorities. In United States v. Paradise, the justices ruled in favor of a 50-percent quota system for blacks in the Alabama Department of Safety, which had excluded blacks from serving as state troopers until 1972 and had not promoted any black beyond the rank of corporal until 1984. In Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara, California, the Supreme Court upheld a court-ordered, 29-percent minority “membership admission goal” for a union that had historically discriminated against minorities. The ruling proved that, just as the Court can order measures to eliminate the lingering effects of past discrimination, so it can order the implementation of affirmative action policies that correct and prevent future discriminatory practices.
The affirmative action controversy remained largely unresolved as the decade came to an end, and the Court’s failure to rule definitively on the issue drove opponents to look for an alternative decision-making authority—the executive branch. Already in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign platform included the goal of abolishing affirmative action programs. He promised that, if elected, he was going to use his “stroke of the pen” authority to revoke Johnson’s Executive Order 11246. Opponents of affirmative action, most of whom were white males, mobilized in support of Reagan’s bid for the White House. It would be the beginning of an organized opposition to affirmative action. Reagan’s election victory was attributed largely to a new political class, known as “Reagan Democrats,” which had emerged during the campaign. It was composed mainly of white male Democrats who were disenchanted with, among other things, the lack of an agenda item in the Democratic platform that opposed affirmative action.
Reagan’s first order of business on entering the White House was to fulfill his campaign promise. Realizing he could not count on the Democrat-controlled Congress to work with him in ending affirmative action, Reagan considered revoking Executive Order 11246. But several members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Labor William Brock, and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole, advised against it, arguing that revoking the order would cause unnecessary controversy.
In 1990, reacting against a decision by the University of Arizona’s Fiesta Bowl to contribute $100,000 to each participating institution’s minority scholarship fund, the George H. W. Bush administration, acting through Assistant Secretary of Education in Charge of Civil Rights Michael Williams, an African American, stated that minority scholarships violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funds. The decision produced a public uproar, and the administration was forced to rescind it. Four years later, however, the Supreme Court let stand the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to end a University of Maryland program that set aside an annual scholarship fund for African Americans. Once the Reagan and Bush administrations realized they could not achieve their policy objectives through the institutions of Congress or through federal bureaucracy, they turned their attention to the judicial branch.
To be able to work within the legal system, however, they first had to change its ideological makeup. With many federal judges coming up for retirement in the 1980s and early 1990s, this could be done through the president’s power to appoint federal judges. In exercising that power, the Reagan and Bush administrations made sure that their appointees were predominantly conservatives with a known record of opposition to affirmative action programs. By the end of the 1980s, much of the federal bench had been transformed from liberal to conservative. The liberal decade of the 1960s was now replaced by the conservative decade of the 1980s—giving anti-affirmative action proponents a better chance at having their lawsuits addressed favorably at the federal level.
The next test of the Supreme Court would come in 1989, when it was asked to rule on two affirmative action cases. In the first, City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., the justices ruled against a Richmond, Virginia, affirmative action program that set aside 30 percent of the city’s construction contracts for minorities. Unless justified by a “compelling interest” and narrowly tailored to ensure that the program furthers that interest, the court ruled, such set-asides violate of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the second case, Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio, the justices held that statistical imbalances in race or gender in the workplace are not sufficient evidence in and of themselves to prove discrimination. When an employment evaluation process is found to be biased against any group, the court further stated, it is the responsibility of the plaintiffs to prove that the employer has no compelling business reason to administer such an evaluation. In short, the ruling made it difficult for plaintiffs to prove job discrimination.
The Wards Cove decision overturned a 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., in which the justices unanimously ruled that if a test or qualification requirement disproportionately disqualified minorities, the burden of proof rests with the employer to defend it as a bona fide occupational qualification. The ruling resulted from a suit filed by black employees against Duke Power challenging the company’s use of tests that disproportionately screened out blacks from hiring and promotion but had no demonstrable relationship to job performance. In placing the burden of proof on the employer in this earlier case, the court made it easier for plaintiffs to prevail in discrimination cases.
