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Affirmative action

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Affirmative action (American English|U.S. English), or positive discrimination (British English), is a policy or a program of giving certain preferences to certain (usually under-represented) groups. particularly females and minority group members. This typically focuses on education, employment, government contracts, health care, or social welfare.

There is much debate concerning claims that it fails to achieve its desired goal, and that it has unintended and undesirable side-effects. There are also claims that the practice is itself racist or sexist.


Affirmative action began as a corrective measure for governmental and social injustices against demographic groups that have been subjected to prejudice. Such groups are characterized most commonly by race, gender, or ethnicity. Affirmative action seeks to increase the representation of these demographic groups in fields of study and work in which they have traditionally been underrepresented.

A certain group or gender may be less proportionately represented in an area, often employment or education, due predominantly, in the view of proponents, to past or ongoing discrimination against members of the group. The theory is that a simple adoption of meritocratic principles along the lines of race-blindness or gender-blindness will not suffice to change the situation for several reasons:

  • Discrimination practices of the past preclude the acquisition of 'merit' by limiting access to educational opportunities and job experiences.
  • Ostensible measures of 'merit' may well be biased toward the same groups who are already empowered.
  • Regardless of overt principles, people already in positions of power are likely to hire people they already know, and/or people from similar backgrounds.

The history of "affirmative" or "positive" remedies command the wrongdoer to do something. In contrast, "negative" remedies command the wrongdoer not to do something or to stop doing something.

Past discrimination will be sufficiently countered that such a strategy will no longer be necessary: the power elite will reflect the demographics of society at large.

Though affirmative action in the United States is primarily associated with race and gender, the American civil rights movement originally gave as its purpose the correction of a history of oppression against all working-class and low-income people; women have figured as prominently as ethnic minorities among its beneficiaries.[citation needed]

Affirmative action in South Africa has a narrower focus, aiming at reversing primarily race-based and, to a lesser extent, gender-based discrimination. In India, the focus has mostly been on undoing caste discrimination.

United States

In the U.S., affirmative action mostly applies at transition points—times when individuals are changing their employment or enrollment. Thus, any potential advantage or disadvantage is predominantly conferred upon working age adults who hope to improve their lot through a change in employment or the pursuit of educational opportunity.

This arrangement has the greatest impact on young people, while maintaining the status and position of established members of society. This overall framework was established by Presidential Decree in March 1961 by President Kennedy, but has evolved significantly.

Disputes Specific to the US

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates that no State deny any person the "equal protection of the laws." Opponents of affirmative action have challenged its constitutionality under this provision, arguing that government-imposed group preferences deny the equal protection of the laws to those who do not belong to the preferred groups.

Although it is well known which ethnic groups and races are preferred or "protected" by the Government, almost no list or enumeration is made in writing, presumably because of a fear that such a list would be held unconstitutional as a form of invidious discrimination against groups not on the list.

Implementation in universities

When members of targeted groups are actively sought or preferred, the reason given is usually that this is necessary to compensate for advantages that groups such as males or those of European descent have derived from racism (including institutional racism and unconscious racism), sexism (similarly), and results of historical circumstances.

In the U.S., the most prominent form of affirmative action centers on access to education, particularly admission to universities and other forms of tertiary instruction. Race, ethnicity, native language, social class, geographical origin, parental attendance of the university in question (legacy admissions), and/or gender are often taken into account when assessing the meaning of an applicant's grades and test scores.

For example, the college admission chances of a female university student will tend to be equal to that of a male student with SAT scores fifty points higher than hers.

Individuals can also be awarded scholarships and have fees paid on the basis of criteria listed above.

In the U.S., affirmative action programs at universities benefit mostly African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and women (in engineering and the physical sciences). Asian Americans, although a racial minority, do not benefit at most colleges because the rate of college education among Asian Americans is higher than the other racial groups (including whites). See model minority for more information.

