Affirmative action is a descriptive phrase for policies and programs designed to correct the effects of past discrimination and increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups, including women and African Americans. Affirmative action plans exist in the private and public sectors and involve the hiring of job applicants, the selection of contractors for government projects, and the admission of students to undergraduate and graduate educational institutions. Some employers, educational institutions, and government agencies are legally required by executive order to have affirmative action plans. Others may be ordered to develop affirmative action plans as part of a court finding that they have discriminated against individuals or groups. Still others voluntarily develop such plans because they believe it is good public policy, or that it provides them with a competitive advantage.


Although the roots of affirmative action in the United States go back to the nineteenth century, modern affirmative action plans originated with executive orders issued by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon in the 1960s. Executive Order 11246, signed by President Johnson in 1965, required government agencies, contractors, and subcontractors to undertake affirmative action to remedy past discrimination in education, training, and employment. In 1969 President Nixon further strengthened affirmative action through Executive Order 11478, which required government contractors to develop goals for increasing the representation of historically disadvantaged groups and timetables for achieving them.

As amended in subsequent years, these executive orders eventually required all government agencies and contractors with annual contracts of $10,000 or more to undertake affirmative action. They also required agencies and contractors with 50 employees and government business of $50,000 or more to have written affirmative action plans. These written plans must include a utilization analysis, which compares the composition of the entity's workforce to the proportion of women and minorities in the available labor market. If underutilization is found, the agency or contractor must set specific goals and timetables for remedying the "imbalance" and develop specific plans for how this will be done. The use of affirmative action plans expanded greatly in the twenty years after the executive orders. Because most educational institutions and large organizations receive money and/or do business with the government, affirmative action plans are very common.


In the employment context, affirmative action plans should be distinguished from equal employment opportunity (EEO) programs. EEO efforts focus on the process involved in hiring and promoting employees and attempt to ensure that there is a level playing field for all involved. Conversely, affirmative action programs focus on the outcomes of recruiting, hiring, and promotion processes, and involve additional efforts to increase the proportion of women and minorities that are hired and promoted.

There are various types of affirmative action plans. Some plans simply try to increase the number of applicants from underrepresented groups. Such plans, which are sometimes called "pure" plans or "opportunity enhancement" plans, involve proactive efforts to locate and recruit a larger number of individuals from the affected groups. Other affirmative action plans can be termed "limited preference" or "tiebreak" plans. They go a step further than pure affirmative action plans by considering race or gender as a "plus" factor when evaluating the qualifications of applicants who essentially are equally qualified. Finally, the most aggressive affirmative action plans are "strong preferential treatment" or "quota" plans. In these plans, qualified members of a disadvantaged group may be preferred to more highly qualified individuals who are not in the affected group. Generally speaking, the more aggressive the affirmative action strategy employed, the more likely it is to generate challenges and the more difficult it is to defend legally.

Affirmative action plans are quite controversial and have been the subject of hundreds of lawsuits, several of which have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawsuits filed by those who believe they have been unfairly treated by affirmative action plans usually are called "reverse discrimination" lawsuits. Although the courts generally have agreed that affirmative action is legal if it meets certain criteria, court decisions in the 1990s and early 2000s seemed to reflect a trend toward restricting the more aggressive types of affirmative action programs, which may include preferences based on race or gender. Affirmative action is certain to be a contentious issue for years to come.

SEE ALSO: Discrimination ; Diversity

Tim Barnett


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Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Available from < >.

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