Affirmative action

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Affirmative action (or AA) refers to policies that favor members of disadvantaged groups in an attempt to make up for historic or continuing oppression, particularly racism, sexism, and homophobia, and for other circumstances which cause(d) such groups to be disadvantaged, such as disabilities.[1][2] These policies are very prevalent in the United States, due to its history of slavery and Jim Crow laws that extended into the 1960s.


In its crudest forms, affirmative action would mean giving some sort of preference to a person from a historically-oppressed group over that of someone from a historically-advantaged group, all other things being equal. Universities giving additional "points" on admissions scales to individuals from under-represented groups or employers actively recruiting people from those groups are examples of this approach. Another very crude form would be the outright quota. While not seen (and indeed legally and politically taboo) in the US, such tactics are occasionally seen elsewhere, as with India's reservation system,[3] though caste and race aren't synonymous.


Affirmative action was welcomed by many progressive thinkers and activists as an effective way to enable non-whites and women to compete with White males on an even footing, due to the inability of non-whites and women to get jobs or educational opportunities solely open to White males.

However, opponents of the concept see it as a form of reverse bias against Whites, males, and White males. Some opponents argued that a "hand up" should only be given on the basis of social class (to help people from poor neighborhoods, for instance), rather than race or gender, and that only material assistance, rather than quotas or the like, should be used (due to the fact that not all minorities or women are poor or without advantage, and not all white males are rich or even middle class). Nonetheless, the outcome has not been positive in states that have banned affirmative action policies.[note 1]

Ironically (but not surprisingly), some White people never had a problem with it when it favoured them.[5] A major example of affirmative action favoring White people was the implementation of New Deal, which while not explicitly race-based, was functionally so. Specifically,[5]:14-24,51-61

  • The exclusion from Social Security of farm workers and domestic servants (maids). At the time, these occupations were dominated by African Americans, particularly in the South.
  • The local control of federal funds (states' rights), which meant that White racists decided who was eligible for funds in most cases.

A second major example was the G.I. BillWikipedia following World War II, which gave huge benefits to returning soldiers after the war in the form of educational benefits and home loan guarantees. These benefits enabled large numbers of people to enter the middle class, however the benefits heavily disfavored Black veterans both because of how the law was written (local control of federal benefits again) and due to pre-existing structural barriers. The structural barriers to black veterans receiving benefits included:[5]:80-141

  • Jim Crow laws restricting where blacks could live, work and receive education
  • RedliningWikipedia that restricted where blacks could buy houses
  • Black veterans in the South being restricted to overburdened and underfunded historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
  • Black veterans outside the South facing de facto admission quotas at private colleges and universities
  • White bankers refusing home loans to black veterans either from overt bigotry or from refusing to make loans in the 'undesirable' areas that black families were forced to live in

Straw man criticism[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Straw man

A good deal of opposition to affirmative action is based on the misconception that it imposes hard quotas that require employers to hire unqualified minorities. As in, affirmative action requires candidates from a majority group to be passed over in favour of any and all minorities. This is false and the Supreme Court has ruled against any policies doing so.[6][7] Employers simply need only to make a good faith attempt to hire qualified minorities, by, for example, choosing the minority candidate as a tie-breaker decision or at the very least not being a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic bigot in the hiring process (so in principle not that difficult). It's worked out pretty well in the NFL, as the Pittsburgh Steelers would no doubt attest. Affirmative action laws vary widely by state and many of the programs are enforced voluntarily.[8] Obviously bad hires related to affirmative action can happen, as the Jayson BlairWikipedia fiasco arguably attests, but to generalize such cases to attack the concept as a whole is a classic use of the spotlight fallacy.[9]

Asian Americans[edit]

Often trotted out are Asians being affected negatively by affirmative action, because they are model minorities (in spite of the oppression and animosity they faced historically[10]) and thus selected against by affirmative action. However, it is debatable if this is or isn't true.[11][12]

Adverse impact[edit]

Some argue that the legal doctrine of adverse impact, sometimes called disparate impact, is used to impose hiring quotas.[13] In reality, adverse impact is only relevant when an organization's hiring standards can not be proven to have any practical purpose other than to discriminate.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. Most notably, Michigan, at their State University undergraduate level.[4]


  1. Executive Order 11246--Equal employment opportunity National Archives.
  2. Affirmative Action by Robert Fullinwider (First published Fri Dec 28, 2001; substantive revision Mon Apr 9, 2018) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. 'Pvt sector has to implement quota' (Jun 02, 2006 at 06:47pm IST) IBN Live (archived from May 22, 2011)
  4. How Minorities Have Fared in States With Affirmative Action Bans by Ford Fessenden & Josh Keler (2016) The New York Times.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson (2005) W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393052133.
  6. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 579 U.S. ___ (2016) (June 23, 2016) Justia: U.S. Supreme Court.
  7. Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) (June 26, 1978) Justia: U.S. Supreme Court.
  8. Affirmative Action (2007) Encyclopedia of Everyday Law (archived from October 5, 2007).
  9. Jayson Blair: A Case Study of What Went Wrong at The New York Times by Kristina Nwazota (Dec. 10, 2004) PBS NewsHour (archived from February 26, 2012).
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Racism in the United States § Asian Americans.
  11. 7 Criticisms Of Affirmative Action That Have Been Thoroughly Disproved by Casey Quinlan (December 9, 2015) Think Progress (archived from February 1, 2016).
  12. The model minority is losing patience: Asian-Americans are the United States’ most successful minority, but they are complaining ever more vigorously about discrimination, especially in academia (October 3, 2015) The Economist.
  13. What is Adverse Impact? And Why Measuring It Matters by Nathan Mondragon (March 25th, 2018) Hire Vue.
  14. EEOC v. Sambo's of Georgia, Inc., 530 F. Supp. 86 (N.D. Ga. 1981) (EEOC v. Sambo's of Georgia, Inc., 530 F. Supp. 86 (N.D. Ga. 1981)) Justia: US Law.