An affirmative action study by Princeton sociologists in 2005 attempted to break down and compare the effects of the practice among racial and special groups. The data from the study represent admissions disadvantage and advantage in terms of SAT points (on the old 1600-point scale):

  • Blacks: +230
  • Hispanics: +185
  • Asians: -50
  • Recruited athletes: +200
  • Legacies (children of alumni): +160

Study (PDF)

The estimates for blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, probably understate the disparity. Standardized tests tend to overpredict for individual, high-scoring members of populations with weaker test scores [1][2]. (One's SAT score predicts a certain level of performance. If one performs above this level, the test underpredicted; if the reverse, it overpredicted.) Thus, according to these analyses, accounting for group differences, a white with a score of 1,200 would actually be more, not equally, able on average than a black or Hispanic with the same score. Critics say that this failure to adjust scores to improve the test's predictive validity distorts the true scores of minorities, and indirectly everyone, as admissions is a zero sum game. Adjusting for this tendency would likely result in more controversy, however, as it is easily misconstrued.

Additionally, class rank, a statistic widely used in admissions, likely confers advantage on underperforming minorities. In California, Florida, and Texas public universities, affirmative action has been replaced with class rank and other programs. Class rank tends to discriminate against those at relatively competitive high schools, simply because high schools are not uniform in student ability. Thus a student with grades in the top ten percent at a mediocre school is unlikely to be equivalent or superior to a student at an elite school. Class rank, as a result, is more a measure of one's peers than of oneself. As such, some high schools refuse to rank their students. [3]

In individual U.S. states

Individual U.S. states e.g., Missouri, California, and Washington also have orders that prohibit discrimination and outline affirmative action requirements with regard to race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, and disability status.


  • The 14th Amendment

Mandates that no State deny any person the "equal protection of the laws".

The NAACP filed on behalf of a black student, Linda Brown, who was transported out of her white neighborhood to attend a black school in Topeka, Kansas. The Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities were "inherently unequal" and violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The next year the Court ordered segregated districts to integrate with "all deliberate speed."
  • Executive Order [4] No. 10,925, 1961 [5], issued by President Kennedy
  • Compensatory Preferential Treatment, 1962

James Farmer [6], founder of the Congress of Racial Equality [7], held a meeting with then vice president Lyndon B. Johnson. Farmer proposed that a program that he called Compensatory Preferential Treatment should be put in place in order to advance the equality of the black race. In 1965, Johnson (then president) renamed Compensatory Preferential Treatment "affirmative action" in a famous speech at Howard University, which became the national justification for moving the country beyond nondiscrimination to a more vigorous effort to improve the status of black Americans:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others', and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."[8]

It was a counter-argument to the previously prevailing notion of meritocracy. The skills that merit-based admission rewards are cultivated in children by parents with money. Affirmative action was to be a method by which minorities could eventually develop those skills in their own children.

Also during this time Martin Luther King Jr and Ralph Abernathy were bringing their southern civil rights movement to the Chicago area. One important part of this strategy was Operation Breadbasket. This operation consisted of targeting local employers and threatening boycotts unless more African Americans were hired by the business. Many of these businesses operated largely in African American neighborhoods and thus had a large customer base to worry about losing if a boycott ensued.[9]

During the Nixon administration, affirmative action was adopted as a federal mandate for companies with federal contracts and for labor unions whose workers were engaged in those projects. This "revised Philadelphia plan" was spearheaded by Labor Department official Arthur Fletcher.[10]

In the 1960s and 1970s, affirmative action became overwhelmingly popular on campuses across America as mass student protests spurred schools to actively recruit minority applicants. National excitement died down in the late 1970s, and quickly turned to national controversy.

The Johnson administration embraced affirmative action in 1965, by issuing U.S 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 when available, and that employees are treated without negative discriminatory regard to their protected-class status.

The order specifically requires certain organizations accepting federal funds to take affirmative action to increase employment of members of preferred racial or ethnic groups and women. Any organization with fifty or more employees and an aggregate revenue exceeding $50,000 from a single federal contract 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 quotas 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 and by the Office of Civil Rights of the Justice Department.

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.

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.

