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.
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.
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.