Affirmative Action Essay

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Affirmative action refers to deliberate efforts, voluntary as well as mandatory, to recruit and hire or admit  employees  or students  from  historically marginalized backgrounds (women  and racial/ ethnic minority groups, such as African Americans, Native  Americans,  and  Latinos)  in  private   and public employment  as well as in higher education. Affirmative  action  was  originally  designed  as  a system of policies to remedy  those  effects of past discrimination that  have lingered into the present. Since  its  implementation in  the  late  1960s  and early 1970s, affirmative action has come under criticism and emerged as one of the most emotional and divisive social issues in American society. Supporters  of  affirmative   action   maintain that such  measures  are  necessary  to  ensure  a diverse workforce and student body that reflect the multicultural  demographic realities  of  American society  and  to  mitigate  the  effects  of  racial  and gender  discrimination, while critics of affirmative action often pejoratively  refer to it as “reverse discrimination,” “preferential treatment,” or “political correctness” that  harbors allegedly “antiwhite”  and  “antimale”  biases.  Opponents also  contend   that   the  principles   of  affirmative action allegedly undermine the notion of a meritocracy (a society where individuals  either succeed  or  fail  solely  on  the  basis  of  their  own hard work and initiative, or lack thereof) and, ironically,  violate the very spirit of the civil rights and women’s  rights  movements  of the 1960s  and 1970s  by judging individuals  on the basis of their group  identification rather  than  on  their  unique abilities.

One  reason  why affirmative  action  remains  so controversial is that no clear-cut, uniform standard exists for how affirmative action goals are to be implemented by corporations and  universities.  As a result, each state as well as individual  businesses, firms, and colleges/universities  must establish their own  affirmative   action  policies.  Over  the  years, such policies have ranged from the implementation of strict  racial  and  gender  quotas  (now  declared illegal under  federal  law) to more  general  timetables and recruiting  goals, to the awarding of additional  points   and   bonuses   for   female   or minority  status on applicants’  qualifying examinations,   to   deliberate   and   concerted   tactics   that target women and racial/ethnic minorities for recruitment and  employment. The  confusion  and inconsistency  stemming  from such a wide-ranging array  of affirmative  action  policies has generated numerous  state  and  federal  court   challenges  to affirmative  action  since the  late  1970s,  although affirmative  action  remains  a priority  at the federal level, in many state governments, and among many businesses and colleges/universities  throughout the nation.

Early Years

Until the mid-1960s, institutional barriers— codified  into  law—prevented African  Americans, women, and other minority groups from entering many  occupations and  colleges  and  universities. President John F. Kennedy first used the term affirmative  action in Executive Order  10925, issued in March  1961,  which established  the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Kennedy instructed contractors hired for projects funded by the federal government to “take  affirmative  action to  ensure  that  applicants are  employed,  and  are treated   during   employment, without  regard   to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and gender in public accommodations (e.g., employment, educational institutions, restaurants, and retail establishments) in the United  States. The goal of many  advocates of  civil  rights  throughout  the  1950s   and  early 1960s  was the pursuit  of a “colorblind” society— that  is, an American  society in which an individual’s skin color  or racial  background did not  serve as a basis for prejudicial attitudes, social exclusion, and discriminatory treatment. However,  these activists  soon  realized  that  the  nation’s  long  history of racial and gender oppression had produced a legacy of inequality  that  could  not  immediately be  overcome  through a  mere  legislative  act  that barred  discrimination; many argued that proactive measures   aimed   at  greater   inclusion   of  blacks (as well as other racial/ethnic  minority  groups  and women) in employment  and education were necessary   to   achieve   social   equality.   President Lyndon   Johnson   underscored  these   sentiments when  he famously  remarked in a commencement address  at  Howard University  in 1965,  “You  do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains  and  liberate  him,  bring  him  up  to  the starting  line  of  a  race  and  say, ‘You  are  free  to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that  you have been completely  fair.”

The  Richard  Nixon  administration crafted  the first   federal   policy   aimed   at   hiring   a  specific number  of minority  employees  in 1969  with  the Philadelphia Plan, which called on contractors submitting  bids for federally  funded  construction projects  to exert all efforts to closely approximate the  federal  government’s  predetermined goals  for hiring  a  desired  number   of  minority   employees. The Philadelphia  Plan was upheld by federal court rulings  in 1970  and  1971,  and  it soon  became  a model  for  affirmative  action  policies  at  the  local and state levels as well as in colleges and universities across  the nation. One  common  template  for affirmative  action  policies in the 1970s  called for every   third   or   fourth    employee   hired   by   a corporation or  agency  to  be  either  nonwhite or female, a practice that critics denounced as discriminatory racial  and  gender  quotas.  By the mid to  late  1970s,  many  institutions of  higher education had implemented affirmation action policies  of  their  own,  not  only  to  comply  with federal regulations but also to diversify their campuses.