People with disabilities as a group were more fully recognized as being protected by the .

established strict scrutiny standard of review for race and ethnic-based Federal Affirmative Action programs.

(first successful legal challenge to racial preferences in student admissions since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke).


forbids many forms of Affirmative Action. Conservatives complain that state officials have widely disobeyed it. Alternatively, some colleges use financial criteria to attract racial groups that have typically been under represented and typically have lower living conditions.


in Washington was overwhelmingly passed by the electorate. Taking effect on December 3, 1998, it applies to all local governments, including counties, cities, and towns. I-200 prohibits "preferential treatment" based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting. The Washington State Legislature has generally been in favor of affirmative action and appears to wish to reinstate aspects of it. However, despite several proposals, they have not yet done so.

  • Smith v. University of Washington 233 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2000) [11] [5]
The Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 margin with Sandra Day O'Connor being the swing vote) 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.

An attorney who filed an amicus brief on behalf of Pennsylvania legislators and former legislators in Grutter v. Bollinger, Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "The cumulative effect of the Bakke, Grutter, and Bollinger cases is that no one has a legal right to have any demographic characteristic they possess be considered a favorable point on their behalf, but an employer has a right to take into account the goals of the organization and the interests of American society in making decisions. This is a moderate, inclusive position that ably balances the various legal interests involved."

The Washington State Supreme Court interpreted I-200 to forbid affirmative actions that promote a "less qualified" applicant over a "better qualified" one, but not programs that sought to achieve diversity without consideration of individual merit.

In the beginning, racial classifications that identified race were inherently suspect and subject to strict scrutiny. These classifications would only be upheld if necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest. Later the U.S. 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. J.A. Croson Co.) There is no clear guidance about when government action is not "compelling", and such rulings are rare.


UCLA professor Richard H. Sander published an article in the November 2004 issue of the Stanford Law Review that questioned the effectiveness of affirmative action in law schools. The article presents a study that, among other things, shows that half of all black law students rank near the bottom of their class after the first year of law school, and that black law students are more likely to drop out of law school and to fail the bar exam. The article offers a tentative estimate that the production of new black lawyers in the United States would grow by eight percent if affirmative action programs at all law schools were ended, as black students would instead attend less prestigious schools where they would be more closely matched with their classmates, and thus perform better. The article has sparked heated initial reaction and controversy, and critics are reviewing the study's methodology. Sander helped to develop a socioeconomically-based affirmative action plan for the UCLA School of Law after the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 which prohibited the use of racial preferences by public universities California schools. This change occurred after studies that showed that the graduation rate of blacks at UCLA was 41%, compared to 73% for whites.

Another consequence of affirmative action as it is practiced in U.S. universities is that it widens the gap in academic qualifications between different ethnic groups attending the same university by granting admission to preferred students based on different, lower requirements. The smallest gap is usually found at the most prestigious universities, who actively recruit the most qualified students from preferred minority groups The smallest gap is found at Harvard, where the gap between African American and Asian American students is about 90 SAT points. UC Berkeley has one of the highest gaps at about 300 SAT points.

In order to avoid a system of racial quotas, the State of Texas passed a law guaranteeing entry to any state university of a student's choice if they finished in the top 10% of their graduating class. Despite fears that this would lower standards, minority students from schools with lesser performances are claimed to do as well as students from better schools, and the average SAT and GPA scores of applicants to Texas universities has reportedly not fallen. Nevertheless, the top 10% law is highly controversial on the grounds that it overemphasizes GPA, and a bill has recently passed in the Texas House (but not the Senate) strongly limiting it [12].

Some theorize affirmative action has brought about vast improvement in the class stratification of minorities. From 1960 to 1995, according to data in The Shape of the River by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, the percentage of blacks aged 25–29 who had graduated from college rose from 5.4 to 15.4%, the percentage of blacks in law school grew from below 1 to 7.5%, and the percentage of blacks in medical school increased from 2.2 to 8.1%.