Outraged by the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of affirmative action in Wards Cove, supporters of the policy mobilized and lobbied Congress to have the law rewritten. In 1991, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Women’s Equity Act to “correct” for the Supreme Court’s 1989 decisions. The new law returned the burden of proof to the employer for any evaluation mechanisms that created “disparate impact” on certain groups.
In its 1994 decision in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, the Supreme Court struck down a federal construction contract set-aside for minorities, arguing that affirmative action programs must be subject to “strict scrutiny” to accomplish a compelling government interest such as correcting for past discrimination and must be narrowly tailored to avoid causing adverse impact on other groups. Although the ruling narrowed the definition of current affirmative action policies, it did not strike down any specific federal program that currently executed such policies.
Despite their gains in the Supreme Court, the opposition to affirmative action did not relent. Responding to their plea, Senator Robert Dole and Representative Charles Canady in 1995 introduced a bill in Congress to ban all federal affirmative action programs. After going through several transformations, the bill was tabled by the House Judiciary Committee in 1997. Using slogans that portrayed the white male as an “endangered species,” the opposition continued to mobilize against the implementation of affirmative action programs. Meanwhile, the stigma that appeared to link successful African Americans with affirmative action benefits pushed some members of the minority community to join hands with anti-affirmative action forces in campaigning for its ban. Those minority members who admitted that inequalities still exist in society suggested that such inequalities can be better corrected with class-based than with race- or gender-based policies.
Caving in to pressure from anti-affirmative action forces, and motivated by the need to bring the federal government in compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Adarand, President Bill Clinton in 1995 ordered a review of all federal affirmative action programs. According to Clinton, “any program must be eliminated or reformed if it: creates quotas; creates preferences for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.” At the conclusion of the review, President Clinton restated his administration’s support for affirmative action, encapsulated in the slogan, “Mend it, don’t end it!” The 1995 bipartisan Glass Ceiling Commission report, which found that barriers in society continued to block the access of women and minorities to decision-making positions, concurred with Clinton’s position. The Commission invited corporate America to continue to use affirmative action as a tool to ensure that all qualified individuals have equal access and opportunity to compete on the basis of ability and merit.
Despite Clinton’s support, and despite the findings of the Glass Ceiling Commission, the Regents of the University of California voted that same year to end affirmative action programs at all University of California campuses. In 1996, Californians voted in a statewide referendum to abolish all public-sector affirmative action programs, with passage of Proposition 209. A 1996 ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals known as Texas v. Hopwood banned the use of affirmative action in university admissions in Texas. Yet, voters in Houston, Texas, rejected a proposition in 1997 that would have abolished affirmative action programs in city hiring and contracting. Experts believed that the phrasing of the ballot initiative had much to do with the outcome. When phrased in the form of “minority preferences,” they found, most people would vote against the program; but when phrased as “programs for equal opportunity,” people would usually vote to support it.
In 1998, voters in the state of Washington followed California’s lead by voting in favor of a referendum to pass Initiative 200, abolishing affirmative action in higher education, hiring, and public contracting. In 2000, the Florida legislature passed the “One Florida” plan banning affirmative action, followed by other states, including Michigan in 2006.
Three years earlier, Michigan had become ground zero in the battle over affirmative action in higher education admissions when, in two simultaneous decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold the University of Michigan Law School’s program while declaring unconstitutional its undergraduate system. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court ruled that the law school’s system, which considered an applicant’s race as one of several criteria in considering admissions, was not based on quotas per se and was therefore constitutional. But the more rigid undergraduate system—awarding 20 points out of the 100 necessary to gain admission—was declared a quota in Gratz v. Bollinger and therefore a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Meanwhile, state legislatures were finding other ways to increase minority enrollment that avoided strict racial quotas. In reaction to declining minority enrollment in state institutions of higher learning, the Texas legislature, for example, passed the Ten Percent Plan in 1997, guaranteeing university admission to the top 10 percent of all high school graduates in the state. The Florida legislature also adopted a bill that guaranteed admission for the top 20 percent of its high school graduates to the University of Florida system. California went beyond this with a new plan that guaranteed admission into the University of California system to the top 4 percent of its high school graduates, repealed Proposition 209 in college admissions, and completely banned the SAT as an admission requirement.
