What is Affirmative Action?

what is affirmative action

Affirmative action is a controversial type of policy aimed at increasing diversity in government, educational institutions, and private businesses. It is a complicated idea that has many facets and strong opinions attached to it on either side. The following will provide an overview of affirmative action, the cases for and against it, and the different legalities of the practice.

What Affirmative Action Is

Affirmative action is a type of policy that is meant to increase diversity within any given organization. President John F. Kennedy first introduced the term in an executive order from 1961. The term is commonly used to refer to policies in place at colleges and universities but can also include private businesses, government bodies, and other organizations. Affirmative action is usually not framed as quotas but rather as voluntary efforts to increase recruitment of these minorities and the creation of internal target goals for inclusion. The concept of affirmative action continues to evolve as people’s understanding of it and the issues minority groups face do too.

The Case For Affirmative Action

Many groups of people are underrepresented and discriminated against when it comes to getting into college or gaining employment. This includes ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+ people, and others. It can even mean anyone different from usual personnel, such as older individuals, married individuals, and individuals from lower classes of society. Diversity is important for almost all organizations because it allows them to hear different points of view and appeal to a wider variety of groups. Due to systemic oppression that includes less obvious ways of discrimination, it can be difficult for minorities to obtain the same opportunities that majority groups otherwise enjoy. Affirmative action is intended to remedy that. The real quandary is in how effective or fair these policies are.

The Case Against Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has come under fire by many groups and individuals because they feel it unfairly gives certain people an advantage in finding employment or gaining entry into a college. It can potentially lead to reverse discrimination against people who are part of majority groups. Another downside is that accepting people based on their diverse nature may not reflect their true abilities and value to the organization. This has been demonstrated in the outcomes of some affirmative action policies which can impact the free market negatively. Due to increasing diversity in organizations and society in general, many argue that these policies have done their job and are no longer needed.

Legal Status

The legal status of affirmative action and aspects of its policy vary by jurisdiction and country. Affirmative action has been mostly upheld when challenged and brought before the United States Supreme Court. However, according to CNN, racial quotas have been judged as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in all cases. Some states, such as Texas, California, and Florida, have implemented percentage plans to replace affirmative action policies that guarantee a certain percentage of top high school graduates spots in public universities in that state. Other countries, such as Rwanda after the horrific genocide in 1994, have had ethnic and gender quotas enacted in law to relative success. In the United Kingdom, affirmative action is illegal because it does not treat people equally because of their race. Affirmative action policies ultimately need to focus on providing equal opportunities for minority groups without unfairly favoring them.


Affirmative action will continue to be a point of contention going into the future. Different individuals and groups will have strong opinions on the practice either way and research into its effects will continue to take place. For everyone, though, it is important to deeply understand affirmative action so they can reach an educated stance on the matter.

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