Affirmative Action: History & Purpose

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

This lesson explores what affirmative action is, what the original intentions of affirmative action were, the history of the policy, and the justifications for its continued presence.

What Is Affirmative Action, Really?

'Affirmative action' - the phrase alone can spark quite a debate . . . and many misconceptions. You may have heard affirmative action equated with 'reverse racism,' and many people paint the picture of unqualified female or minority candidates receiving jobs or opportunities that were much more deserved by hardworking and talented white men. But, if these situations do in fact exist, they are not shining examples of affirmative action, but rather deviations from it. Affirmative action is a policy of making reasonable efforts to improve workplace and education opportunities for historically excluded groups, like minorities and women.

The Roots of Affirmative Action

To understand the background of affirmative action and the reasons for it, we need to remind ourselves of the historical treatment of African Americans in the United States. African Americans came to America as slaves from the 1600s to the 1800s. Slavery in America was well established before the Constitution was even ratified in 1789, and it wasn't until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. America had been built on slavery, and most African Americans of that time had no freedom, no education, no money, no land, and no opportunities. When the slaves were freed, they had little to nothing to begin their new lives, and rampant racism and discriminatory laws ensured that many African Americans could not improve their lives. Many policies of exclusion continued for nearly 100 years following Lincoln's Proclamation.

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of political turmoil and racial unrest. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were fighting to achieve racial justice and equality, and slowly the American government was responding. The term 'affirmative action' was first used in 1961 in President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10925. Kennedy's order - a direct response to Civil Rights Movements - included a statement that ordered government contractors to take 'affirmative action' to make sure that they hired and maintained employees regardless of their race or national origin.

On September 24, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson built upon Kennedy's law with Executive Order 11246, which prohibited employment discrimination based on race by any company receiving federal contracts or subcontracts. In his explanation of the 1965 law, Johnson said, 'Freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want . . . It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.' In 1967, Johnson expanded upon his order to also prohibit sexual discrimination and require companies to take specific steps of affirmative action to expand employment opportunities for women and minorities. Following Johnson's order, many colleges and university began to create similar affirmative action policies to try to increase enrollment from female and minority students.

What Does Affirmative Action Look Like?

As mentioned in the beginning of this lesson, many people mistake affirmative action for the hiring or admission of just any woman or minority, regardless of qualifications. This is not what affirmative action is, and federal regulations actually prohibit affirmative action programs that result in the hiring of unqualified or unneeded employees. Affirmative action, though, does call for preferential treatment of members of historically disadvantaged groups. To understand what preferential treatment means, let's consider an example of affirmative action in college admissions procedures.

John Miller, a white male student, has a 3.3 high-school GPA and an SAT score of 1200. Jay Williams, an African-American student, has a 3.2 high-school GPA and an SAT score of 1170. Both applicants are qualified by the university standards. But, if admissions officers had to just pick one, affirmative action would lead the school to pick Jay, because he is able to meet the qualifications despite the fact that African-American students as a whole have fewer education opportunities and lower testing scores. This is the part of affirmative action that frustrates many people - that opportunities are given to qualified people, but not always the 'best' qualified people. In reality, though, the differences between John's and Jay's scores are negligible; both had the potential to succeed at that school.

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