Boundless Sociology: "Chapter 10, Section 6: Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.: Affirmative Action"

This article provides historical data regarding affirmative action as well as the correlation with class inequality.

Affirmative Action

Definition: A policy or program that offers advantages or preferential treatment to members of minority groups that have suffered from past discrimination. The goal is to create a more egalitarian society via preferential access to education, employment, health care, and social welfare.

Key Points

    • Affirmative action policies intend to prevent discrimination against employees and applicants for employment, on the basis of "color, religion, sex, or national origin."
    • The controversy surrounding affirmative action's effectiveness is often based on the idea of class inequality.
    • Affirmative action opponents say it is a form of reverse discrimination because it employs the same discriminatory tactics it seeks to eliminate.

In the United States, affirmative action refers to equal opportunity employment measures that government agencies, public universities, and other federal contractors and subcontractors, are legally required to adopt. These measures intend to rectify past injustices caused by widespread discriminatory practices that occurred against employees and job applicants based on skin color, religion, sex, and national origin. Examples of affirmative action programs from the United States Department of Labor include targeted recruitment, employee and management development, outreach campaigns, and employee support programs.

Affirmative action policies aim to redress the disadvantages associated with overt historical discrimination. They also aim to ensure that public institutions, such as universities, hospitals, and police departments, represent the populations they serve.

Affirmative action is controversial. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some affirmative action policies, such as racial and gender quotas for collegiate admission, are unconstitutional and a form of reverse discrimination. However, the Court upheld affirmative action as a practice during another court case that year.

Photo of President John F. Kennedy

History of the Concept of Affirmative Action

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy coined the concept of affirmative action, a government policy tool, to address persisting racial inequalities and injustices that African Americans continued to experience in the United States. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 directed all government contracting agencies to employ "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."

Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined the basic social science view that supported these policies:

"Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man."

Arguments against Affirmative Action

The controversy surrounding affirmative action is based on the idea of class inequality. Affirmative action opponents argue that these policies benefited middle- and upper-class African and Hispanic Americans at the expense of lower class white Americans. Some supported replacing race-based affirmative action preferences middle and upper class people of color received, with affirmative action policies based on socio-economic status.

Other opponents called affirmative action policies reverse discrimination because they felt they employed the same types of discriminatory practices they sought to eliminate, making the efforts counter-productive. Some complained that affirmative action encouraged educational institutions and businesses to accept unprepared applicants who would eventually fail. Others argued that affirmative action hindered reconciliation, replaced old wrongs with new wrongs, undermined the achievements of minorities, and encouraged groups to identify as disadvantaged even if they were not.

Implementation in Universities

In the United States, many affirmative action policies center on providing access to education, such as preferred admission to higher education institutions. In addition to an applicant's grades and test scores, most U.S. universities take race, ethnicity, native language, social status, geographical origin, parental attendance (legacy admissions), and gender into account when accepting students. Affirmative action proponents argue that many of these criteria are also forms of affirmative action because they provide a form of preferential treatment for students who come from privileged backgrounds. Individuals receive full and partial scholarships based on these benchmarks. 

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke v. Regents that public universities (and other government institutions) could not set specific numerical targets (or quotas) based on race for admissions or employment. The Court said that these institutions could set "goals" and "timetables" for diversity instead.

Source: Boundless. “Affirmative Action.” Boundless Sociology Boundless, Aug. 8, 2016.

Last modified: Monday, April 15, 2019, 5:21 PM