What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is a policy that aims to increase opportunities in the workplace or education to underrepresented parts of society by taking into account an individual's color, race, sex, religion, or national origin.

Businesses and government entities implement affirmative action programs to increase the number of people from certain groups within companies, institutions, and other areas of society. The policy focuses on demographics who have historically had low representation in positions of leadership, professional roles, and academics, and is often considered a means of countering historical discrimination against particular groups.

Key Takeaways

  • Affirmative action seeks to overturn historical trends of discrimination against an individual’s identity by providing assistance to groups identified as subject to past or present discrimination.
  • Affirmative action policies attempt to enact change through various means such as requiring certain quotas are met when hiring, providing financial support in the form of grants and scholarships, and denying government funding and contracts to institutions that fail to meet the requisite criteria.
  • While originally designed to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action has increased its scope of groups targeted for assistance to include gender representation, people with disabilities, and covered veterans.
  • The critics of affirmative action point to a number of perceived failures in its policies—including the cost of the programs, the possibility of hiring less qualified candidates, and lack of historical progress in changing the representation of targeted groups.

How Affirmative Action Works

In the United States, affirmative action came to prominence in the 1960s as a way to promote equal opportunity across various segments of society. The policy was developed as a way 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.

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 also be structured to require the inclusion of diverse candidates for job openings. Government agencies might 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.

In recent years, campaigns to make organizations and institutions more inclusive have seen a push for greater gender diversity, along with more access to opportunities for covered veterans and people with disabilities.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Affirmative Action

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

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.

Furthermore, critics of affirmative action might claim that little to no bias exists in current society, at least from their perspective. In addition, it has been argued that affirmative action has, in some cases, led qualified candidates to be overlooked in favor of hiring less qualified candidates that meet affirmative action standards.

There’s also the catch-22 that affirmative action leads to condescension for those benefiting from affirmative action. That is, some people may be accused of getting a job or promotion due to their ethnicity or gender, versus qualifications. Affirmative action is a delicate balance of promoting a diverse workplace without resentment.