What is Affirmative Action?
Affirmative action refers to policies and laws that attempt to redress past discrimination and promote equal opportunity. Affirmative action is associated to positive discrimination, which means to compensate or counter the effects of prejudices in terms of gender, race, and disabilities. These policies and terminology vary from country to country. For example, some governments have adopted quotas for women, members of different ethnic groups, and people with disabilities. These quotas ensure that people from certain socio-demographic groups, that have suffered from past discrimination, can access schools, jobs, and participate in political life.
President John F. Kennedy coined the concept "affirmative action" when he signed Executive Order 10925 in 1961, where he said public contractors should "take 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." Ever since, governments in several countries, including Brazil, Canada, India, Malay, and South Africa, have adopted policies to oppose discrimination in employment and facilitate access to certain education institutions. These policies apply preferential treatment to members of minority groups and nationalities that have been subject to past discrimination or were under-represented in positions of authority.
Affirmative Action Pros and Cons
Proponents of affirmative argue the following:
- Affirmative action policies offer a way to balance inherent structural disparities and compensate groups that have suffered from centuries of racial and gender discrimination.
- Affirmative action ensures representation from minorities and disadvantaged groups in positions of authority. These representatives offer inspiring role models and can help us fight continuing social prejudices and stereotypes.
- Affirmative action contributes to diversity in schools, universities, companies and public administrations.
- Affirmative action help people with disabilities enter the workforce and contribute to the economy of their communities. They provide these individuals economic independence so they do not have to rely on government welfare programs.
- People who come from a disadvantaged position deserve extra support to develop their full potential. Without affirmative action many would not have the opportunity to work in certain professions or pursue areas of study that were previously out of reach.
In 1978, the limitations of this approach surfaced in the United States when Allan Bakke, a white male, complained that a medical school rejected his application two years in a row to favor less qualified minority applicants. The Supreme Court rejected the inflexibility of this institution's affirmative action quota system.
Opponents of affirmative action argue the following:
- Affirmative action fosters further discrimination and prejudice by unfairly holding those who are not part of the protected minority groups accountable for past wrongs.
- Affirmative action policies increase racial or ethnic tensions. Members of dominant group begin to resent the minority groups that receive preferential treatment and treat individual as less qualified and undeserving, even though they do not know the reason why the person was hired or admitted to the academic institution.
- Affirmative action policies can be difficult to apply in societies where dividing lines are unclear and individuals come from mixed race and various socio-economic backgrounds.
- Affirmative action policies reinforce separation and division by making it illegal to classify people according to their race or ethnic background.
- It can prove difficult to establish and administer the basic criteria that outline the recipients and end goals of preferential treatment.
What do you think? Is affirmative action positive or negative social construct? What are the main challenges for implementing these policies and laws? Do they work? Are they fair in the short- and long-term?