(known as reservation
in India and Nepal and positive discrimination
in the UK; also known in a narrower context as employment equity
in Canada and South Africa) is the policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group who suffer or have suffered from discrimination within a culture. Often, these people are disadvantaged for historical reasons, such as oppression or slavery. Historically and internationally, support for affirmative action has sought to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances. The nature of affirmative action policies varies from region to region. Some countries, such as India, use a quota system, whereby a certain percentage of government jobs, political positions, and school vacancies must be reserved for members of a certain group. In some other regions where quotas are not used, minority group members are given preference or special consideration in selection processes.
In 1989, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulated (in Article 2.2) that affirmative action programs may be required of countries that ratified the convention, in order to rectify systematic discrimination. It also states that such programs "shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved."
Several countries, such as India, reserve political, vocational and educational positions for members of disadvantaged groups. In India, this varies between 30% (nationwide) to up to 70% (in Tamil Nadu). In the United States, affirmative action in employment and education has been the subject of legal and political controversy, and in 2003, a pair of US Supreme Court decisions (Grutter v. Bollinger
and Gratz v. Bollinger
) permitted educational institutions to consider race as a factor when admitting students while prohibiting the use of quotas. In other countries, such as the UK, affirmative action is rendered illegal because it does not treat all races equally. This approach to equal treatment is described as being "color blind." In such countries, the focus tends to be on ensuring equal opportunity
and, for example, targeted advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force. This is sometimes described as "positive action."
Opponents of affirmative action such as George Sher believe that affirmative action devalues the accomplishments of people who are chosen based on the social group to which they belong rather than their qualifications, thus rendering affirmative action counterproductive. Opponents, who sometimes say that affirmative action is reverse discrimination
, further claim that affirmative action has undesirable side-effects in addition to failing to achieve its goals. For example, the idea of "mismatching" suggests that affirmative action might place students into colleges that are too difficult for them, increasing their chances of dropping out.