Affirmative Action Programs & Policies Today

Instructor: David White
Affirmative action has a long and controversial history in the United States. Through this lesson, you will gain insight into the significance of affirmative action and explore some of the ways that its being used and challenged in the present day.

What Is Affirmative Action?

Think about the last time you were rejected for a job or other application - to what do you attribute the outcome of your application? Perhaps you lacked the proper training or education, or maybe they had more qualified applicants. There are many possible reasons why you weren't accepted, but did it ever cross your mind that the reason for the rejection was your race, gender, or some other aspect of your identity?

Many people will never consider that they could be rejected because of something like race or gender; yet for others it is entirely possible, and in some cases likely that an innate piece of their identity has caused them to be overlooked or denied. Over the last fifty years, however, the government has taken legal steps in the form of affirmative action policies to minimize this type of discrimination.

Broadly speaking, affirmative action programs are those that give preferential treatment to historically marginalized groups in the process of hiring, academic acceptance, and other competitive circumstances. The purpose of affirmative action programs is to level the playing field, so to speak, and provide equal opportunities to individuals or groups that could otherwise be ignored because of stereotypes and discriminatory practices.

Affirmative action programs increase diversity in places like schools and the workplace.

The Origins of Affirmative Action

In order to adequately understand the present state of affirmative action, it's important to step back for a moment and review its history. Since being first introduced in the mid-20th century, affirmative action policies have been a controversial subject. The first real attempt at creating equal opportunity came in 1961 when President Kennedy signed an executive order that prohibited any government contracted agency from discriminating against an applicant based on things like race, creed, color, or national origin.

Four years later, President Johnson signed his own executive order that expanded on the earlier order; specifically adding that contracted and sub-contracted agencies should make an effort to promote diversity by implementing action-oriented programs that would ensure the inclusion of those that had previously been rejected. In this case, action-oriented programs refers to those that proactively seek to recruit and retain employees from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. In 1967, Johnson amended his order to include women.

Although it might be hard to imagine or remember, given the relatively tolerant climate of the present day, there was a time not so long ago that women and people of color were commonly passed over in favor of a white male peer, regardless of ability or level of experience. This may not have always been a conscious act of discrimination, but it nonetheless created a society in which minorities were inadequately represented and further marginalized. Therefore, action-oriented programs like affirmative action have been essential in creating a culture that more accurately reflects the diversity of the nation.

Affirmative Action in Education

Affirmative action policies are common in many areas of public life, but the place that you're most likely to encounter them or hear them discussed is in higher education. By the 1970s, affirmative action cases had been widely used to recruit minority students at universities and colleges all over the country. At the University of California, for example, the school had implemented what was referred to as its special admissions program, which set aside a certain number of admissions for minority students.

Despite being what one could consider an action oriented program to diversify the school's student body, it was challenged in a 1978 US Supreme Court case known as University of California vs. Bakke. In this case, UC medical school applicant Allan Bakke claimed that, although he was a fully qualified candidate, he had been passed over for admission so the school could fill its minority quota. Ultimately, the court agreed that the special admissions program and the use of quotas by the school violated Title II of the 1964 civil rights act, which prohibits discrimination based on, among other things, race and ethnicity.

The court found that quotas violated Title II of the Civil Rights Act.
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