Others contend that affirmative action, per se, cannot be considered the primary agent of change for the growth of black employment in the majority of employment categories in the U.S., as official affirmative action employment programs applied only to government and government contractor hiring. Most Americans worked for small- and medium-sized businesses that did not employ affirmative action programs. Many of these companies, however, espoused the concept of Equal Opportunity Employment: a pledge to not discriminate negatively in hiring and promotion decisions on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, and in some venues, sexual orientation. Moreover, the growth of the black middle class was on an upward trajectory in the 1950s and 1960s prior to the implementation of the vast majority of affirmative action programs.

While the growth in many areas related to black people have been tremendous over the past three decades (the size of the black middle class, the rate of black homeownership, the number of black men and women in managerial and executive positions, black family wealth), there are those who feel that the lingering problems from a history of black oppression are far from gone for many black people, especially those in the underclass.

Other Countries

In some countries which have laws on racial equality, affirmative action is rendered illegal by a requirement to treat all races equally. This approach of equal treatment is sometimes described as being "race-blind", in hopes that it is effective against discrimination without engaging in reverse discrimination.

In such countries, the focus tends to be on ensuring equal opportunity and, for example, targeted advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force. This is sometimes described as "positive action", as opposed to "positive discrimination".


Another, more indirect form of affirmative action works through "consultations", whereby institutions such as schools or health-care facilities are viewed as centred on the majority culture, and therefore consultation with other ethnic groups are specified as a remedy. This can cause accusations of double-standards, as in practice representatives of all ethnic groups except the majority group receive consultation on institutional workings. Proponents discount this as being irrelevant, as they claim consultation with the majority group is pointless, as the institution's management is centered on their culture anyway.


Affirmative action has historically been implemented in India in the form of reservation or quotas in government positions, employment and education for lower castes and minorities. The first records of these policies are seen in the late 19th century in the princely states of Mysore in South India and Baroda and Kolhapur in western India. Reservations in government jobs were introduced in 1918 in Mysore in favour of a number of castes and communities that had little share in the administration. In another instance, upon petition from the Muslim community, the British government at the time made provisions in the Government of India acts of 1909 and 1919 granting Muslims share in the administration and other facilities. In the communal award of 1935, legislative seats were reserved for members of the Muslim, Sikh, Maratha, Parsi, Christian, European, and Anglo-Indian communities. In addition seats were reserved for depressed classes within the Hindu community. The scheduled castes were given 8.5 reservation in central services and other facilities in 1942. In independent India, provision for reservation in legislature was made in the constitution until 1960, recently extended until 2010. Provision for public services was made at the same time with no time limit. More recently in 1990, the implementation of the Mandal commissions' recommendations have been in the social and political limelight. Despite widespread agitation (mostly among students), reservation for the backward classes were upheld to the extent of 27 per cent (this was in addition to the 22.5% already reserved for scheduled castes and tribes, bringing the total of 'open' seats to only 50%). [13]

