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Affirmative Action

What is affirmative action, and how does it affect our education system? This article presents the history and current situation with regard to affirmative action. It also details the pros and cons of laws concerning affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a system of preferences used in hiring and admissions with the goal of balancing several factors: the qualifications of individual applicants for positions; the value of having a diverse cohort or workforce; and the desire to eliminate current effects of past discriminatory practices, while preventing present and future discrimination. To understand more about how affirmative action works in higher education today, read on.


President John F. Kennedy was the first to use the term affirmative action in 1961. Signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965 as an executive order, it began as a plan to undo the results of discrimination that continued despite civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Designed to address both college admissions and the job market, affirmative action was viewed as a temporary measure, put in place to create a “level playing field” for all United States citizens.

By the 1970s, people were asking questions about the broader effects of the way affirmative action had been implemented, particularly with regard to the use of quotas. Questions about “reverse discrimination”-situations in which white people were discriminated against in the efforts to be fair to minorities-began to surface.

The objections came to a head in 1978 with the Bakke lawsuit in which a white male named Allan Bakke, who had been twice rejected in his medical school application took the medical school to court. The suit claimed that minority applicants less qualified than Bakke were admitted under an admissions policy that set aside 16 places of the 100 available for minorities. The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld affirmative action programs, while indicating that quotas were not an acceptable form of implementation.

In 1997, Californians passed Proposition 209, which banned all forms of affirmative action in the state of California. The law says: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Washington State passed a similar measure called Initiative 2000 in the following year, 1998, and the Florida legislature voted to ban the consideration of race in college admissions in 2000.

In 2003, however, when a Michigan higher education case came to them, the Supreme Court reaffirmed affirmative action with a ruling that allowed the inclusion of race as a factor that admissions committees could consider as they worked to create a diverse student body. However, at the same time, the Supreme Court reconfirmed that formulaic approaches-this one used a point system and gave supplementary points to minority applicants-like quota systems, were not appropriate because they do not achieve “individualized consideration” of candidates. The decision also confirmed the time-limited nature of affirmative action programs.

Divided Opinion on Affirmative Action

Today, affirmative action continues to have vigorous supporters and equally strong opponents, and the views are not simply divided along color lines: even opinion among minorities varies widely. For example, Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice has supported the approach of trying a race-neutral approach to college admissions first, and using race as a factor in considering students only if and when race-neutral approaches are not successful in achieving a diverse student body.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the other hand, has referred to himself as a “strong proponent” of affirmative action. And Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court has criticized affirmative action based on his own experience of people assuming that his Yale University law degree was more a result of affirmative action than a sign of his expertise in the field.

Current Situation of Affirmative Action

In 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2, which banned the use of race and gender as factors in public university admissions and government hiring. This was followed in 2008 by a move to place bans of affirmative action measures on the November election ballots in five more states: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. However, the ban is only on the ballots in Colorado and Nebraska, and a group attempting to protect affirmative action in Colorado is doing its best to prevent the measure from passing.


Fox News online

The Colorado Independent online

Written by Mary Elizabeth