Affirmative Action Overview

How Do We Fix Discrimination?

Berkeley Students Protest Repeal of Affirmative Action
Berkeley Students Protest Repeal of Affirmative Action. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Affirmative action refers to policies that try to correct past discrimination in hiring, university admissions, and other candidate selection. The necessity of affirmative action is often debated.

The concept of affirmative action is that positive steps should be taken to ensure equality, instead of ignoring discrimination or waiting for society to fix itself. Affirmative action becomes controversial when it is perceived as giving preference to minorities or women over other qualified candidates.

The Origin of Affirmative Action Programs

Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy used the phrase “affirmative action” in 1961. In an executive order, President Kennedy required federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed…without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued an order that used the same language to call for nondiscrimination in government employment.   

It was not until 1967 that President Johnson addressed sex discrimination. He issued another executive order on October 13, 1967. It expanded his previous order and required the government’s equal opportunity programs to “expressly embrace discrimination on account of sex” as they worked toward equality.

The Need for Affirmative Action

The legislation of the 1960s was part of a larger climate of seeking equality and justice for all members of society.

Segregation had been legal for decades after the end of slavery. President Johnson argued for affirmative action: if two men were running a race, he said, but one had his legs bound together in shackles, they could not achieve a fair result by simply removing the shackles. Instead, the man who had been in chains should be allowed to make up the missing yards from the time he was bound.

If striking down segregation laws could not instantly solve the problem, then positive steps of affirmative action could be used to achieve what President Johnson called “equality of result.” Some opponents of affirmative action saw it as a “quota” system that unfairly demanded a certain number of minority candidates be hired no matter how qualified the competing white male candidate was.

Affirmative action brought up different issues with regard to women in the workplace.  There was little protest of women in traditional “women’s jobs” – secretaries, nurses, elementary school teachers, etc. As more women began to work in jobs that had not been traditional women’s jobs, there was an outcry that giving a job to a woman over a qualified male candidate would be “taking” the job from the man. The men needed the job, was the argument, but the women did not need to work.

In her 1979 essay “The Importance of Work,” Gloria Steinem rejected the notion that women should not work if they do not “have to." She pointed out the double standard that employers never ask men with children at home if they really need the job for which they are applying. She also argued that many women do, in fact, “need” their jobs.

Work is a human right, not a male right, she wrote, and she criticized the false argument that independence for women is a luxury.

New and Evolving Controversies

Has affirmative action in fact corrected past inequality? During the 1970s, controversy over affirmative action often surfaced around the issues of government hiring and equal employment opportunity. Later, the affirmative action debate shifted away from the workplace and toward college admissions decisions. It has thus shifted away from women and back to a debate over race. There are roughly equal numbers of men and women admitted to higher education programs, and women have not been the focus of the university admissions arguments.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have examined the affirmative action policies of competitive state schools such as the University of California and the University of Michigan.

Although strict quotas have been struck down, a university admissions committee may consider minority status as one of many factors in admissions decisions as it selects a diverse student body. 

Still Necessary?

The Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement achieved radical transformation of what society accepted as normal. It is often difficult for subsequent generations to understand the need for affirmative action. They may have grown up intuitively knowing that “you can’t discriminate, because that’s illegal!” 

While some opponents say affirmative action is outdated, others find that women still face a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from advancing past a certain point in the workplace. 

Many organizations continue to promote inclusive policies, whether or not they use the term “affirmative action.” They fight discrimination on the basis of disability, sexual orientation, or family status (mothers or women who may become pregnant). Amid calls for a race-blind, neutral society, the debate over affirmative action continues.