Although the political discourse surrounding affirmative action in the 1960s and early 1970s focused  primarily  on the need to remedy  historic and contemporary institutional discrimination against  African  Americans,  as  affirmation action policies became more widespread throughout American  society,  such  policies  began  to  expand their   focus   to   include   minority   groups   other than African Americans—namely, white females, Latinos, Native Americans, and others. This generated controversy in and of itself: If the purpose  of affirmative   action   was  to  serve  as  a  corrective measure   for   past   discrimination  in  American society, on what grounds  should recent immigrants from  Latin  America  constitute a  protected class under   affirmative   action   policies?   By  the   late 1970s,   Americans   had   become   bitterly   divided over affirmative  action, setting the stage for major legal and  political  challenges  that  persist  into  the 21st century.

Legal And Political  Challenges

One of the first major judicial battles over the constitutionality of affirmative  action  occurred  in 1978,  when the U.S. Supreme Court  struck  down the  use  of  racial  quotas   to  achieve  affirmative action   goals   in  Regents   of   the   University   of California  v. Bakke. Allan Bakke was denied admission  to the medical  school  at the University of California, Davis, in 1973  and 1974. The university’s medical school had two admission categories:  one for general applicants and one for racial/ethnic  minorities. The medical school admitted 100 new students  each year; of this total, 84  slots  were  designated   for  general  applicants, and 16 were reserved for minority  applicants. As a white male, Bakke was restricted  to applying in the general  application pool,  and  the  school  rejected his application both years. However, Bakke discovered  that  his grade  point  average  and  test  scores were higher than  those of several individuals  who had been admitted under the pool for racial/ethnic minority  applicants. Bakke sued the university  for denying   him   admission   to   its  medical   school, asserting  that  its affirmative  action  policy denied him equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment   to  the  U.S. Constitution. A divided U.S. Supreme Court  declared that  numerical quotas—such as those implemented at the University  of California, Davis—were  unconstitutional,  although the  court  did uphold  affirmative action  in theory,  maintaining that  race or  gender could be one of several factors in a hiring or admissions  process  (it just  could  not  be the  sole determining factor).

Affirmative  action  survived  the  1980s,  despite the  relatively   strong   conservative   mood   of  the country during the Reagan to Bush period and President  Ronald  Reagan’s  staunch  opposition to such  measures.  In 1991,  President  George  H. W. Bush appointed Clarence  Thomas,  an  outspoken critic  of  affirmative  action,  to  the  U.S. Supreme Court  after  an acrimonious confirmation process. Thomas,  an  African  American  conservative  who grew  up  in  rural  Georgia  during  the  1950s  and 1960s, had benefited from some of the earliest affirmative  action  policies implemented during  his education and early career, although he turned against such programs during his adult years. Specifically, Thomas  argued that affirmative  action stigmatizes  minorities  by  implying  that  they  are unable  to compete  against  whites  on merit  alone. He also contended that affirmative action in higher education is counterproductive because it often grants admission to colleges and universities to minority  students  who  are  unable  to  succeed  in these environments due to inadequate educational preparation, thus  setting  many  minority  students up for failure.

By the mid-1990s, affirmative  action  reemerged as a contentious issue, particularly within  higher education. In July 1995,  the Board  of Regents  of the   University   of   California  voted   14-10   to eliminate  affirmative  action  in hiring  and  admissions  across  its  10-campus  system.  The  central figure  promoting this  ban  was Ward  Connerly,  a prominent businessman who emerged as a national figure in the fight against racial and gender preferences  and  governmental efforts  to  classify people  by race in the 1990s  and  2000s.  In 1996, Connerly  lobbied successfully to place Proposition 209, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative referendum, on  the  state  ballot.  Proposition 209 called for ending all affirmative action within California by amending  the  state  constitution to declare, “The  state  shall not  discriminate  against, or  grant  preferential treatment to, any individual or group  on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”  Fifty-five  percent  of  Californians  voted  in favor  of Proposition 209  on  Election  Day  1996, thus  eliminating  affirmative  action  in the nation’s largest, and one of its most racially and ethnically diverse, states.

Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, also generated headlines regarding affirmative action around this time. In 1996,  the Fifth Circuit  Court of Appeals  declared  the  admissions  policy  at  the University  of  Texas  School  of  Law  unconstitutional in Hopwood v. Texas. Cheryl Hopwood had been  rejected  from  the  university’s  law  school  in 1992  despite  having  a higher  LSAT (Law  School Admission  Test)  score  and  grade  point   average than 36 of the 43 Latinos and 16 of the 18 African Americans  admitted to  the  program. Three  other white  students  who  had  also  been  denied  admission to the law school  joined  Hopwood’s lawsuit against the University of Texas; because of its geographic  range of jurisdiction, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling effectively ended affirmative action in higher education admission  policies in Texas,  Louisiana, and   Mississippi.   However,   in  1997,   voters   in Houston,  Texas,   voted   to   preserve   affirmative action  in city contracting and  hiring  by a 55-45 percent     margin.    Aware    of    the    emotional sensitivities surrounding affirmative  action and anticipating some degree of political  vulnerability on the issue from social and political conservatives, President  Bill Clinton  famously  declared  of affirmative action in a July 1995 speech, “Mend it, but don’t end it.”

Nevertheless, attacks against affirmative action gained national traction by the late 1990s. Following the passage of Proposition 209 in California,  Connerly    turned    his   attention  to other states, where he helped sponsor  similar anti– affirmative action ballot initiatives. In 1998, Connerly  helped place Initiative  200 on the ballot in Washington State; it was passed with 58 percent of  the  vote.  In  2006,   58  percent   of  the  voters approved  the   Michigan   Civil  Rights   Initiative, which  eliminated  affirmative  action  in that  state. Connerly  also  helped  sponsor  successful bans  on affirmative   action  in  Arizona   and  Nebraska. In 2003, Connerly sponsored Proposition 54 in California, known  as the Racial Privacy Initiative, which  attempted to  forbid  the  state  from  using racial  classifications  in statistical  information and other  data  altogether. The  measure  failed  at  the ballot box, however, garnering only 36-percent approval among  the voters.

The 2006 Michigan  Civil Rights Initiative was a response  to the U.S. Supreme  Court’s  rulings  in a pair of cases in 2003  regarding  the constitutionality of affirmative  action  policies in admissions  to the   University   of   Michigan.   The   high   court’s decisions  in these  two  cases appeared contradictory  to many  opponents of affirmative  action.  In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court  declared the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admission policy unconstitutional and tantamount to a racial quota  system; the university  used a points  system to score applicants in a variety of areas, and those with a specified minimum score were admitted. Applicants    from   underrepresented   racial   and ethnic minority  backgrounds (e.g., African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans) were awarded  an   additional  20   points,   which   the Supreme  Court  found  disproportional and  struck down. However, in Gutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court  upheld the affirmative  action policy used by the University of Michigan’s law school, which did not rely on a points system but rather took an applicant’s  racial and gender background into consideration  as  two  of  many  factors   to  ensure  a well-rounded and diverse admissions  pool. In upholding  the  law  school’s  policy,  the  Supreme Court   signaled   that   diversity   is  a  compelling interest   to   be  taken   into   consideration  within higher  education. The key difference  was that  the undergraduate  admission   policy   was   absolute while   the   law   school’s   admission   policy   was relative and considered the full context of an applicant’s  background. Opponents of affirmative action in Michigan were dismayed that the Supreme Court  did not  strike  down  the  affirmative  action policies    in    both     cases,    and     assisted     by Ward Connerly,  they fought to place a Proposition 209–like   referendum  on   the   Michigan   ballot 3 years  later.  Jennifer  Gratz,  a white  female  who had been denied admission to the University of Michigan  in 1997  despite  a 3.8 grade  point  average (and who was the lead plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger), served as executive director of the Michigan  Civil Rights Initiative.

Efforts  to overturn Michigan’s  ban on affirmative action  proved  unsuccessful. In April 2014,  the Supreme Court  upheld  the Wolverine  State’s 2006 ban in Schuette  v. Coalition  to Defend  Affirmative Action. This decision did not declare affirmative action  unconstitutional or strike down  affirmative action  policies; it simply gave states  the authority to rescind  affirmative  action  if they wished  to do so. With  the  trajectory of  recent  court  decisions and legislative action  across the nation, the future of  affirmative   action  in  the  United  States  looks murky  at best.

