Affirmative Action Meaning

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Affirmative action is the name of an American social practice through which members of historically disadvantaged racial and/or ethnic groups are given preferential treatment in an effort to compensate for past harm caused to their ancestors. For thirty years, affirmative action was carefully shielded from open, honest evaluation while it simultaneously grew more pervasive along with the federal bureaucracy and welfare state.

The recent political upheaval caused by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 has opened the door for opponents of affirmative action programs to successfully pursue their gradual elimination. If affirmative action is to continue as an American institution, its supporters must be willing to listen to frank criticisms of affirmative action’s shortcomings. Nevertheless, affirmative action programs remain an endangered species.

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Affirmative action programs were initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to correct past discrimination. Its purpose was to actively seek out black candidates for jobs, college, or promotions, without treating them differently in the decision to hire, admit, or promote. In the 1970s, however, affirmative action took on a new meaning as good-faith efforts to recruit blacks would not withstand a Title VII challenge of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employers and admission committees had to actually hire or admit black applicants to withstand challenges of racial discrimination (Rodrigue, 1995). The strategy most frequently employed was to select the best available black candidate even if the best was not good enough for the position.

The rationale most frequently given for affirmative-action programs is “the principal of compensatory justice” This principle states that whenever an injustice has been committed, just compensation or reparation must be made to the injured party. It is this principle that is the rationale behind the tort law’s compensating victims for infers for individual harms. This principle also explains why German paid Jews for the harms caused in World War II and why American Indians should be compensated for the past unjust deprivation of their trivial land.

Indeed, affirmative action means taking measures that go beyond merely ceasing or avoiding discrimination; it means taking measures that attempt to undo or compensate for the effects of past discrimination. The principle is encountered in several major categories of discrimination areas-most notably employment and education, but also such areas as housing and government contracting. In this way we can say that affirmative action programs help support the principle of equality of citizens that is a defining feature of democracy.

Equal Employment Opportunity means that an HR manager will;

  • provide equal access to all available jobs, training, and promotional opportunities
  • provide similar benefits and services to everyone
  • apply all policies and practices consistently to applicants and staff
  • do not differentiate among applicants or employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation

In other words, EEO forbids employment discrimination. It requires the elimination of any bias in personnel activities.

However, if we take a look at the nature of affirmative action policies, they do not promote democracy. Indeed, in n employment, for example, two basic categories of affirmative action can be identified:

  • coercive
  • voluntary.

Coercive plans, in turn, fall into two groups: plans imposed as a condition of government contracts or grants; and court-imposed remedies under Title VII of the Civil Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A 2000e et sequ.). Voluntary plans are those adopted by an employer, university, or the like, when under no direct legal compulsion to do so. The earliest affirmative action plans were concerned with race, but plans now frequently extend to sex, national origin, and religion (Rodrigue, 1995).

Over the past thirty years, affirmative action programs initiated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have grown into “. . . a web of racial and gender preferences touch[ing] all federal departments, according to a recent congressional report.” When Senator Robert Dole asked for a list of race-related federal policies, “He got back a 32-page report listing roughly 160 laws, regulations or executive orders.” (Rodrigue, 1995). This issue has been viewed as not being a true champion of democracy, as Democrats use it against Republicans. It does take race and gender into consideration but becomes reverse discrimination for those who are qualified but cannot be accepted because quotas have to be filled. Therefore, they too are discriminated and equal employment or admission are moral rights which undermine the basic principles of democracy.

Although the issue has been exploited for partisan gain, the Democrats are not blameless for some of the current attacks on affirmative action. Because affirmative action was zealously shielded by the Democratic leaders of Congress from criticism for thirty years, some of its very real problems and flaws have festered and gone uncorrected. Some affirmative action programs clearly are perceived by the majority of Americans as having gone too far.

Excessively activist affirmative action laws jeopardize the very existence of affirmative action. Affirmative action should not put pressure on employers or schools to have a quota of minorities because this goes against the principle of freedom and equality that should prevail in this democratic country. Every citizen should compete based on its competence and on its ability to prove that he or she is a valuable member of this society (Horner, 1995).

