What is Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a policy in which an individual's color, race, sex, religion or national origin are taken into account to increase opportunities provided to an underrepresented part of society. 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. It is often considered a means of countering historical discrimination against particular groups.

BREAKING DOWN Affirmative Action

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.

Ways Affirmative Action Has Been Implemented

Efforts to stimulate such change can take the form of assistance to increase the opportunities available to underrepresented groups. This 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 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 people with disabilities and covered veterans.

The implementation and continued practice of affirmative action policies have drawn strong support as well as staunch criticism. Proponents of affirmative action may 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. The tiny changes to the status quo after decades of effort are often cited as evidence of this. Critics of affirmative action assert that such policies can hinder the prosperity of the groups they were meant to help. 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, opponents of affirmative action might claim that at least from their perspective little to no bias exists in current society.