Introduction to Affirmative Action

Introduction to Affirmative Action


“Affirmative action” refers to policies that are designed to increase the presence of “underrepresented” demographic groups – particularly racial or ethnic minorities – in specific sectors of the workforce or in the student bodies of American universities. Affirmative action policies are founded on the premise that any observed imbalance in a given workforce or student body is due, either wholly or in part, to past and/or present discrimination – the remedy for which consists of compensatory preferences in favor of the underrepresented group(s). These measures most commonly take the form of lowered standards (for the hiring, promotion, or admission of members of preferred groups) and set-asides (which reserve or earmark a designated percentage of slots for members of the preferred groups).

Supporters of affirmative action contend that eradicating the practice would increase — to society’s detriment — economic disparities between whites and underrepresented minorities. They argue further that affirmative action is of great benefit to society as a whole, because it brings added diversity to the racial and ethnic composition of the workplace and the campus — thereby encouraging better relations between whites and nonwhites.

Opponents of affirmative action argue the following:

  • Affirmative action encourages its beneficiaries to become excessively conscious of their ethnic or racial identity, thereby viewing themselves as separate, aggrieved, victimized enclaves; this, coupled with resentments aroused in members of non-preferred groups, fosters inter-group hostility rather than harmony.
  • Affirmative action policies tend to benefit mostly those minorities who are already economically and professionally successful, rather than the impoverished and unemployed, in whose name the policies are enacted.
  • Affirmative action is unjust, sending the message that race- or ethnicity-based double standards are worthy of societal acceptance. These double standards often harm their intended beneficiaries, as in the case of black students who are preferentially admitted to universities for which they are academically under-prepared, and who consequently flunk out of school at disproportionately high rates.
  • Affirmative action takes the focus off the actual causes of inequality and underrepresentation, wrongly ascribing all imbalances to discrimination or racism.
  • Affirmative action is unnecessary, as evidenced by the fact that black progress (as measured by income, poverty rates, life expectancy, home-ownership rates, and scholastic achievement) was greater during the period between 1940-1960 than in the subsequent era of affirmative action.


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