What started out as a tough and uncompromising stance against affirmative action in these states was gradually watered down into a more moderate policy promoting inclusiveness. In the absence of a definitive Supreme Court ruling or congressional intervention, local politics will continue to influence how states develop, modify, and adapt affirmative action policies to local circumstances. Whatever form these policies take, and until a new institutional mechanism is devised, affirmative action policies will continue to be influenced and shaped by activist forces from both sides.
Types of Affirmative Action Programs
However controversial, affirmative action remains public policy that is still actively enforced by both public and private sector managers across the nation. It is therefore important to distinguish among the various major categories of affirmative action that are currently in force in the United States. There are three basic types: executive-ordered affirmative action, court-ordered affirmative action, and voluntary affirmative action.
These are affirmative action programs that are decreed by the president, usually by executive order. Like all legislation, they do have the force of law. The major affirmative action laws in force today were created by executive order during the 1960s. Their enforcement is monitored by various government agencies, including the Department of Labor, Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and others. Frequently, employers are required to submit a written affirmative action plan for approval and to set goals and timetables that show progress toward compliance. Revised Order #4 of Executive Order 11246 requires government contractors to determine the underutilization of women and minorities in major job categories.
These affirmative action programs are established by court ruling to remedy proven discriminatory practices. Court involvement here usually comes about through a lawsuit filed by an aggrieved party, or by any of the government agencies that are charged with monitoring the implementation of the policy. Usually a court decision mandates a certain line of action that an employer must take. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, for example, the University of California Davis was ordered to admit the plaintiff, Allan Bakke. Although it instructed the university to use race as a “plus” in its admission process, it also ordered it to eliminate any practices that adversely affected whites.
Another example of a court-ordered affirmative action program was U.S. v. Paradise (1987), in which the Supreme Court ordered the State of Alabama to hire one black for every one white until 25 percent of its state troopers were black. The order was passed after determining that the Alabama Department of Public Safety had, over the years, systemically discriminated against blacks in hiring and promotions.
Occasionally, employers voluntarily establish affirmative action programs to avoid potential lawsuits from such government watchdog agencies as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Ironically, however, voluntary actions may run the risk of exposing employers to accusations of reverse discrimination by white plaintiffs. Such was the case in United Steel Workers of America, AFL-CIO v. Weber (1979). The company had reserved 50 percent of a training program for its black employees in a voluntary effort to increase their pay and job skill, and a white male employee filed suit claiming reverse discrimination. In another voluntary effort, to improve the status of its female employees, the Transportation Agency of Santa Clara County, California, decided to promote women to positions in which they were underrepresented. When Diane Joyce was promoted to the position of dispatcher over Paul Johnson, a white male who had more years of experience, Johnson sued the company on grounds of reverse discrimination. In Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County v. Johnson (1987), the Supreme Court upheld the plan on the grounds that the county’s purpose was to eliminate manifest gender and racial imbalances.
Finally, when the Jackson Board of Education voluntarily adopted plans to protect minorities with less seniority during layoffs, the board’s white employees challenged the plan on the basis of reverse discrimination. Ruling in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986), the Supreme Court argued that while affirmative action can be used to apportion hiring, it cannot be used to apportion layoffs.
Affirmative action as implemented today invites employers who are faced with two equally qualified candidates to employ the minority over the majority candidate or a qualified woman over a similarly qualified male. But no longer are affirmative action policies based on quotas, and no longer is the practice of reverse discrimination, or the hiring of unqualified or less qualified candidates over more qualified candidates, considered acceptable practice.
Despite this redefined approach, the controversy over affirmative action policies remains unresolved. The debate continues to flare up, and the pro- and anti-affirmative action forces refuse to relent. While the increasingly assertive opposition argues that the battle to guarantee equal rights for all citizens has already been fought and won, and that affirmative action policies therefore should be dismantled, supporters of the program contend that the policies should be kept in place because the playing field is not yet level. In the view of most supporters, granting modest privileges to women and minorities is more than fair, given the hundreds of years of discrimination that benefited the majority white male population. Yet efforts by the major policymaking institutions in the country —from the president to Congress to the judiciary and the electorate—have all failed to produce a definitive resolution to this divisive issue. The inability of contemporary America to settle the debate over affirmative action is likely to make it one of the great social controversies handed down to future generations.
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