Affirmative Action

A government policy that is designed to help minorities and disadvantaged groups in finding employment, getting admissions at universities, and obtaining housing

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action, also known as “positive discrimination,” is a government policy that is designed to help minorities and disadvantaged groups in finding employment, getting admissions at universities, and obtaining housing. The policy was originally created to offer disadvantaged groups a boost and increase diversity in communities, the workplace, and learning institutions.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action Policy – History

The policy was introduced in one of John F. Kennedy’s presidential executive orders in 1961 and stated that applicants and employees must be treated fairly regardless of their race, color, or national origin.

By 1967, the list included gender and religion, and the policy aimed to promote anti-discrimination and equal opportunities for people who were previously oppressed, exploited, and exposed to discrimination.

The idea of the policy is for employers and educational institutes to take affirmative action and cease any sort of racial, religion-based, or gender-based discrimination in relation to making admission and employment decisions. However, the policy comes into a controversial spotlight when disadvantaged groups are given preferential treatment.

Affirmative Action – Advantages

1. Climbing the socioeconomic ladder

An individual’s or a family’s socioeconomic status is typically divided into three levels: high, middle, and low, and is determined by their income, education, and occupational status. By giving minorities and disadvantaged groups an equal opportunity to attain education and employment, the policy increases their chances of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.

2. Boosting the education of disadvantaged students

Disadvantaged families often fall into development and poverty traps if they do not have access to higher education and/or if they cannot afford it. By providing grants and scholarships that are meant for students from disadvantaged groups (e.g., scholarships meant for students of indigenous origin in Canada), affirmative action boosts the education of the students – which has potentially positive future outcomes related to income, health, and socioeconomic status.

3. Promoting education and work on a communal level

Affirmative action promotes education in society by encouraging women and other previously oppressed groups to attend university and offering them equal opportunities and pay, regardless of gender or race. It results in the overall growth and development of human capital in the economy, along with potentially higher standards of living and per capita income.

Affirmative Action – Disadvantages

1. Reverse discrimination

Reverse discrimination is the notion that instead of promoting anti-discrimination, affirmative action leads to discrimination against individuals and groups that come from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. Talented individuals may not be given equal opportunities simply because they are not part of a minority group. It may also result in hatred between majority and minority groups.

2. Lack of meritocracy

Meritocracy is an important system that aims to push more capable individuals to places of higher education so that they may have the resources and knowledge required to make important changes in the world. By encouraging universities to admit more students of a particular race, nationality, or gender, affirmative action may be discouraging meritocracy in educational institutions.

3. Demeaning true achievement

Achievements by individuals from minority groups and other disadvantaged groups may be considered a result of affirmative action rather than their own hard work, which can be demeaning to their true level of effort and confidence in their abilities.

For example, an indigenous student who just graduated with a law degree may be looked at as someone that took advantage of the policy to get there, instead of someone that worked harder than others to get there.

Ways to Take Affirmative Action

1. Employment

In the workplace, affirmative action may include creating diversity and inclusion clauses that promote anti-discrimination. Candidates are usually exposed to a message that promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace during the employment application process. Companies often provide options where applicants can select whether or not they identify as a minority or as an indigenous individual.

2. Education

Affirmative action at universities can take the form of grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid that help provide financially distressed students with support to complete their education.

Some governments impose quotas on the minimum number of minority students required for an institution to qualify for certain grants or, in stricter environments, education licenses. It is a common practice in India, where the Reservation System requires universities, employers, and other institutions to have a certain number of seats reserved for people that were previously exposed to class discrimination.

However, quotas can take the form of preferential treatment and can be discriminating towards other groups of students – which is why it’s been deemed illegal in the United States.

More Resources

Thank you for reading CFI’s guide to Affirmative Action. To keep advancing your career, the additional CFI resources below will be useful:

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