Criticism And Defense

An ironic dimension  of the debate over affirmative action   is  that   both   its  supporters  and   critics regularly accuse one another of racism. Proponents of affirmative  action maintain that it is a necessary remedy for overcoming  institutional racism within American society and that those who oppose it (particularly if they are white) are allegedly motivated by racist sentiments. On the other hand, opponents of affirmative  action allege that preference   for  racial  and  ethnic  minorities   is  a form   of  antiwhite, “reverse   discrimination.” As with many controversial social and political topics, one’s personal  perspective  on this issue is contingent on how it is framed. Public opinion  polls have indicated  that  white Americans  are more  favorable to affirmative  action policies based on gender than to those based on race. Most  of the opposition to affirmative   action   focuses  on  racial  preferences rather   than   gender  preferences,   despite  a  1995 study   that   revealed   that   white   females   have benefited   most  from  affirmative   action   policies since their inception.

Many critics accuse affirmative action of preventing the United States from becoming a “colorblind” society  that   ignores  issues  of  race altogether. Those who hold such viewpoints  often feel that racial discrimination and inequality  either no longer exist in American  society or, if they do, are minor and relatively inconsequential in preventing racial and ethnic minorities from achieving parity with whites in education, employment,  and   social  inclusion.   Highlighting race, these critics assert, only serves to perpetuate racism. Defenders of affirmative  action respond  by claiming that  the notion  of a colorblind American society  is  more  of  an  idealistic  illusion  than   a reality; institutional racial and gender barriers  still remain  in  the  21st  century,  even  if  they  are  no longer   codified   into   laws   as  in  the   past.   For example,  many  proponents of  affirmative  action point   out   that   much   hiring   within   corporate America   is  based   on   an   informal   network  of personal   connections  (commonly   referred   to  as “the old boys’ network”) rather  than on true merit and qualifications. Since women, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other minority  groups  have largely been excluded  from these  networks for  generations, they  most  likely will  lack  these  informal   ties,  which  often  prove crucial in hiring and promotion; affirmative  action in education and employment  thus serves to “level the playing field” somewhat.

Nevertheless,  even the most ardent  defenders of affirmative  action  concede that  such policies have not eradicated racism and sexism in American society, even nearly  half a century  after  their  first implementation. A particularly vexing question pertains  to what should be the ultimate  purpose  of affirmative  action—to serve as a remedy  for past discrimination or to promote diversity in the workforce and  on  college  campuses?  These  two issues  are   not   necessarily   one   and   the   same, although there  may  be considerable overlap  and connections between  them.  For example,  affirmative  action   policies   benefit   African   Americans whose ancestors  were brought to the North American  colonies  as slaves and  whose  grandparents endured  racial segregation  under Jim Crow, as well as recent  black  immigrants from  Africa  and the Caribbean—many of whom come from highly educated   and   relatively   affluent   backgrounds. While African and Caribbean immigrants certainly add   to  the  diversity  of  corporate  and   campus settings, these immigrants have not had a multigenerational experience  of racial  oppression in the United States, as have U.S.-born African Americans.

A similar  dilemma  posed  by affirmative  action relates  to  what,  exactly,  should  be considered  as “social   disadvantages” and  thereby  constitute a protected status  under  affirmative  action  policies. In  the  aggregate,   whites  have  higher  education levels and incomes than African Americans and Latinos, and males have higher income levels than females. However,  privilege is always  relative  and never absolute,  raising questions  as to whether,  for example,  an  African  American  male  or  a  white female  from  a  suburban middle-class  household deserves  to  be  granted   preferential treatment  in hiring  or college admissions  over a working-class or impoverished white  male from  a lower-income rural  or  inner-city  environment? Because of such nuances,  some advocates  have recommended that affirmative  action  policies be revised to take social class, rather  than race or gender, into primary consideration.


  1. Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History  of Affirmative Action.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  2. Grodsky, Eric and Michael Kurlaender. Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: The Past and Future of California’s Proposition 209. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010.
  3. Kennedy, Randall. For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law. New York: Random House,
  4. Leiter, William M. and Samuel Leiter. Affirmative Action in Antidiscrimination Law and Policy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
  5. Sander, Richard and Stuart Taylor  Mismatch:  How Affirmative Action  Hurts  Students  It’s Intended to Help, and Why  Universities Won’t  Admit It. New York: Basic Books, 2012.
  6. Stainback, Kevin and Donald  Tomaskovic-Devey. Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act. New York: Russell Sage Press, 2012.
  7. Wise, Tim. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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