What Is Affirmative Action?

The term affirmative action refers to a policy aimed at increasing workplace or educational opportunities for underrepresented parts of society. These programs are commonly implemented by businesses and governments by taking individuals' race, sex, religion, or national origin into account.

Affirmative action focuses on demographics with historically low representation in leadership, professional, and academic roles and is often considered a means of countering discrimination against particular groups.

Key Takeaways

  • Affirmative action seeks to overturn historical trends of discrimination against an individual’s identity.
  • It provides assistance to groups that have historically been and continue to be subjected to forms of discrimination.
  • Policies often implement hiring quotas, provide grants and scholarships, and may also deny government funding and contracts to institutions that fail to follow the policy guidelines
  • Affirmative action now includes assistance for gender representation, people with disabilities, and covered veterans.
  • The criticism of affirmative action includes high program costs, hiring fewer qualified candidates, and a lack of historical progress in equal representation.

How Affirmative Action Works

Affirmative action is a government-backed policy that was developed to help underrepresented groups get access to opportunities in academia, as well as the workforce and government. These opportunities range from admissions to schools, professional positions, and access to services like housing and financing. The main point of the policy was to help diversify various parts of society.

The policy came to prominence in the United States in the 1960s as a way to promote equal opportunity across various segments of society. The policy was developed to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which sought to eliminate discrimination.

Early implementations of affirmative action largely focused on breaking the continued social segregation of minorities from institutions and opportunities. Despite legislation that outlawed biased practices in the United States, tangible change in the status quo was not immediate.

As noted above, affirmative action was primarily geared toward certain groups, including racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Campaigns in more recent years have expanded to make organizations and institutions more inclusive, pushing for greater gender diversity. Newer policies are also aimed at providing more access to opportunities for covered veterans and people with disabilities.

Affirmative action was enacted to provide underrepresented groups a more accurate representation within key roles in government, business, and academic positions.

Requirements for Affirmative Action

Efforts to stimulate such change can take the form of assistance to increase the opportunities available to underrepresented groups. This aid can include grants, scholarships, and other financial support earmarked to help those segments of the population gain access to higher education.

Hiring practices may be structured to require the inclusion of diverse candidates for job openings. Government agencies may decide to mandate that companies and institutions populate their ranks with a minimum percentage of qualified professionals from varying ethnicities, genders, and cultures. Failure to meet such requirements could disqualify institutions from receiving government funding or being able to compete for public contracts.

Many people confuse employment equity with affirmative action. But there's a distinct difference between the two. Employment equity ensures that all individuals are treated equally while affirmative action actually supports those who have historically been denied opportunities.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Affirmative Action

The implementation and continued practice of affirmative action policies have drawn strong support as well as staunch criticism.

Advantages

One of the obvious benefits of implementing affirmative action policies is that it provides opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn't have them. This includes access to education for students who may be disadvantaged and employees who are normally blocked from rising up on the corporate ladder.

Proponents of affirmative action say the effort must continue because of the low percentages of diversity in positions of authority, representation in the media, and limited acknowledgment of the achievements of underrepresented groups.

Disadvantages

Opponents of affirmative action frequently call these efforts a collective failure, citing the tiny changes to the status quo after decades of effort as evidence of this. The cost of such programs, coupled with a belief that affirmative action forces the populace to make unwarranted accommodations, drives a significant part of the opposition.

Certain individuals cite that there is little to no bias in society, at least from their perspective. In addition, they argue that affirmative action results in reverse discrimination, which can often lead to qualified candidates being overlooked in favor of hiring less qualified candidates that meet policy standards.

Pros
  • Provides opportunities for minorities and people from disadvantaged groups

  • Diversifies society

Cons
  • Costs to implement policies can be too high

  • Leads to reverse discrimination

Affirmative Action Statistics

Affirmative action is a very controversial topic and often leads to heated debates between those who support it and people who feel it doesn't benefit society. But is there a way to quantify how people feel and how it's working?

According to a Gallup poll, more than half of Americans (61%) polled believe in affirmative action policies. This level of support has increased since the last poll, where only 47% to 50% of individuals thought affirmative action was necessary. This is especially important given the issues surrounding race and identity in the United States and elsewhere.

Many Americans feel positive about diversity and feel comfortable in the makeup of their communities, saying it positively impacts society as a whole. But there is some divide when it comes to identifying race and ethnicity when it comes to hiring practices. In fact, about 74% of individuals feel that a candidate's racial or ethnic background shouldn't be considered when it comes to hiring or promoting them. These practices should only be based on, they say, someone's qualifications.

What Is the Goal of Affirmative Action?

The goal of affirmative action is to open up opportunities to individuals and groups that have historically been underrepresented or (in some cases, barred) from entering certain parts of academia, the government, and the workforce. It also provides funding in the form of grants and scholarships to these communities.

Policies were adopted to include those from different racial backgrounds and national origins. The policy has since expanded to include gender, sexual orientation, and various abilities.

What Has Been the Result of Affirmative Action Policies in Higher Education?

Affirmative action policies have helped diversify higher education. When the policy was first adopted, the student body at most higher academic institutions was primarily made up of white individuals. But that's changed, leading to a more diverse network of students across the country.

How Did Regents v. Bakke Change Affirmative Action Policies?

The Regents v. Bakke case changed affirmative action policies by striking down the use of racial quotas. The case was presented by Allan Bakke, who claimed he was denied admission to medical school at the University of California on two separate occasions because he was white. The Supreme Court ruled Bakke's favor, saying racial quotas were unconstitutional.

Which U.S. President Was the First To Define and Use the Term Affirmative Action?

President John F. Kennedy was the first president to use and define the term affirmative action. He did so in 1961, telling federal contractors to take "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."