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The term affirmative action refers to policy measures designed to reduce the marginalization of groups that have historically suffered from discrimination, exclusion, or worse, and that are underrepresented in a society’s desirable positions. The measures may take the form of public laws, administrative regulations, and court orders, or of practices by private businesses and nonprofit institutions. The underrepresented groups are typically “identity groups” defined in terms of characteristics that are physical or cultural, such as race, caste, tribe, ethnicity, and gender.
Affirmative action policies are designed to benefit members of underrepresented identity groups by providing them with more favorable access to certain benefits— usually positions such as jobs, promotions, or admissions to educational institutions, but sometimes resources such as business loans and contracts, financial aid, or land rights. Membership in an identity group recognized as underrepresented is treated as a positive factor, increasing one’s chances of access to such benefits. This may be accomplished by means of a quota system, in which certain benefits are reserved for members of the relevant groups, or by means of a preferential boost system, in which extra weight is accorded to group members in an explicit or implicit measure of qualifications for access to benefits.
Affirmative action in the United States owes its origin to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which demanded an end to the long history of injustices perpetrated against African Americans and called for their full participation as citizens in U.S. society. This movement prodded the U.S. federal government into action to curb the segregation of African Americans into inferior facilities and to provide them with access to rights and opportunities long denied. The term affirmative action was first mentioned by President John F. Kennedy in his Executive Order #10925 of March 1961, which established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and described positive steps to be taken by federal agencies to root out discrimination against any identity group.
Affirmative action in this sense gained a firm legal foundation in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and enacted in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy. Reinforcing the antidiscrimination provisions of the act, President Johnson went on to issue a series of executive orders designed to promote equal opportunity in employment, education, and government contracting. It was initially expected that the assertion of formal legal equality of all citizens, the removal of overtly discriminatory barriers, and a much wider diffusion of relevant information to members of underrepresented groups would lead to significant increases in opportunities for members of such groups—in particular, African Americans. It soon became apparent, however, that affirmative action of this kind would not have a significant impact on the numbers of African Americans in desirable jobs or schools. By the late 1960s, therefore, many government agencies and private organizations began to give some preference to African Americans in selection processes. In this context the term affirmative action came to denote positive action in favor of members of underrepresented groups, not simply an effort to abolish all forms of discrimination.
Following the example set by African Americans, other identity groups underrepresented in desirable positions in the United States—such as women, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans—began to mobilize in the late 1960s and early 1970s for policies to end discrimination and to facilitate improvement of their standing in U.S. society. Soon thereafter, affirmative action programs oriented to African Americans came to include also Hispanic Americans and Native Americans as beneficiaries; and a variety of public and private affirmative action programs were established to increase the representation of women in fields that had long been dominated by men.
Affirmative action has been practiced in many countries of the world. Beyond the United States, significant affirmative action policies are in place in India, South Africa, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka; and some form of affirmative action has been implemented in another dozen countries. India was the first site of such policies—labeled “reservations” since they involved quotas of reserved seats. In the early twentieth century popular movements against Brahmins—the highest Hindu caste, whose members dominated the most elite positions open to Indians under British colonial rule—led in parts of India to the establishment of reserved seats for non-Brahmins in some public services and educational institutions. In the 1930s reservation policies were implemented throughout British India in the form of legislative assembly seats reserved for four of India’s minority communities—Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Anglo-Indians—and later also the two most depressed communities—untouchables and tribals, officially labeled “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes.” The constitution of independent India, completed in 1950, is unusual in making explicit provision for affirmative action in the form of reservations for Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes in national and provincial assemblies, as well as in public sector jobs and public institutions of higher education. The Indian constitution also permits reservations for members of “Other Backward Classes”; such reservations have been extended to a variety of groups in most Indian states and, since the 1990s, at the national level.
Wherever they have been implemented, affirmative action policies have proven to be highly controversial, generating heated debate and, at times, mass demonstrations. Where proponents see such policies as a way of rectifying historical injustices and integrating marginalized communities into the life of the society, opponents see these policies as a kind of “reverse discrimination” that contravenes the principle of equal rights for all individuals.
In recent decades academic scholarship has begun to shed light on the actual consequences of affirmative action policies, bringing empirical evidence to bear on debates most often dominated by ethical and political considerations. The evidence makes clear that the direct beneficiaries of affirmative action policies are most often relatively privileged members of underrepresented identity groups, who are in the best position to take advantage of improved access to desirable positions and resources. It has become increasingly clear that affirmative action does not compensate those individuals most disadvantaged by past injustices, nor does it redistribute effectively from rich to poor. But it does foster greater integration of the societal elite, which can serve to legitimate and energize democratic political institutions, to inspire members of marginalized groups, and to improve the performance of tasks where greater diversity among performers contributes to better quality of service for a diverse clientele. Simultaneously, however, affirmative action heightens attention to identity group status, which may exacerbate divisive identity politics.
- Anderson, Elizabeth S. Race, Gender, and Affirmative Action: Resource Page for Teaching. http://www-personal.umich. edu/~eandersn/biblio.htm.
- Nesiah, Devanesan. 1997. Discrimination with Reason: The Policy of Reservations in the United States, India, and Malaysia. Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sowell, Thomas. 2004. Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Weisskopf, Thomas. 2004. Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective. London: Routledge.
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