Affirmative action policies

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Affirmative Action (Definition)

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action refers to the laws, customs, and social policies that are utilized to un-do past discriminations that have limited the opportunities for various subgroups within social institution.This is done through both voluntary and mandatory efforts by different levels of the government, private employers, and schools to battle discrimination and to encourage equal opportunity in education and employment. Yet, in the past 30 years, there has been controversy over the definition, implementation, and nature of affirmative action as a result of congressional, presidential, and court actions.

Obama on affirmative action:

Two types of affirmative action policies are commonly in use are…

Classical. Derived from White House Executive Order 11246 of 1965 (later amended), this method mandates that employers reflect the availability of talent in their community by monitoring their utilization of individuals from specific “target” groups (e.g., by ethnicity)

New (additional). More recently, some affirmative action laws/ regulations have utilized preferential treatment, privilege, and set-asides* in order to achieve greater diversity.

*Set-aside programs efficiently address discrimination when other solutions are unavailable. However, set asides are more difficult to justify than classical methods of affirmative action.

DCPS Case Study - Michelle Rhee Video
Appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty to re-form DCPS system

Sent Barbara Bullock, president of teacher's union, to prison for 6.5 years for embezzeling funds

Pleads to not "cave in" to bureacracy of one of the worst public school systems in the nation

Has already fired 36 principals and over 100 non-union central office workers

Is not afraid of being tough; doing it "for the kids"


Arguments Against Affirmative Action

Conservative commentator Dr. Thomas Sowell identified some negative results of race-based affirmative action in his book, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. Sowell writes that affirmative action policies encourage non-preferred groups to designate themselves as members of preferred groups (i.e., primary beneficiaries of affirmative action) to take advantage of group preference policies; that they tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g., upper and middle class blacks), often to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g., poor whites or Asians); that they reduce the incentives of both the preferred and non-preferred to perform at their best — the former because doing so is unnecessary and the latter because it can prove futile — thereby resulting in net losses for society as a whole; and that they increase animosity toward preferred groups.

  • Thomas sowell.jpg
  • Many people argue that affirmative action has caused reverse discrimination against Whites
  • Critics of affirmative action usually believe that people should be selected for positions based on merit alone.
  • Opponents of affirmative action argue that these policies move America away from the goal of achieving a color-blind society.
  • Some critics state that young minorities joining the workforce expect that affirmative action will get them promotions.
  • Many people argue that affirmative action stigmatizes recipients.

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Affirmative action is primarily used for...


Brief Description

Affirmative action within the military has been considered one of the most successful systems in providing racial integration within their program. The military’s standard regarding affirmative action is that recruitment based on merit is acceptable and even encouraged, yet promotion is based on merit.

  • Outreach, Recruiting, & Training: The military targets outreach and recruiting activities through ROTC, the service academies, etc. Recruitment of officer candidates is also very race conscious, yet not racially exclusive.
  • Selection Procedures: Racial and gender diversity is also emphasized in promotion procedures. For example, officer promotion boards in the Army are told to "be alert to the possibility of past personal or institutional discrimination -- either intentional or inadvertent."
 Their goal is to set promotion rates for each minority and gender group to be at least equal promotion rates for the overall eligible population. In addition, Army guidelines
 establish a "second look" process. Under this process, files for candidates from underrepresented groups who are not initially selected are reconsidered and any past discriminations are identified. Members of a promotion board are also instructed carefully so that the process does not force promotion boards to use quotas. Affirmative action results from the goals, not the use of quotas.
  • Management Tools: These tools include, but are not limited to, performance standards, reporting requirements, and training and analytic capacity. Equal opportunity matters are included in personnel evaluations - The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, within the Department of Defense, trains equal opportunity personnel, advises the Dept. of Defense on equal opportunity policy, and conducts related research. 
In addition, the Dept. of Defense conducts surveys and studies in order to monitor equal opportunity initiatives and the views of personnel. 
 The Dept. of Defense also requires each military service to maintain/review affirmative action plans and to complete a yearly "Military Equal Opportunity Assessment" (MEOA). This assessment determines whether various equal opportunity objectives were met and identify any discrimination problems.



'GENDER '(Women)

Brief Description

Discrimination against an individual based on their gender, with women faring worse than men on most measures.

In most cases, women receive lower pay than men in the workforce across the board, women have a hard time reaching higher positions in their jobs because men are more likely to be chosen, women receive less benefits than men do, sexual harassment rates are very high for women.


  • Proposition 209 enacted in California: A state ban on all forms of affirmative action was passed in California: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Proposed in 1996, the controversial ban had been delayed in the courts for almost a year before it went into effect.

  • President Johnson issues the executive order that required government contractors to "take affirmative action" toward future minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment. Contractors must take specific actions to guarantee equality in hiring and must certify these efforts. On Oct. 13, 1967, the order was altered to cover discrimination on the basis of gender.

