What Is Affirmative Action? Definition, How It Works, and Example

What Is Affirmative Action?

The term affirmative action refers to a policy aimed at increasing workplace and educational opportunities for people who are underrepresented in various areas of our society.

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

Affirmative action programs are commonly implemented by businesses and governments by taking individuals' race, sex, religion, or national origin into account when hiring.

Key Takeaways

  • Affirmative action seeks to reverse historical trends of discrimination against individuals with certain identities.
  • It provides financial assistance to groups that historically have 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 policy guidelines.
  • Affirmative action now includes assistance for gender representation, people with disabilities, and covered veterans.
  • Criticism of affirmative action emphasizes high program costs, the hiring of fewer qualified candidates, and a lack of historical progress in equal representation.

How Affirmative Action Works

The main purpose of affirmative action is to diversify various parts of society. It is a government-backed policy that was developed to provide inadequately represented groups of people with access to opportunities in academia, the private workforce, and government jobs.

These opportunities include admission to schools and jobs in professional positions, as well as access to housing and financing.

History and Implementation

The affirmative action policy rose to prominence in the United States in the 1960s as a way to promote equal opportunity for 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 halting the continued social segregation of minorities and other disadvantaged individuals from institutions and opportunities.

Despite legislation that outlawed discrimination practices in the U.S., tangible change in the status quo was not immediate.

In more recent years, campaigns have expanded to make organizations and institutions even more inclusive by pushing for greater gender diversity. Newer policies are also aimed at providing more access to opportunities for covered veterans and people with disabilities.

Covered veterans are veterans who are disabled, who served on active duty in a war or other campaign and have a campaign badge or a service medal, or who are recently separated from the Armed Forces.

Elements of Affirmative Action

Efforts to stimulate change can take the form of financial assistance such as grants, scholarships, and other support earmarked to help with access to higher education opportunities.

In addition, hiring practices may be structured to require the inclusion of diverse candidates for consideration for job openings. Government agencies may 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.

People confuse employment equity with affirmative action. There's a distinct difference between the two. Employment equity attempts to ensure that all individuals are treated equally while affirmative action actually supports those people in particular who historically have been denied opportunities.

Examples of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has been put to work since the 1960s, despite lack of progress at times and rulings by legal authorities such as the Supreme Court that have hindered it. Here are some examples of the policy in action.

  • In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246. It required that all government contractors and subcontractors expand job opportunities for minorities. It also established the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) to enforce the order.
  • In 1970, the Labor Department ordered and authorized flexible goals and timetables to address the underutilization of minorities by federal contractors. In 1971, women were included in the order.
  • In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It required agencies to submit an affirmative action plan to the EEOC that detailed the hiring, placement, and advancement of individuals with disabilities.
  • In 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12432. It required every federal agency with substantial procurement or grant-making authority to develop a Minority Business Enterprise development plan.
  • In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. A year later, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
  • In 1998, the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate stopped attempts to eliminate specific affirmative action programs. Both houses of Congress prohibited the abolishment of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. In addition, the House refused to allow the elimination of affirmative action in admissions in higher education programs funded through the Higher Education Act.
  • In 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that dozens of major U.S. companies including Apple, Alphabet, American Airlines, and General Motors were urging the Supreme Court to uphold the continued use affirmative action policies in college admissions. They asserted that greater diversity on college campuses contributed to ongoing innovation in commerce and successful business endeavors.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Affirmative Action

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


An obvious benefit of affirmative action is the opportunities they provide to people who otherwise might not have them. These opportunities include access to education for students who may be disadvantaged and career advancement for employees who may be blocked from rising up the corporate ladder.

Proponents of affirmative action say that the effort must continue because of the low percentages of diversity in positions of authority and in the media, as well as limited acknowledgment of the achievements of marginalized or unrepresented groups.


Opponents of affirmative action frequently call these efforts a collective failure. They cite as evidence the tiny changes to the status quo after decades of effort. 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 believe that there is little to no bias in society. They argue that affirmative action results in reverse discrimination, which can often lead to qualified candidates being overlooked in academics and the workplace in favor of less qualified candidates who meet policy standards.

  • Provides opportunities for minorities and people from disadvantaged groups

  • Diversifies society

  • 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. 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%) 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 increase in support is especially important, given the active issues surrounding race and identity in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Many Americans feel positive about diversity. They are comfortable with the makeup of their communities, saying diversity positively impacts society as a whole.

There is some divide when it comes to identifying race and ethnicity for purposes of hiring. In fact, about 74% of individuals feel that a candidate's racial or ethnic background shouldn't be considered when hiring or promoting them. These activities should only be based on someone's merit and qualifications.

What Is the Goal of Affirmative Action?

The goal of affirmative action is to increase opportunities for individuals and groups that historically have been underrepresented or, in some cases, barred, from certain areas of academia, the government, and the private sector workforce. Affirmative action policies provide funding in the form of grants and scholarships to these communities.

Policies were adopted to help those from different racial backgrounds and national origins. They have expanded to address gender, sexual orientation, and various disabilities.

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

Affirmative action policies have helped diversify higher education. When first adopted, the student body at most higher education institutions was primarily white. That has changed, leading to more diverse and vibrant student populations 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 in Bakke's favor, saying racial quotas were unconstitutional.

Which U.S. President First Defined and Used the Term Affirmative Action?

That was President John F. Kennedy. 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."

Article Sources
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  1. CFI. "Affirmative Action."

  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Affirmative Action."

  3. American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. "Affirmative Action Policies Throughout History."

  4. The Wall Street Journal. "College Affirmative Action Policies Backed by Major Companies."

  5. Gallup. "Affirmative Action and Public Opinion."

  6. Pew Research Center. "Americans See Advantages and Challenges in Country’s Growing Racial and Ethnic Diversity."

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