What is Affirmative Action?

Legal Definition
Affirmative action (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.
-- Wikipedia
Legal Definition
A set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination between applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future. Applicants may be seeking admission to an educational program or looking for professional employment.
Legal Origins
....The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.
-- Executive Order 10925 (1961)
....In administering a program regarding which the recipient [of federal funding] has previously discriminated against persons on the ground of race, color, or national origin, the recipient must take affirmative action to overcome the effects of prior discrimination.
-- Civil Rights Act (1964) (34 CFR § 100.3(b)(6)(i))

Employment: Government Contractors
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order mandating government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." (Executive Order 10925) Since 1965, government contractors have been required to document their affirmative action programs through compliance reports, to contain "such information as to the practices, policies, programs, and employment policies, programs, and employment statistics of the contractor and each subcontractor . . . " (Executive Order 11246). Enforcement is conducted by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, US Department of labor.
Employment: General
Employers who contract with the government or who otherwise receive federal funds are required to document their affirmative action practices and metrics. Affirmative action is also a remedy, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where a court finds that an employer has intentionally engaged in discriminatory practices.

The Equal Employment Opportunity commission, created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforces the following employment anti-discrimination laws: (source: EEOC).
Recipients of federal funds are required to document their affirmative action practices and metrics. Educational institutions which have acted discriminatorily in the past must take affirmative action as a remedy. (34 CFR § 100.3(6)(ii)).

The Office of Civil Rights enforces the following education anti-discrimination laws: (source: OCR)
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (race, color, religion, national origin)
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (people of a certain age)
  • Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 (gender)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (people with disabilities)
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • The Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act (Section 9525 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) (equal access for outside community groups to school facilities during non-school hours)
Legal Definition
When an employer must consider employing any race or minority that applies for a job.