Affirmative action is a policy of giving preference or favor to members of groups (such as racial minorities and women) that have suffered past discrimination or prejudice, in order to increase their representation in universities, business, public services (like the Police) and government. In the United States, affirmative action was allowed as a remedy to racial injustice by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have restricted its scope. In addition, in a number of states, referenda have limited the use of affirmative action policies in those states.
Origins and policy history
The term "affirmative action" was introduced in an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, in which he called upon federal government contractors to "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." In doing so, Kennedy added to a gradually growing list of presidential initiatives to mitigate racial discrimination in employment and contracting starting in 1941 with Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which mandated nondiscrimination in defense hiring and contracting and created a Fair Employment Practices Committee to adjudicate alleged violations of the order's nondiscrimination mandates.
President Lyndon Johnson reinforced Kennedy's first affirmative action initiative with another executive order in 1965. It was his successor, Richard Nixon, who took the most forceful steps towards implementing affirmative action with his Philadelphia Plan in 1969.
Supreme Court rulings
Affirmative action has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court cases since the late 1970s.
The first, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (438 U.S. 265 (1978)), which featured six separate opinions, underscored the issue's divisiveness.
Affirmative action in comparative perspective
While affirmative action is an American phenomenon, other countries have enacted similar public policies.
Justifications of affirmative action tend to either that it solves an individual, personal injustice or that it increases diversity, which is good for the society and institution, and helps prevent future inequality by acting as a obligation to the institution to confront its own past and present inequality.
Opponents of affirmative action argue that it is a form of "reverse" discrimination, that those favoured by affirmative action policies are being promoted over better-qualified candidates, and that a candidate placed in a position because of an affirmative action policy may not have as much respect as if they had been placed in that position through a meritocratic system instead. It also continues to promote racial awareness and racial divisions, through governmental and legal decisions based on the racial identity of people.
- Executive Order no. 10925, March 6, 1961. Full text available here.