Other countries

  • Belgium. The Flemish government proposed in January 2006 a measure that will make some job opportunities available exclusively to immigrants, disabled and elderly people for the first three weeks. [14]
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina. Women must represent at least 29% of all politicians.
  • Brazil. Some Brazilian Universities (State or Federal) have created systems of preferred admissions (quotas) for racial minorities (blacks and native Brazilians), the poor and the handicapped. There are also quotas for the disabled in the civil public services.
  • Taiwan has a interesting point observe in the near future, where an increase of South-east Asian migrant workers and wives, might lead to social disparity in treatment. Second generation of Taiwanese-South Asian are starting to be a focal point to social oppurtunities in a purely Han Chinese society. In the past a source of social problem, was the tension between Taiwanese that were on the island before 1949, (Original Province People), and the Chinese that came to the island following the retreat of the Nationalist government, (Outer Province People). See February 28 Incident
  • China. The People's Republic allows non-Han ethnic groups (around 9% of the population) to be exempt from the One-child policy, and there is a quota for minority representatives in the National Assembly in Beijing, as well as other realms of government.
  • European Union. 2000/43/EU (29 June 2000) concerns the application of the principle of equality without regard to race or ethnic origin (ABl. EU Number L 180 p 22), anti-racism directive, to be implemented in national law of the member states.
  • Germany. Article 3 of the German constitution provides for equal rights of all people regardless of sex or race. In recent years there has been a long public debate about whether to issue programs that would grant women a privileged access to jobs in order to fight discrimination. There were programs stating that if men and women had equal qualifications, women had to be preferred for a job. The Government agreed on the details of a anti-discrimination law (Antidiskriminierungsgesetz; ADG) in May 2006, that aims at improving the protection of minorities. The draft follows EU standards but has yet to pass the German Parliament, the Bundestag.
  • Greece. has quotas setting a lower limit for women participating in election lists of political parties for most of the election processes.
  • India. In order to redress the historical inequity of the caste system, certain positions in university and government are reserved for previously oppressed castes. A large percentage of College admissions and government job quotas are reserved for these castes. There have been recent attempts to introduce it into the private job sector and for Muslim minorities. See the main article here
  • Japan. Spot for universities as well as all the government position (including teachers) are determined by the entrance exam, which is extremely competitive at the top level. It is illegal to include sex, ethnicity or other social background (but not nationality) in criteria. However, there are informal policy to provide employment and long term welfare (which is usually not available to general public) to Burakumin at municipality level.
  • Macedonia. Minorities, most notably Albanians, are allocated quotas for access to state universities, as well as in civil public services.
  • Malaysia. The bumiputra laws are a form of affirmative action meant to provide more opportunity for the majority ethnic Malay population versus the historical financial dominance of the Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian populations.
  • New Zealand. Individuals of Māori or other Polynesian descent are often afforded preferential access to university courses, and scholarships.
  • Slovakia. The Constitutional Court declared in October 2005 that affirmative action i.e. 'providing advantages for people of an ethnic or racial minority group' as being against its Constitution. [15] This is seen as an anti-gipsy decision immediately following roma hunger riots, which protested curtailing of social aids in Slovakia.
  • South Africa. The Employment Equity Act aims to promote and achieve equity in the workplace, by the positive advancement of people from designated groups that have been identified as previously disadvantaged. It is quota-based, with specific required outcomes. By a relatively complex scoring system, which allows for some flexibility in the manner in which each company meets its legal commitments, each company is required to meet minimum requirements in terms of representation by previously disadvantaged groups. The matters covered include equity ownership, representation at employee and management level (up to board of director level), procurement from black-owned businesses and social investment programmes, amongst others.
  • Southeast Asia. In countries such as Indonesia, affirmative action programs give natives preference over Han Chinese who have immigrated into the country.
  • United Kingdom. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the law requires that the Police Service of Northern Ireland recruit equal numbers of Catholics and non Catholics. However the Monarch may not be a Catholic: this historically discriminatory law has yet to be rescinded.


Disputes over Cultural Differences

One argument against AA is that it represents government sanctioned racial discrimination, and is demeaning to members of minority groups - that affirmative action wrongly sends a condescending message to minorities that they are not capable enough to be considered on their own merits. If this argument is to be believed, AA promotes the idea that African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and other often underrepresented minorities do not and can not emphasize education and high academic achievement as much as whites or Asians or "Model Minorites". This is a reaction to the criticism that hip hop culture (gangsta rap culture in particular encourage substandard achievement. (In fact, crime rates and economic conditions were better in the 1990s, the height of the rap movement, than during the 1980s during gang wars in California and general economic instability). It argues that anti-establishment mentality, high family instability, and excessive economic materialism or consumerism are not among the cultural factors that have prevented blacks from achieving the same economic opportunity as whites, but that a culture of mediocrity (and government programs, such as AA, which promote it) are. Thus, the minority community, not the government, needs to be empowered and held responsible for eliminating any economic disparity between the races through cultural reform. Many supporters of affirmative action charge that those who make this argument are being ethnocentric and are disingenuously trying to deflect or downplay the role of past and current institutional discrimination of minorities. These critics believe that these proponents are trying to shift the blame onto the victim who was discriminated in the first place in order to justify rolling back government civil rights policies. Furthermore, many critics believe that those who make this argument are being naive, hypocritical, or vague in their quest to 'change the cultural values' of the black community Other supporters of affirmative action argue that it benefits society as a whole. They argue that the end goal of AA should not be one culture, but an embrace of all cultural heritages (warts and all) and, by doing so, we increase the quality of the society. This is widely argued in the realm of education. An example of support for this is a study done by Patricia Gurin, who is part of the American Psychological Association. Gurin found that students who are from a more diverse educational setting had better results in tests designed to measure complex thinking, were more motivated to understand other people’s points of view, were more understanding of differences in cultural environments, and were more confident in their intellectual ability.

