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Affirmative action

Affirmative action is action affording, to groups considered victims of social discrimination, "preferential" or "equal" (depending on one's point of view) access to an environment or benefits, such as education, employment, health care or social welfare.

This can involve "equal opportunity" hiring and other practices, required demographically-representative (or over/under-representative) diversity in an environment, or other practices that actively prefer members of minority groups. The latter may include racial quotas and lowered performance requirements for applicants belonging to particular racial group(s).

Table of contents
1 Basis in US Law
2 Implementation in Universities
3 Consultations
4 Outside the United States
5 Opposing Views of Affirmative Action
6 Important US Supreme Court cases
7 See Also
8 External Link

Basis in US Law

In the US Constitution, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment mandates that no governmental entity burden a person or deny them benefits because they are members of a racial minority (see Constitutional Law, Nowak and Rotunda). The Oxford Desk dictionary defines a racial minority as a smaller number of persons within a political party or structure.

The Johnson administration embraced affirmative action in 1965, by issuing United States Executive Order 11246, later amended by Executive Order 11375. The order, as amended, aims "to correct the effects of past and present discrimination". It prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, skin color, religion, gender, or national origin. The Order requires that contractors take affirmative action to ensure that "protected class, underutilized applicants" are employed, and that employees are treated without discriminatory regard to their protected class status.

The Order specifically requires certain organizations accepting federal funds to take affirmative action to increase employment opportunities for members of racial minorities and women. Any organization with fifty or more employees and an aggregate revenue exceeding $50,000 from federal contracts during a twelve month period must have a written affirmative action plan. This plan must include goals and timetables for achieving full utilization of women and members of racial minorities, in quotass based on an analysis of the current workforce compared to the availability in the general labor pool of women and members of racial minorities.

The order is enforced by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs of the Employment Standards Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Section 717 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require all United States Federal Agencies to implement affirmative employment opportunity programs for all federal employees. EEOC Equal Employment Opportunity Management Directive 715 (MD 715) provides guidance as to how such programs are to be implemented.

In the beginning, racial classifications that only discriminated against racial minorities were inherently suspect and subject to strict scrutiny. These classifications would only be upheld if necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest. Later the US Supreme Court decided that racial classifications that benefited underrepresented minorities were to only be upheld if necessary and promoted a compelling governmental purpose. (See Richmond v. JA Croson Co.)

Individual US States e.g. Missouri also have orders that prohibit discrimination and outline affirmative action requirements with regard to race, creed, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, and disability status.

Implementation in Universities

When underrepresented minorities are actively sought or preferred, the reason given is usually that this is necessary to compensate for advantages to groups such as males or those of European descent from racism, sexism, results of historical circumstances, and institutional racism.

Some dissenters claim that racial preferences have in-effect caused a reverse discrimination against a historically-dominant group (white males in Europe and North America), and liken such preferences to apartheid.

In the US, the most common form of affirmative action centres around access to education, in particular entrance to university and other forms of tertiary instruction. Typically, individuals will have the difficulty of their entrance and/or exam requirements or numerical-maximum/minimum number of student-entries set in relation to what group(s) they belong to, such as their race, ethnicity, native language, class, geographic origin or gender. Individuals can also be awarded scholarships and have fees paid on the basis of the hitherto-listed criteria.

In the United States, affirmative action programs at universities usually benefit only black African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. Asian Americans, although a racial minority, do not benefit at most colleges because their makeup in the student body exceeds their makeup in the general US population. White-skinned people do not benefit in universities where their makeup in the student body is less than their makeup in the general US population because they are not members of a racial minority.


Another more abstract form of affirmative action is in consultations, whereby institutions such as schools or health-care facilities are declared to be ethnocentric around the majority culture, and therefore consultation with other ethnic groups, especially indigenous groups, are specified as a remedy. This can cause accusations of double-standards, as often in practice representatives of all ethnic groups except the majority group receive consultation on institutional workings. Proponants discount this as being irrelevant, as they claim consultation with the majority group is pointless, as the institution's management is centric around them anyway.

Outside the United States

In those countries outside the US which have laws on racial equality, such as the
United Kingdom, affirmative action would be illegal because of a requirement to treat all races equally. This approach of equal treatment is sometimes described as being race-blind. It tends to act against both discrimination and reverse discrimination.

In those countries, the focus tends to be on ensuring equal opportunity and, for example, advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force.

Opposing Views of Affirmative Action

A particular minority group may be under-represented in some areas (for example, in the UK there are fewer Asian people in the police than might be expected given the proportion of Asians in the population in general), perhaps due to past discrimination against members of the group. When this occurs, there is a school of thought that unless this group is given specific help to progress in this area (whether in recruitment to a specific job, college or other place or status) it will never gain the critical mass and acceptance in that role, even if discrimination against the group is eradicated. For this reason, it is suggested, more effort must be made to recuit persons from that background, train them, and if necessary, lower the pass mark in any final exam.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that the effect of such policies is to discriminate against the majority (by giving a benefit to a specific minority) and therefore constitutes reverse discrimination. They argue that it is just as unfair to discriminate against the majority as to discriminate against the minority. For example, with lower university entrance standards for minority members, those from the minority who do get in may be less able to complete the course, leading to a higher drop out rate and a greater public perception that they are not up to it, defeating the stated aim.

Proponents of affirmative action argue that affirmative action is the best way to correct a history of discrimination against a minority group. With a wide and long term perspective, affirmative action may be seen as redressing an otherwise unfair balance of historical wrongs and institutionalised disadvantages.

Important US Supreme Court cases

Investigated and outlined in Harvard researcher Shaheen Lakhan's article under the section History and Legal Contex of Affirmative Action of Diversification of U.S. Medical Schools via Affirmative Action Implementation - BMC Medical Education 2003 3:6

The Supreme Court held that the UC Davis medical school admissions program violated the equal protection clause with the institution of quotas for underrepresented minorities. However, the court ruled that race could be one of the factors in university admissions.

The Supreme Court ruled that race could be used as a criterion in school admissions and that it would not be in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court found that the University of Michigan Law School's narrowly-tailored policy was constitutional and appropriate "to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

The Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan's point-based undergraduate admissions policy that took race into account numerically was too mechanical and unconstitutional.

See Also

External Link