Affirmative action refers to policies and practices that seek to uplift marginalized communities.
It aims to correct past injustices and create a more equal society through various methods, such as quotas, targeted advertising, and specific training.
Affirmative action is quite a controversial topic, with many supporters and critics. Supporters claim it addresses systematic inequalities, while detractors claim it is a form of reverse discrimination.
Definition of Affirmative Action
John Scott defines affirmative action (also called “positive discrimination”) as
“Policies and practices that favor groups (mainly ethnic groups and women) who have historically experienced disadvantages (usually in the fields of employment and education)” (2014).
The term was originally used in an executive order signed by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It included a provision that all government contractors “take affirmative action” to ensure that all employees are hired & treated fairly, without discrimination of race, creed, color, etc.
Advocates of affirmative action argue that, given the existing inequalities and stereotypes in our society, such policies are necessary to create opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups. But it is a highly controversial topic, which has caused much legal & political debate.
Examples of Affirmative Action
- Quota Systems: Quotas are a form of affirmative action that establish a minimum number or percentage of individuals from marginalized groups who must be included in a particular institution, program, etc. The best example of this is the reservation system in India, which tries to uplift the underrepresented castes of the country. As per the constitution, up to 50% of all government-run higher education admissions and government job vacancies can be reserved for members of SC/ST (Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes) and OBC (Other Backward Classes). Moreover, 10% of seats are also reserved for Economically Weaker Sections.
- College Admissions: Many colleges will reserve a certain percentage of placements for marginalized and disadvantaged groups. This may limit the amount of places for high-performing people from advantaged groups in exchange for entrance of people from exclusively disadvantaged groups.
- Political Party Quotas: Many political parties, such as the Labor Party in Australia, have put in place quotas for 50/50 gender representation in parliament. These quotas mean new preselections are often exclusively for women, with men unable to put their hands up.
- Targeted Promotions: Many corporations will look at their employee profiles and see that there is an overrepresentation of advantaged social groups within their managerial group. As a result, they may only open up internal promotions for people from disadvantaged social groups, such as women or racial minorities.
- Factor Consideration: In many countries, instead of using quotas, affirmative action takes the form of factor consideration; the organization takes the marginalized factor (race, gender, etc.) of the individual into account while granting admission. In the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that quotas would not be permitted; however, the University of Michigan Law School could consider race as a plus factor when evaluating applicants holistically (Urofsky, 2020). In Europe also, the law allows institutions to consider an individual’s disadvantaged status as a tiebreaker (assuming they have an equal level of merit as other applicants).
- Targeted Advertising Campaigns for Minorities: Some countries use targeted advertising to encourage minorities. For example, there can be specific marketing campaigns to encourage ethnic minorities to join the police force. This is quite popular in Europe, where it is known as “positive action”. Here, the focus is on creating equal opportunity, and it is seen as a “color blind approach”, that is, an attempt to bring equality without engaging in what some consider as “reverse discrimination”.
- Specific Training for Marginalized Groups: Specific Training is a form of affirmative action that aims to provide marginalized communities with knowledge, skills, and experience. For example, a company can conduct leadership development training programs that are specifically designed for an underrepresented group (say women or people of color). This will promote equal opportunity while creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Government agencies can also provide training programs to underrepresented groups to help them prepare for civil service exams and other employment opportunities.
- Relaxation of Selection Criteria: This is a form of affirmative action that uses modified or relaxed selection criteria for marginalized groups. For example, in China, minorities have to fulfill a lower minimum requirement for the National University Entrance Examination, a mandatory exam for all students to enter university (Guangdong Province, 2007). Similarly, in Denmark, Greenlanders can get degrees without the required grade averages if they fulfill certain criteria.
- The Employment Equity Act in South Africa: The Employment Equity Act, along with the Black Economic Empowerment program, aims to bring equality in post-apartheid South Africa. After the transition to democracy in 1994, the country implemented affirmative action to correct past imbalances. All employers were required to advance people from disadvantaged groups including all people of color, women, and people with disabilities. The Black Economic Empowerment has also set up minimum requirements in terms of representation which every company must meet.
- Class-Based Policy in Israel: During the early 2000s, Israel’s top four universities incorporated a unique affirmative action policy. It was neither based on financial status nor ethnic/national origin. Instead, it focused on structural disadvantages, including neighborhood socioeconomic status, high school rigor, and individual hardships. This policy led to a much greater diversity (geographic, economic, and demographic) in all four institutions (Alon, 2011). Moreover, Israeli citizens who are Arab, Blacks, or people with disabilities receive full university scholarships from the state.
