What Is Affirmative Action? Definition, How It Works, and Example


Affirmative action is a policy aimed at addressing historical inequalities by increasing opportunities for underrepresented individuals in various areas of society. This article delves into the concept, history, implementation, advantages, and disadvantages of affirmative action, along with key takeaways on its purpose and impact.

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action refers to a policy that seeks to address disparities in workplace and educational opportunities for historically marginalized groups. This proactive approach aims to counter discrimination and promote diversity in leadership and professional roles. It involves considering factors like race, sex, religion, or national origin when hiring or admitting individuals. While affirmative action has been utilized in education and employment, recent legal developments, such as the 2023 Supreme Court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, have introduced new considerations.

How does affirmative action work?

Affirmative action is a strategy supported by government policies that aims to create more chances for groups of people who haven’t always been fairly represented in areas like schools, private jobs, and government roles. This approach seeks to make sure everyone gets a fair shot, even if they belong to groups that have been left out in the past. Here’s a closer look at how affirmative action works:

Affirmative action in schools

Affirmative action tries to open up opportunities in schools. It wants to make sure that people from different backgrounds, such as different races or cultures, have a chance to study at good schools. This helps to create a diverse and rich learning environment where students can learn from one another.

Affirmative action in jobs

When it comes to jobs, affirmative action tries to make sure that people with various backgrounds get a fair chance to work in different professions. This might mean that companies consider candidates from different races, genders, or ethnicities when hiring for positions. The goal is to have a mix of people from different backgrounds working together, which can lead to new ideas and better problem-solving.

Affirmative action in government

In government positions, affirmative action aims to give everyone an equal chance to be part of the decision-making process. It encourages the inclusion of people from various backgrounds in important roles. This way, decisions made by the government can reflect the needs and perspectives of a diverse population.

Affirmative action in housing

Affirmative action can also relate to housing opportunities. It seeks to ensure that people from different backgrounds have equal access to safe and comfortable living spaces. This can help in preventing discrimination and creating more inclusive communities.

At its best, affirmative action is a tool used to give everyone a fair starting point, no matter where they come from. It’s about creating a more balanced and fair society where everyone’s voice and potential can be heard and valued. While there’s still debate about how it should be used, the intention behind affirmative action is to make sure that everyone has a chance to succeed, regardless of their background.

History and implementation

Emerging in the 1960s to enforce equal opportunity, affirmative action aimed to eliminate discrimination. Early initiatives sought to desegregate institutions and expand opportunities for minorities. Despite legislative efforts against discrimination, substantial progress was gradual. Modern campaigns focus on broader inclusivity, encompassing gender diversity, veterans, and people with disabilities. However, the legal landscape has evolved, as seen in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and related cases.

Elements of affirmative action

Affirmative action comprises essential components aimed at fostering equality and diversity. It involves providing financial aid for equitable education access and prioritizing diverse candidates during hiring, encompassing factors like ethnicity, gender, and cultural background. Non-compliance with these policies can result in the forfeiture of government funding or contracts, underscoring the significance of these measures in cultivating a more just and inclusive society.

Furthermore, affirmative action goes beyond mere policies; it represents a commitment to dismantling systemic barriers. By addressing historical disparities and promoting representation, it lays the groundwork for a society that celebrates differences and promotes equal opportunities for all. As societies continue to evolve, these elements of affirmative action play a pivotal role in shaping a future that values diversity and champions fairness.

Examples of affirmative action

Numerous historical examples highlight the evolution of affirmative action, including Executive Orders, legislative acts, and corporate advocacy. Companies like Apple, Alphabet, and General Motors have endorsed diversity in college admissions as conducive to innovation.

Advantages and disadvantages of affirmative action

Affirmative action garners both support and criticism. Supporters emphasize its role in providing opportunities, combating inequality, and diversifying society. Critics argue that it may result in reverse discrimination and question its effectiveness and cost.


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • Provides opportunities for underrepresented groups.
  • Diversifies society and workplaces.
  • Implementation costs may be high.
  • Shifts focus from individual merits..

What is the goal of affirmative action?

The objective of affirmative action is to bridge historical gaps by extending opportunities to underrepresented communities. These policies have evolved to encompass multiple dimensions, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

How did Regents V. Bakke change affirmative action policies?

The Regents V. Bakke case transformed affirmative action by invalidating racial quotas. Although upholding the policy, the Supreme Court deemed quotas unconstitutional. Subsequent cases, like Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina, further shaped this landscape.

Which U.S. President first defined and used the term affirmative action?

That was President John F. Kennedy. He did so in 1961, advocating for equal treatment regardless of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Key takeaways

  • Affirmative action addresses historical disparities by increasing opportunities for marginalized groups.
  • Efforts encompass hiring quotas, financial aid, and diverse candidate consideration.
  • The policy supports gender diversity, veterans, and individuals with disabilities.
  • Legal rulings, like Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, shape the landscape.
View Article Sources
  1. Affirmative Action – Cornell Law School
  2. Affirmative Action – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. What is Affirmative Action? – Oklahoma State University
  4. Medical Bills Statute of Limitations by State – SuperMoney
  5. Fifth Third Bank Savings Accounts – SuperMoney