  • In Novemeber of 2008, ballot proposing to ban Affirmative Action regarding race and gender on the basis of public entities was up for vote in two states: Nebraska and Colorado. The ballot was passed with over 50% in favor of the vote in Nebraska. While the ballot was rejected in Colorado.


  • On March 25, a Michigan judge ruled that a proposed state ballot initiative banning affirmative action is "blatantly in direct conflict" with the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Ward Connerly, an infamous anti-affirmative action crusader, has been leading a petition drive to get the deceptively-named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on the ballot in November, and he is expected to appeal.

Lack of Support

  • Little legislation has been passed supporting Affirmative action in regards to gender. Only 19% of news articles are based on gender discrimination in the workforce. This lack of support is due to the belief that Affirmative Action will increase the gender gap among employees in workforce, while it creates competition.


 The table below displays Illinois State agency emplyees, divided by race, gender, and department of occupation in 1995.

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Brief Description: Based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, disability is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities". A person could be qualified as disabled if they had been impaired in the past or if they are considered disabled based on a group standard or custom. These impairments can include physical, sensory, cognitive and or intellectual. Depending on the type and severity, some mental disorders can also be qualified as disabilities.

Arguments For Disability Affirmative Action:

  • To increase the pool of qualified job applicants available for hiring
  • To obtain diverse skills, viewpoints and backgrounds in the workforce that can lead to improvements in the bottom line.
  • To demonstrate to customers a commitment to equal employment opportunities
  • To comply with the following laws: Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, and Section 4212 of the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA), as amended, require federal contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to ensure that all individuals have an equal opportunity for employment, without regard to disability or status as a Vietnam era or "special disabled" veteran.


Rehabilitation Act of 1973: This act forbids discrimination based on disability in programs that are managed by Federal agencies, programs that receive Federal financial assistance, federal employment companies, and the employment practices of Federal contractors.

Section 503 (of the Rehabilitation Act): requires affirmative action and prohibits employment discrimination by Federal government contractors and subcontractors with contracts of more than $10,000.

Protection and Advocacy for Individual Rights (PAIR) 1993

The Protection and Advocacy for Individual Rights (PAIR) Program was established by Congress as a national program under the Rehabilitation Act in 1993. The aim for PAIR programs was to promote human and legal rights for people with disabilities. One of PAIR’s motives is to reduce limits on employment, education, housing and transportation.


Brief Description: policies that take race, ethnicity, or gender into consideration in an attempt to promote equal opportunity. The focus of such policies ranges from employment and education to public contracting and health programs. The desired outcome of affirmative action is twofold: to maximize diversity in all levels of society, along with its presumed benefits, and to redress perceived disadvantages due to overt, institutional, or involuntary discrimination.

Support Summary: Affirmative action seeks to provide equal opportunity, not preferential treatment. Without affirmative action, the current proportion of enrolled African American and Latino students in universities would drop drastically. The disparity in opportunity is inherently unfair- this is evidenced even at the early education levels, where "the average Black and Latino 12th-grader reads on the level of the average white seventh-grader." Is this because white students have greater "merits" or because we have a segregated school system? This is exemplified by the fact that primarily minority school districts are grossly underfunded in many instances. A Milwaukee school district, with 77 percent Black and Hispanic students, annually spends $3,081 less per student than the nearby Maple Dale-Indian Hill district, with 20 percent Black and Hispanic students. According to, standardized testing is equally unfair, as students in upper-class schools have more access to upper-level classes and test-preparation classes. According to law professors Charles R. Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda, "the best predictor of performance on standardized tests is whether your parents went to college." Historically, African Americans have been discriminated against in the college admission process, which creates a vicious cycle of underperformance on standardized tests and thus lower admission rates to universities for minorities.


  • The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". 
  •  Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007), decided together with Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, is a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that prohibited assigning students to public schools solely for the purpose of achieving racial integration and declined to recognize racial balancing as a compelling state interest.
  • Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003) The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 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."

Arguments for affirmative action

Anti-discrimination laws are an important but limited tool: they are primarily designed to address some forms of “in your face,” discrimination, but they cannot correct for the full range of discriminatory and unfair practices that limit opportunity in America. These laws are woefully inadequate to the task of ensuring equal opportunity to all Americans. Affirmative action complements these laws by correcting for other forms of discrimination that the law does not or cannot address, by providing a proactive and efficient way for institutions to overcome discrimination and bias in their hiring and admissions procedures.

Despite the progress that has been made, the playing field is far from level.  Black people continue to have twice the unemployment rate of White people, twice the rate of infant mortality, and just over half the proportion of people who attend four years or more of college (see Figure 1). In fact, without affirmative action the percentage of Black students at many selective schools would drop to only 2% of the student body (Bowen & Bok, 1998). This would effectively choke off Black access to top universities and severely restrict progress toward racial equality.

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Articles and resources

See also







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    External resources

    External articles