Disputes over History

Critics of affirmative action believe that it rewards or punishes individuals in the present for what their group is supposed to have done in the past. For example, Mike S. Adams argues that affirmative action can be summed up as follows: Regardless of whether he is guilty of racism, a person is to be punished for racism carried out by other members of his racial group. Regardless of whether he is a victim of racism, a person is entitled to benefits for racism carried out against other members of his racial group.[16]

Proponents of Affirmative Action respond that such discrepancies that exist are a result of historic segregation. For example, many of the state and city universities had much lower tuition during the time they were primarily for whites, while tuition at such institutions have grown faster than the rate of inflation now that more minorities are attending. Tuition at the City College of New York was free up until the 1960s when the students were primarily Italian and Jewish, but now rival those of state universities now that most of the students are Black or Hispanic. In fact, however, this college's alumni produced a record (for public colleges) eight Nobel laureates, all minorities (Ashkenazi Jews.[20]). Further, a qualified minority with 90 average and a good SAT can qualify for honors college. Had Thurgood Marshall been admitted to Maryland, as a resident of Baltimore he would not have had to pay tuition. Howard, a private institution, had substantial tuition fees, but was at the time (the 1930s) the only ABA-accredited law program at a historically Black university.

Disputes over Economics

Most proponents of AA believe that eradicating affirmative action would further deepen economic disparity between whites and underrepresented minorities. A common argument made for Affirmative Action is the alleged existence of an "Old Boy's Network". Such a network, it is argued, exists where people with power in organizations are able to and readily elect, promote, and support one another as well as others who are close to them within the organization (for example, the CEO of a company ensures that his best friend's son gets a position in the mail room of his company). Such a network, to the extent that it does exist, represents not a true 'meritocracy', but an oligarchy which creates barriers to entry into it for those who are not connected to the "Old Boy's Network". Nobody from outside the "Old Boy's Network" could be promoted 'from within' a company unless the job was also posted publically and everyone was given a 'fair chance' via some convoluted and lengthy questionnaire and interview process... sort of like how the federal government jobs work for the department of interior or department of agriculture.. each applicant is given a numerical score based on a lengthy set of forms and questionnaires they fill out. Those who make this argument point to the fact that the government gives preferential treatment to veterans and that many organizations give preferential treatment to employees who have worked in the organization in the past. Furthermore, there is 'geographical affirmative action', in which people are more likely to be hired if their application has a local address written on it, rather than on 'merit'. Those who disagree with this argument point out that, with the exception of the government's preferential treatment of veterans, none of these are cases of affirmative action. Affirmative action involves legal regulation of private enterprises regarding hiring practices. There is no legal regulation for or against 'geographic affirmative action', for example. This argument further runs into the problem of resting on an implicit assumption that people are either connected to the "Old Boy's Network" or a racial minority. Where would one place the black CEO or the poor white coal miner living in West Virginia in that framework? Rather than confronting preferential treatment in a heads on kind of way, affirmative action simply creates more groups who receive preferential treatment. By legalizing and requiring preferential treatment, it promotes preferential treatment and remains mute on the vast number of people who do not fall into either of those categories (i.e., those people who are not members of the Old Boy's Network or minorities) and are discriminated against, in part, as a result of affirmative action law. In other words, opponents of affirmative action in employment and education claim that these programs encourage socioeconomic discrimination in favor of middle-class members of minority groups over better qualified but working-class members from the majority group, since such programs do not consider socioeconomic class. In essence, middle-class minorities with greater opportunities and resources at their disposal are favored over members of the working poor who happen not to be minorities (usually, poor whites). These critics believe this is contrary to claims of "social justice" made by supporters and makes AA policy in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment.

