What is Affirmative Action?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Affirmative action is a set of policies that are designed to promote inclusion of all individuals, thereby addressing concerns about discrimination. Some form has been present in the United States since the late 1800s, but the push for more extensive laws and the enforcement of it really began in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement. There are a number of arguments against affirmative action, with critics calling it "reverse discrimination" and arguing that it enforces barriers between people, rather than breaking them down.

Affirmative action is intended to increase workplace diversity.
Affirmative action is intended to increase workplace diversity.

Several issues are designed to be addressed with affirmative action. The first is a past history of discrimination, with laws recognizing the fact that many people have been excluded historically from jobs, schools, and social endeavors, and that in many cases, this historic pattern of exclusion has created disadvantages. Concerns about current discrimination are also designed to be addressed by these policies, as are desires to create a more fully integrated and diverse society.

Critics of affirmative action argue that it devalues individual work ethic.
Critics of affirmative action argue that it devalues individual work ethic.

Many laws and policies related to discrimination issues revolve around the idea of equal opportunity, with supporters arguing that everyone should have a chance for success in society, and that people may be at a disadvantage because of race, ethnic origin, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. Rather than giving preference to minorities, these laws are supposed to ensure that minorities are included equally, and to reward the inclusion of diversity. Proponents claim that these laws also recognize that there are differences between people and that these differences need to be addressed, rather than taking a "colorblind" view, which can often be a disservice to minorities.

Opponents often suggest that such laws can promote people who are under-qualified, taking away jobs or other positions from those who are a better fit, through no fault of the qualified candidate. Such actions, which may disproportionally affect white males, are simply another form of discrimination, they suggest. Practicing a new wrong in the present, some argue, does nothing to really correct the wrongs of the past.

In addition, it is often argued that affirmative action devalues the achievements of individuals in groups who have been discriminated against in the past. Such policies can be seen as suggesting that these people need help to succeed rather than doing so on their own merits. Lowered standards for minorities, others suggest, discourages those individuals from trying their best.

One example of this type of law is one that states that landlords cannot deny rental units to people on the basis of race or family status. These types of laws are specifically designed to pinpoint examples of discrimination and make it clear that such actions are not legal. Another example might be a law that gives preference to government bids that include the use of minority subcontractors. People will not necessarily automatically give a bid for subcontracting to a female painting crew, for example, but they will be given more weight in the decision making process.

Many nations have laws on the books which fall under the umbrella of affirmative action. In addition, many companies and government agencies have policies that are designed to promote diversity. Proponents argue that these policies do not just benefit the minorities who are protected and promoted under such policies, but also the company and the workplace as a whole, because including people from diverse backgrounds can contribute to a better variety of ideas and ways of working. The direct combating of discrimination through such policies is also designed to reduce the cultural, socioeconomic, and class gaps between people of differing backgrounds.

Affirmative action is intended to ensure that minorities are included equally in hiring and other corporate decisions.
Affirmative action is intended to ensure that minorities are included equally in hiring and other corporate decisions.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


To be honest, quotas do still exist. Rigid quotas are outlawed (Michigan University) but a flexible quota is allowed.


Quotas are illegal. Affirmative action does not use quotas.


@rallenwriter -- You said that sometimes affirmative action pros take precedence over the cons in discussion.

This may be true, but I think that a lot of people who discuss it already have their set point of view in mind, and no amount of pros or cons can change it.

I am all for affirmative action, personally. I think its a good plan, and when executed properly, works very well.


Do the affirmative action requirements vary from state to state, or is there a federal standard for an affirmative action plan?


OK, I know I'm opening up a can of worms here, but I think that too often the affirmative action cons get looked over in favor of the pros.

I am not in the least racist -- in fact, I am Caucasian and my husband is Chinese -- but I think that affirmative action policies sometimes have a tendency of backfiring, and discriminating against the very people they are supposed to be helping.

Again, I'm not against affirmative action. I just think that it may not be the best idea in every situation, and that sometimes people get so busy filling up their affirmative action quotas that qualified applicants for jobs, colleges, etc, go unnoticed.

Post your comments
Forgot password?