- Affirmative Action in Indonesia: Indonesia offers affirmative action to native Papuans in various fields, such as education, government civil service, and police/army forces. Papuans are the indigenous peoples of Western New Guinea in Indonesia. The government has enacted a Special Autonomy Law for them, which gives them greater political autonomy, financial support, and cultural preservation. There is also a Papuan Job Priority policy, which requires companies operating in Papua to prioritize natives.
- Malaysia’s New Economic Policy: The New Economic Policy of Malaysia implements ethnicity-based affirmative action. It seeks to uplift those it deems “Bumiputera”: the Malay population, Orang Asli, and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak. Together, these groups constitute the majority in Indonesia. The supporting argument is that the Malays have lower incomes than the Chinese and Indians, who have traditionally been involved in businesses and industries.
- France’s Neighborhood-Based Affirmative Action: Although the French Constitution does not allow any form of distinction based on race, religion, or sex, the country has adopted a unique version of affirmative action based on neighborhood. Some neighborhoods are labeled as “Priority Education Zones”, where primary and secondary schools are granted more funds than other areas. Students from these schools are also offered special policies in certain institutes, such as Sciences Po. France also requires all listed or state-owned companies to have at least 20% women on their board.
- Affirmative Action in Canada: Canada gives preferential treatment to certain groups in employment and education. Employers in federally-regulated industries are required to favor four disadvantaged groups: Women, persons with disabilities, aboriginal peoples, and visible minorities. Several universities offer alternative admission criteria for students of Aboriginal descent. In Northwest Territories, aboriginal people have P1 status and are given preference for jobs and education.
Benefits of Affirmative Action
Affirmative action is beneficial not only to the target groups but also to the wider society, which becomes much more representative & equal.
Affirmative action has the following benefits:
- Redresses past injustices: It is a way of redressing past injustices. For example, slavery in the United States led to centuries of subjugation of African people. The present state of African Americans (higher poverty rate, unemployment, etc.) is directly linked to this exploitative history. Affirmative action tries to correct historical injustices by providing groups with greater opportunities.
- Enhanced Access for the Marginalized: Affirmative action increases access to education and bridges inequalities in employment. Universities can reserve a certain percentage of their seats for marginalized students as was done by the University of California in 2006, which led to greater representation of African American & Latino Students. Similarly, through affirmative action programs and practices, companies can help underrepresented groups gain better opportunities.
- Seeking out Diverse Talents: Finally, affirmative action would help our entire society by bringing forward talented people from all sections. Our state, institutional, and professional leadership will benefit from the diversity of individuals. It would allow us to learn from the histories, cultures, and practices of various groups.
Criticisms of Affirmative Action
Despite the benefits of affirmative action, many criticize it for being ineffective and unfair.
The main points of criticism include:
- Reverse Discrimination: Many people see affirmative action as a form of institutionalized reverse discrimination. They argue that it replaces old wrongs with new wrongs, increasing race tensions instead of bringing reconciliation. It benefits the most privileged people within minority groups while ignoring the less fortunate within majority groups (Garry, 2006).
- Mismatching: Critics of affirmative action use the term mismatching to argue that such policies get students into educational institutes that are too difficult for them and lead to higher dropout rates. They point out that, without affirmative action, a student will go to a college that matches their ability and have a good chance of graduating.
- Inefficiency: Some believe that affirmative action promotes inefficiency by reducing the incentive to work. Beneficiaries may feel that it is not necessary to work hard, and even non-beneficiaries may be demotivated if they see hard work as futile (Sowell, 2004). The Black Economic Empowerment policy was criticized because it led to disproportionally high costs for small companies and reduced economic growth.
Affirmative action includes policies and practices that seek to increase the representation of marginalized groups in education, employment, and other fields.
It can be implemented through various methods, such as quotas, modification of selection criteria, etc. Affirmative action aims to undo past injustices and create a more equal society. However, critics see it as a form of “reverse discrimination” and question its effectiveness.
Alon, S. (2011). The Diversity Dividends of a Need-blind and Color-blind Affirmative Action Policy. Social Science Research. London: Elsevier.
Garry, P. (2006). Cultural Whiplash: Unforeseen Consequences of America’s Crusade Against Racial Discrimination. United Kingdom: Cumberland House Publishing.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sowell, T. (2004). Affirmative Action Around the World. Yale: Yale University Press.
Urofsky, M. I. (2020). The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History From Reconstruction to Today. London: Penguin Random House.