The legitimacy of affirmative action is harmed in other ways as well. Colleges and universities have come under increasing pressure to increase the number of minority students whom they accept. In some cases, academic institutions have lowered their standards for minority applicants to ensure that “enough” minority students enroll. This practice has an unfortunate side effect.

The widespread application of lower standards for academic admissions, for example has drawn ill-prepared students in over their heads and created, by this artificially contrived mismatch of student and school, the impression of black intellectual inferiority, a reactivation of the racial stereotype most dangerous to black advancement (Rodrigue, 1995). Colleges have increased recruitment of black freshmen, but only one-third of them ultimately graduate (Rodrigue, 1995).

Affirmative action programs at the Federal and local levels have sometimes brought out negative actions. When Allan Bakke sued the Regents of the University of California because he was denied admission to the University’s medical school due to its affirmative action program, the case prompted serious discussion of the possibility of “reverse discrimination” resulting from the type of plan the university employed. A year after the Supreme Court decided the Bakke case in his favor, the Court rejected a suit brought by Brian Weber against the Kaiser Aluminum Company and the United Steelworkers of America that claimed he had also suffered reverse discrimination in a company job-training program in which blacks were given preference (Crpcl. 1995).

A similar effect is therefore seen in the workplace. If a company is forced to excessively lower its standards for the sake of hiring more minority applicants, many of them will not be prepared to effectively compete against their more-qualified peers. Similar policies have led municipal police and fire departments to hire, in the 1980s, underqualified recruits who were not able to achieve promotion in the 1990s, thereby creating for blacks the appearance of racist promotion policies and for whites the appearance of black incapacity (Rodrigue, 1995). Zealousness is an effective way to get attention, but it is not effective in the long run. In the long term, the silent majority may be more alienated than convinced (Rodrigue, 1995).

Affirmative action programs are in danger for ideological reasons as well. Beginning in the eighties with the election of President Reagan, Americans have increasingly come to reject “Big Government.” Constance Horner reports that “Almost 70 percent responding to one national poll indicated a belief that ‘the federal government controls too much of our daily lives,’” (Rodrigue, 1995) and “Another poll had two-thirds of Americans choosing ‘big government’ as the country’s gravest peril” (Rodrigue, 1995). For the past thirty years, affirmative action programs have been initiated, enforced, and enlarged by an ever-expanding government bureaucracy. Today, Americans are increasingly critical of the pervasive presence of government regulation and intrusion into nearly every aspect of their lives.

America’s current incarnation of affirmative action was formally established by an executive order during the sixties. Affirmative action was established with noble motives and the support of most Americans, but extensive changes have taken place in both American society and affirmative action programs themselves since the 1960s, and the legitimacy and desirability of affirmative action has come under steadily-increasing scrutiny and criticism. Today’s democracy must give everyone the same opportunity and chances, and let people work harder to get where they want to be.

If affirmative action as an institution is to survive into the next century, its supporters must re-establish its legitimacy in the minds of the American people. At its foundation, American culture has a sense of fairness, a belief in racial integration, and a presumption that a civically activist polity will voluntarily (if slowly) make positive social change. True democracy must ensure that affirmative action programs are eliminated because racial quotas don’t promote democracy but only encourage favoritism.


  1. Crock, Stan. “‘A Thunderous Impact’ on Equal Opportunity.” Business Week June 26, 1995: 37.
  2. Davis, Cinda-Sue. The Equity Education. Fostering the Advancement of Women in the Sciences. Mathematics, and Engineering. 1996.
  3. Horner, Constance. “Reclaiming the Vision: What should we do after affirmative action?” The Brookings Review Summer 1995: 6-11.
  4. Knight, Al. “Affirmative-Action Flaws Persist.” Denver Post May 14, 1989: 1H, 2H. Reprinted from SIRS 1989 Work, Volume 4, Article 49.


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