10.6E: Affirmative Action

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Affirmative action refers refers to policies that take factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion into consideration.

Learning Objectives

• Discuss arguments for and against affirmative action

Key Points

• Affirmative action measures are intended to prevent discrimination against employees or applicants for employment, on the basis of “color, religion, sex, or national origin”.
• The controversy surrounding affirmative action’s effectiveness is often based on the idea of class inequality.
• Other opponents of affirmative action call it reverse discrimination, saying affirmative action requires the very discrimination it is seeking to eliminate.

Key Terms

• affirmative action: A policy or program providing advantages for people of a minority group who are seen to have traditionally been discriminated against, with the aim of creating a more egalitarian society through preferential access to education, employment, health care, social welfare, etc.

In the United States, affirmative action refers to equal opportunity employment measures that Federal contractors and subcontractors such as public universities and government agencies are legally required to adopt. These measures are intended to prevent discrimination against employees or applicants for employment on the basis of “color, religion, sex, or national origin”. Examples of affirmative action offered by the United States Department of Labor include outreach campaigns, targeted recruitment, employee and management development, and employee support programs.

The impetus towards affirmative action is to redress the disadvantages associated with overt historical discrimination. Further impetus is a desire to ensure that public institutions, such as universities, hospitals, and police forces, are more representative of the populations they serve.

Affirmative action is a subject of controversy. Some policies adopted as affirmative action, such as racial quotas or gender quotas for collegiate admission, have been criticized as a form of reverse discrimination, an implementation ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, though the Court also upheld affirmative action as a practice in a court case held simultaneously that year.

History of the Term

Affirmative action in the United States began as a tool to address the persisting inequalities for African Americans in the 1960s. This specific term was first used to describe US government policy in 1961. Directed to all government contracting agencies, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 mandated “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin. ”

Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined the basic social science view that supports such policies:

“Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.”

Arguments Against Affirmative Action

The controversy surrounding affirmative action’s effectiveness is often based on the idea of class inequality. Opponents of racial affirmative action argue that the program actually benefits middle- and upper-class African Americans and Hispanic Americans at the expense of lower class European Americans and Asian Americans. This argument supports the idea of solely class-based affirmative action. America’s poor is disproportionately made up of people of color, so class-based affirmative action would disproportionately help people of color. This would eliminate the need for race-based affirmative action as well as reducing any disproportionate benefits for middle and upper class people of color.

Other opponents of affirmative action call it reverse discrimination, saying affirmative action requires the very discrimination it is seeking to eliminate. According to these opponents, this contradiction makes affirmative action counter-productive. Other opponents say affirmative action causes unprepared applicants to be accepted in highly demanding educational institutions or jobs which result in eventual failure. Other opponents say that affirmative action lowers the bar, and so denies those who strive for excellence on their own merit and the sense of real achievement.

Some opponents further claim that affirmative action has undesirable side-effects and that it fails to achieve its goals. They argue that it hinders reconciliation, replaces old wrongs with new wrongs, undermines the achievements of minorities, and encourages groups to identify themselves as disadvantaged even if they are not. It may increase racial tension and benefit the more privileged people within minority groups at the expense of the disenfranchised within majority groups (such as lower-class whites). Some opponents believe, among other things, that affirmative action devalues the accomplishments of people who belong to a group it is supposed to help, therefore making affirmative action counter-productive.

Implementation in Universities

In the US, a prominent form of affirmative action centers on access to education, particularly admission to universities and other forms of higher education. Race, ethnicity, native language, social class, geographical origin, parental attendance of the university in question (legacy admissions), and/or gender are sometimes taken into account when assessing the meaning of an applicant’s grades and test scores. Individuals can also be awarded scholarships and have fees paid on the basis of criteria listed above. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke v. Regents that public universities (and other government institutions) could not set specific numerical targets based on race for admissions or employment. The Court said that “goals” and “timetables” for diversity could be set instead.

10.6E: Affirmative Action is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.