Affirmative Action

Updated on February 28, 2024
Edited byAshish Kumar Srivastav
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action refers to the act of positive discrimination to uplift or empower the minority or disadvantaged classes in a society. It is used as a policy intervention measure by governments and corporations to help the marginalized sections access better occupational and livelihood opportunities.

What is Affirmative Action?

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Affirmative action policies majorly focus on education and employment opportunities to improve the socio-economic status of disadvantaged groups. Organizations like governments and corporates enact affirmative action laws, programs, policies, scholarships, and quotas. These policies include reservations, positive discrimination, or alternative access policies in job hiring, college admissions, and promotions to increase representation from diverse groups.

Key Takeaways

  • Affirmative action defines the policy of inclusive growth wherein the minorities or disadvantaged groups get due recognition.
  • These minority groups represent various ethnic, racial, caste, creed, gender, educational, and economic groups in any society who have faced historical exploitation or marginalization from ruling classes.
  • Policies and programs are designed to correct these historical wrongs and empower minorities to get opportunities and socio-economic benefits through special means.
  • First, such an initiative was taken in the United States by President John F. Kennedy by signing an executive order that promoted non-discrimination in employment opportunities.

Affirmative Action Explained

Affirmative action definition applies to efforts of government and corporates towards making society more equal and just for all. In essence, the term was first introduced in the United States in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy signing an executive order. It held that government contractors should take affirmative action while employing people and not discriminate based on their backgrounds, such as race, creed, color, or nationality.

Thus, as a continued effort toward the policy of non-discrimination, additional factors such as religion, sex, and gender were added later in 1968 by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Past exploitations and failure to create a just society became the foremost reasons to initiate such policies and guidelines.

Moreover, to uphold the liberal democratic principles, the U.S. government enacted the Civil Right Act in 1964 to correct past wrongs and eliminate unjust discrimination that oppressed minorities. These minority groups lacked socio-economic opportunities because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, and financial backgrounds and gender.

Consequently, the yardsticks of these affirmative action policies were gender, race, ethnicity, disability, or other minority groups who were underrepresented in institutions of professional, economic, and educational importance.

In due time, the administrative machinery took measures at grassroots levels to curb such discrimination and untouchability practices by awarding contracts and other social benefits to persons of minority groups. In addition, the corporates and private institutions were also included under the ambit of affirmative action programs through guidelines and laws for setting aside quotas and criteria to prefer diverse communities during the hiring and admissions process.

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Let us look at a few affirmative action examples to understand better its use in public life.

Example #1

Particularly, the famous case of Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003) reflects the landmark judgment of the United States Supreme Court. To sum up, the case came knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court after the denial of admission to a student at the University of Michigan law school. In contrast, the admissions office gave preference to a student of the minority class under their racial quota policy.

For that reason, the most significant criticism of this episode was that it demeaned meritocracy as an important criterion. However, the court upheld that the notion of affirmative actions in student admissions did not violate the basic tenets of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which inserted the equal protection clause. 

Thus, the judges supported the race-based positive discrimination by the law school admissions office as it promoted a critical socio-economic interest of racial and ethnic minority groups. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the intention to improve diversity within higher educational institutions and conscious race-based policies. 

Example #2

Let’s take the case of the developing countries such as South Africa and India, which have taken extensive policy measures to support socially and economically backward classes within their societies.

Firstly, in the case of South Africa, alternative access programs (AAPs) have included underrepresented student groups- especially black female students. Moreover, the country also provides constructive courses and mentors to ensure the successful careers of these student groups.

Similarly, in India, affirmative policy actions have been taken by constitution makers and courts to ensure a just society and eliminate social evils of untouchability and casteism. Thus, constitutional protection has forwarded greater protection and upliftment of many backward classes in education, public services career, and promotional opportunities. 


Many critics of affirmative action programs have blamed such policies and programs. To begin with, many critics of affirmative action have blamed such policies and programs based on reverse discrimination. As a result, criticism has given rise to heated debates, which have divided public opinion on supporting affirmative action policies.

This narrative gave rise to affirmative action cases such as the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), wherein the majority ruling by the judges of the U.S. Supreme court declared quotas in admissions and job recruitments unconstitutional. 

However, even though the federal courts did away with the quotas policy in later judgments, it allowed the consideration of race as an additional factor during admissions.

Pros And Cons

To enumerate, let us consider some of the pros and cons of policies and programs of affirmative action and how they influence public life:

1. Ensures institutions are free from discrimination and prejudice based on race, caste, religion, gender, etc.Demeans meritocracy or the skills and ability of a qualified person.
2. Increases representation of minority groups such as women, different races and ethnic groups, or differently-abled persons.Criticized for reverse discrimination
3. Helps in rectifying and correcting historical exploitation suffered by women and minorities.Sometimes, such policies do not give due credit to a person’s hard work and efforts.
4. Promotes diversity in work, education, and other such public institutions. May create divisions and resentment within a polity, leading to social unrest.
5. Provides a chance for socially and economically weaker sections of the society to improve their capabilities and conditions. The policy of reservations might reduce the workplace or institutional competency and efficiency. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What impact was affirmative action designed to have?

Such policies and programs aim to make public institutions and workplaces more inclusive and diverse. Initially, it aimed to correct the historical wrongs that certain ethnic and racial groups faced. 

Is affirmative action legal?

Yes, governments worldwide have recognized affirmative action to undo historical injustices and exploitations faced by women and other minority groups.

What are affirmative action programs?

These programs include reservation policies, quotas, scholarships, and grants in the admission and job recruitment process to give enough representation to minority groups. Some countries also pursue such policies in promotions at the workplace as well to uplift underrepresented sections.

Does affirmative action work?

The effectiveness of such policies depends on their implementation. Some countries have given constitutional and lawful backing to affirmative policy actions; various court rulings have directed others. These affirmative policy actions have helped many minority groups like the women and minority black population in the U.S. It has also brought accessibility, accommodation, and equal participation for disabled persons in public places and sports events such as the Paralympics.

This article has been a guide to Affirmative Action and its definition. Here, we explain its pros and cons, criticism of its programs and policies, and examples. You can learn more from the following articles –

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