In the United States, affirmative action refers to policies designed to increase social, political, economic, and educational opportunities for groups that have historically been excluded based on various ascriptive and descriptive characteristics including “race,” ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, skin color, disability, age, and sexual orientation. Typically, organizations that benefit from federal funding are admonished to review their recruitment programs for compliance with equal opportunity laws and constitutional rights. Affirmative action regulations do not endorse quota systems and instead encourage use of pragmatic diversity initiatives that minimize intergroup conflict and maximize diverse talent contribution.
Affirmative action policies are recognized as proactive attempts to remedy historical and contemporary discrimination against subordinate groups who have been denied access to public and private benefits normally available to dominant groups. Though the emphasis of these policies is on creating subordinate group access to opportunity, the hope is that subordinate group representation will increase to better reflect their proportionate demographic profile. The methods used to achieve parity and the language used to convey the message to institutional gatekeepers are subject to selective perception and interpretation, thus opening the door to heated debate and controversy. This entry looks at the historical roots of discrimination, describes the initiation of affirmative action, and summarizes the response and current debate.
Record Of Discrimination
Immediately following the Civil War in 1865, the American government took drastic measures to reconstruct a nation that had been torn apart, largely over the issue of slavery. The Constitution was amended to emancipate enslaved people of African descent, grant them American citizenship, and enfranchise them. The federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee the monumental task of assisting freed former slaves to find housing, paid labor, and medical care and to help provide for their basic needs of food and clothing. The Bureau set up military courts to adjudicate complaints between former slaves and their masters, but perhaps its most critical duty was building schools to teach newly freed men and women how to read and write. Of all the needs the Bureau addressed in the aftermath of the war, education efforts produced the most successful results. Literacy rates among newly freed slaves catapulted from lows around 5 percent in 1865 to upward of 70 percent by 1900.
The Reconstruction era lasted from 1865 to 1877, during which time Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, foreshadowing the modern idea of affirmative action. Terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, however, effectively dashed the hope of many people of African descent to fully realize their freedom to enjoy first-class American citizenship as granted by government decree. The Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the separate but equal doctrine, ushered in the Jim Crow era and institutionalized legal segregation in American life.
Not until 1941 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which outlawed segregationist hiring policies by defense-related industries holding federal contracts, did things begin to change. Black trade union leader A. Philip Randolph is credited with helping to achieve this goal. President Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, through which he desegregated the U.S. military with Executive Order 9981 in 1948. A year prior, in 1947, major league baseball signed Jackie Robinson, opening the door for other Black athletes to play for major league sports teams. In 1954, another Supreme Court decision under President Eisenhower, in Brown v. Board of Education, overturned Plessy and legally ended America’s efforts to maintain the racially charged “separate but equal” contract.
President John F. Kennedy made the first reference to “affirmative action” in Executive Order 10925, which established the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and mandated that federally funded projects take affirmative action to eliminate hiring and employment practices that may be racially biased. The next president, Lyndon Johnson, signed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited any discrimination based on “race,” color, religion, or national origin.
In a commencement speech given at Howard University the following year, Johnson used metaphor to frame the concept of affirmative action by asserting that civil rights laws alone were not enough to fight discrimination and produce equality. “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now you are free. . . . You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of the race, saying ‘You are now free to compete with all the others.’ . . .” A few months later, on September 24, 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, enforcing affirmative action for the first time. It was amended a few weeks later to include discrimination based on gender. Public and private institutions and industries that used federal funding were now required to document their efforts to ensure equal employment opportunities along with the results or risk losing federal financial support and face other punitive consequences.
The Debate Begins
From its informal and formal beginnings, affirmative action has been highly controversial. Critics charge that such policies give preferential treatment to people based on their membership in a group and violate the principle that all citizens should be equal under the law. They argue the notion that contemporary Whites and men are made to suffer reverse discrimination at the hands of an overzealous government trying to remedy the effects of past discriminatory practices by their predecessors. Affirmative action advocates counter this rationale by noting that discrimination is, by definition, unfair treatment of people based on their membership in a certain group. Without effective strategies to systematically assist groups who suffer institutional discrimination, achieving an integrated society that affords equal opportunity regardless of group membership would be nearly impossible, they say. The language and the means used to implement affirmative action policies appear to inflame the critics, resulting in a plethora of lawsuits and legislative initiatives meant to define the scope and limitations.
Foremost among the challenges to affirmative action is the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which concluded that the work of remedying discrimination could continue—but not in a manner that results in what can be perceived as reverse discrimination. Strict quotas systems were effectively outlawed. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s the Supreme Court has been busy trying to balance the rights of the dominant fully represented groups with the rights of the subordinate underrepresented groups in business, education, and government arenas. Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980), Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986), United States v. Paradise (1987), City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson (1989), Adarand v. Pena (1995), Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School (1996), and Grutter v. Bollinger (2002) were all argued at the federal level. In 2003 the Supreme Court (5–4) upheld affirmative action in university admissions on behalf of the University of Michigan Law School by ruling that “race” could be one of the many factors considered by colleges because it furthers “a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
The debate over affirmative action is in many ways a philosophic one centering on a number of key questions that challenge a people’s collective sense of values, morals, ethics, and memory as a nation. Crucial questions must be answered: To what extent does systemic and episodic discrimination and bias still persist, and how does it affect the ability of historically oppressed groups to fully realize the benefits of first-class American citizenship? To what degree do Whites, particularly White men, lose privilege as a result of implementing affirmative action policies designed to create access for people of color, women, and other previously excluded groups?
Some civil rights advocates call America the “United States of Amnesia” because of what they see as the quick willingness to forget a painful past stained with blatant racism, classism, sexism, human exploitation, rape, lynching, theft, and other crimes against humanity. They believe that privileged critics of affirmative action, who are quick to disassociate themselves from the past, must reflect on the legacy of privilege they have inherited. Broadly speaking, Whites have enjoyed a normative system of “affirmative action” for nearly 400 years, whereas people of African descent, Native Americans, and women can count only about 40 tenuous years of affirmative action due to the ongoing court challenges that threaten its existence. The future of affirmative action looks a lot like its past, a continual struggle to defend its necessity and society’s ability to level the playing field and provide equal opportunity access to all Americans regardless of skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, creed, or disability.
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