Affirmative Action: What Does it Mean?

Affirmative Action: What Does it Mean?

Affirmative Action: What Does it Mean? Affirmative action, also referred to as positive and reverse discrimination, describes the deliberate policy of giving preferential treatment to qualified groups in a society on the grounds that they have hitherto been disadvantaged either by governmental policies or as a result of implicit bias and popular prejudice . It has been used to help qualified ethnic minorities and women, and it is sometimes suggested that it should be used to help other kinds of minorities, for example, the LGBTQI community or the handicapped. The idea has been most extensively translated into public policy here in the USA, encouraging the hiring and advancement of minorities by requiring, among other things, that all organizations which have contracts with the federal government employ a given percentage of people belonging to a minority group.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978

This landmark Supreme Court case imposed limitations on affirmative action to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities did not come at the expense of the rights of the majority—affirmative action was unfair if it led to reverse discrimination. The case involved the Univ. of California, Davis, Medical School, which had two separate admissions pools, one for standard applicants, and another for minority and economically disadvantaged students. The school reserved 16 of its 100 places for this latter group.


Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was rejected twice, alleging minority applicants were admitted with significantly lower scores than his. Bakke maintained that judging him on the basis of his race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that while race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, the use of such inflexible quotas as the medical school had set aside was not. The Supreme Court, however, was split 5–4 in its decision on the Bakke case and addressed only a minimal number of the many complex issues that had sprung up about affirmative action.

A policy of affirmative action has proved extremely controversial in relation to university and graduate school admissions, and one of the most celebrated constitutional cases of recent years (Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, 1978) set limits to the extent to which the policy could be used. Some US Supreme Court decisions of the late 1980s and early 1990s were clearly intended to limit the possibilities for affirmative action. At the same time, European law, especially under the influence of the European Court of Justice, was beginning to constrain discrimination, and may lead to a more positive approach along the lines of affirmative action.

Why is Affirmative Action Needed?

Affirmative action remedies past discrimination, fights present-day discrimination, and promotes diversity in our society. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees affirmative action is necessary, because “in order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity” (Supreme Court majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).1)

Is Affirmative Action Fair?

Yes, affirmative action encourages fairness. Affirmative action initiatives are designed to help companies, organizations, and educational institutions evaluate candidates equally and fairly – that is, based on their qualifications. These programs provide equal access to opportunity for qualified individuals who might not have had a chance otherwise. Courts have taken great pains to balance competing interests in shaping affirmative action remedies. Under these principles, there must be a very strong reason (e.g. to remedy discrimination) for developing any affirmative action program; the program must only apply to qualified candidates, and the program must be limited in scope and flexible. 2)

further readings on affirmative action

affirmative action in the news

References   [ + ]


About Quianna Canada

Quianna Canada is an anti-police brutality activist, author, and opinion writer living in the United States.
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One Comment

  1. Real great information can be found on web blog. “The quality of an organization can never exceed the quality of the minds that make it up.” by Harold R. McAlindon.

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