Their argument is a fundamental objection to the use of racial quotas and gender quotas in affirmative action, because such quotas are unable to address social injustice at the fine level of detail which is required. However, proponents of AA reply that quotas are only legal in the US when a judge issues an order for a specific institution to make restitution for past discrimination. There is intense dispute over whether the de jure illegality of quotas prevents de facto quotas in an environment where there is so much pressure to protect against the appearance of discrimination against protected groups. Much time has been spent attempting to show that these "goals" are not quotas.

Criticism by Thomas Sowell

The following are problems with affirmative action based on a review[16] of Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (ISBN 0-30010-199-6, 2004) by economist Dr. Thomas Sowell, himself African-American:

  • They encourage non-preferred groups to designate themselves as members of preferred groups [i.e. primary beneficiary of affirmative action] to take advantage of group preference policies;
  • They tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g. black millionaires), oftentimes to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g. poor whites);
  • 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
  • They engender animosity toward preferred groups as well as on the part of preferred groups themselves, whose main problem in some cases has been their own inadequacy combined with their resentment of non-preferred groups who — without preferences — consistently outperform them.

Sowell also argued:[17]

What about the notion that affirmative action has helped blacks rise out of poverty? The black poverty rate was cut in half before affirmative action — and has barely changed since then.
What about the notion that blacks would not be able to get into colleges and universities without affirmative action? After group preferences and quotas were banned in California's state universities, the number of black students in the University of California system has risen.
"Minority students are systematically mismatched with institutions" due to racial preferences, where they underperform relative to the student body. Had they gone to an institution without the help of affirmative action, to a less selective school, they would have received better grades and graduated at higher rates.
"When the top-level schools recruit black students who would normally be qualified to succeed at the level next to the top, then the second tier of institutions faces the prospect of either being conspicuously lacking in minority students or (2) dipping down to the next level below to bring in enough minority students for a statistically respectable "representation." Usually they end up mismatching students. Once begun at the top, this process continues on down the line."[18]

Libertarian view

Some free market libertarians argue that employment discrimination is only made possible by pervasive market failures. Under a regime of highly competitive labor and goods markets, companies would not be able to afford to hire on any basis other than merit. According to Libertarians, this would render affirmative action unnecessary.

Centrist view

Certain people have a different point of view about specifically first world affirmative action which, for lack of a better word, will be referred to as "centrist" here. They claim that affirmative action makes sense, but only to the point where it helps the disadvantaged members of minorities, as opposed to the middle and upper class. They believe that affirmative action, as it is now, is not fulfilling its original purpose (to bring minorities out of poverty) as the vast majority of minorities, in the first world at least, are already middle-class. There have been cases of middle-class minorities receiving better jobs or college acceptance rates than whites of equal or lower income or social standing. According to this point of view, affirmative action should be eliminated and joined with the normal welfare system that helps both whites and blacks that are lower-class. They believe that affirmative action should only be used to bring the lower class, not a specific racial group, out of poverty.

See also




  1. Shaheen Lakhan - Diversification of U.S. Medical Schools via Affirmative Action Implementation. BMC Medical Education. 3:6. 2003.
  2. U.S. Department of Labor - U.S. Executive Order 11246 EEO and Affirmative Action Guidelines for Federal Contractors Regarding Race, Color, Gender, Religion, and National Origin
  3. U.S. Department of Labor - Executive Order 11246, As Amended
  4. Read Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports regarding Affirmative Action
  5. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  6. Richard H. Sander, A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools, 57 Stanford Law Review 367 (2004), available at Richard Sander's Homepage.
  7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
  8. Cato Institute Policy Analysis 540

External links

Websites critical of affirmative action

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