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The term affirmative action encompasses a broad range of voluntary and mandated policies and procedures intended to provide equal access to educational and employment opportunities for members of historically excluded groups. Foremost among the bases for historical exclusion have been race, ethnicity, and sex, although consideration is sometimes extended to other groups (e.g., Vietnam veterans, the disabled). Both the concept of affirmative action and its application have undergone a series of transformations and interpretations. These shifts have contributed to considerable ambivalence in levels of public support for and opposition to affirmative action policies.
There is no single model of affirmative action. Affirmative action efforts may be either public or private. Definitions of protected groups range from very restricted to very broad. Enforcement mechanisms may be quite rigorous or virtually non-existent.
Affirmative action is in many ways an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movements. In particular, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in any areas of employment that was based on race, color, creed, or sex. The year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive request 11246, which prohibited discrimination against minorities by federal contractors. While American presidents had routinely been issuing similar Executive requests for some time, EO 11246 was different in two important ways. First, it included sex rather than merely race as a protected category. Second, it established an enforcement mechanism, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC). While not a powerful entity, the OFCC was an important step in institutionalizing affirmative action. Affirmative action received a further boost with the passage of the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOA). The EEOA required federal agencies to adopt affirmative action. By 2000, this legislation covered about 3.5 million federal employees (Harper & Reskin 2005).
Whether applied to employment or to education, affirmative action has been a politically sensitive issue. Much of the contention has been grounded in differing understandings and interpretations of affirmative action. While most participants in the affirmative action debate agree on the social benefits of racially and culturally diverse workforces and student bodies, they differ sharply on how to achieve this. Opponents of affirmative action often emphasize the apparent contradictions between group-based remedies and the American commitment to individualism and meritocracy. Many maintain that affirmative action unfairly stigmatizes members of protected categories, who can never be certain that their success was due to their individual merit. Advocates discuss the benefits of more exclusive hiring and admissions criteria and the need in a fair society to provide reparations for indisputable histories of disadvantage.
- Harper, S. & Reskin, B. (2005) Affirmative action at school and on the job. Annual Review of Sociology 31: 357-79.
- Oppenheimer, D. B. (1989) Distinguishing five models of affirmative action. Berkeley Women’s Law Journal 4: 42-61.