18 Affirmative Action Pros and Cons

affirmative action definition and example, explained below

Affirmative action refers to policies designed to support and favor disadvantaged groups. A common example of affirmative action is exclusively hiring disadvantaged groups for new positions in a workplace.

Affirmative action can create positive change where it improves income equality, access to opportunities like employment and education, and addresses subtle but pervasive institutional discrimination.

However, some argue that affirmative action can have negative externalities. There are arguments that it can lower efficiency and standards, create cultures of dependency and stifling bureaucracies, and underpin stereotypes and stigmas.

But the most common argument against affirmative action is that it disadvantages qualified individuals.

Often, the possible downsides of affirmative action can be addressed with well-designed affirmative action policies.

chrisA Note from Chris: Although it should be obvious, this is a quick note to say all of these arguments don’t necessarily reflect my beliefs. The point of this article is to brainstorm and steel-man a variety of perspectives on this topic to help you in a school or college debate.

Pros of Affirmative Action

1. Justice for Past Discrimination and Oppression

The driving force behind affirmative action is to undo or reverse harmful policies from the past. Specifically, it looks at policies that would disadvantage ethnic minorities or other demographic groups.

Although there are plenty of concrete and material effects of affirmative action policies, at the root of all of these changes is a sense of justice. While it cannot be measured in any way, the psychological benefits of affirmative action can affect all parts of society by giving people the closure of knowing that the wrongs of the past have been made right.

2. Helps Disadvantaged Groups Climb the Socioeconomic Ladder

Social mobility is considered by many to be a feature of a healthy and well-functioning society. Poor socioeconomic status can often be a trap, where the longer a person or group stays within it, the harder it is to come out of.

Affirmative action gives many communities that are stuck at the bottom of society a helping hand to climb up to a better life. By helping entire communities rather than solely individuals, affirmative action can implement sweeping positive changes across society.

3. Enables Social Participation for Disadvantaged Groups

A representative society needs input from as diverse a selection of its population as possible. Historic laws have excluded many groups in the past, and due to the legacies and lingering effects of these policies, many of the same groups are still excluded.

Affirmative action aims to give historically excluded groups a leg up to participate in institutions and sectors where they have been and continue to be underrepresented. This is especially important in fields like education and law enforcement, where a tailored approach depending on the community being serviced is essential to their success.

3. Promotes Inclusion and Diversity

In addition to the representative benefits that wider participation gives to institutions, inclusion and diversity in the workplace can improve efficiency and innovation.

Companies and organizations that have a very narrow workforce may end up stuck in old ways and unable to adapt to their changing communities. This disadvantages all parties involved. Affirmative action increases the diversity of these workforces, giving them a wider range of tools to approach their jobs with and making them more effective in the process.

4. Reverses Systemic Discrimination

Many groups that have been involved in violence or social unrest say that they are pushed into it by lack of opportunity, systemic discrimination, and the desperation that they lead to.

Although modern societies have been successful at reducing discrimination, the legacy still remains, and fewer opportunities are available because of this.

Affirmative action gives individuals and communities that may otherwise feel that there is no hope for them a path to success and integration into the wider society. This can eliminate one of the biggest push factors toward crime, violence, and conflict.

5. Income Flows into Disadvantaged Communities

By keeping families out of the low socioeconomic status trap, affirmative action can reduce the likelihood of households being in such dire financial straits that they are unable to pay their bills and end up homeless.

There is also another way in which affirmative action reduces homelessness, and that is by combating discrimination in the housing market. While a landlord would not be able to legally refuse to rent to a person or family of a minority ethnic group, this can still be done covertly. Affirmative action makes this kind of discrimination impossible.

6. Better Education Across Society

Employment discrimination against demographic groups can happen directly within the job market by denying jobs to potential candidates, but it can also happen indirectly by limiting education opportunities.

Affirmative action in universities (i.e. quotas for disadvantaged groups) helps equalize education opportunities, which in turn leaves less possibility for indirect discrimination when applicants are applying for jobs. Better education also helps communities in a variety of other ways, making it an overall boost for society.

7. Reduction of Income Inequality

A large part of the income inequality in society is correlated with demographics, with some ethnic groups, for example, consistently earning less than others. These patterns are often the legacies of historic policies that have intended for those groups to be discriminated against.

By providing better education, job opportunities, and access to institutions to historically disadvantaged groups, affirmative action can improve income inequality across society, leading to a healthier economy and communities.

8. Improved Confidence and Self Esteem

Even when direct discrimination is restricted, the legacy of hostile policies can leave groups and communities feeling like they are not truly a part of the greater society.

Affirmative action allows more people to feel valued and recognizes a wider range of contributions. This leads to an overall greater feeling of integration among communities, making the society as a whole more cohesive.

Cons of Affirmative Action

1. Continued Discrimination, Just In a Different Direction

While individuals who may be discriminated against are given an advantage in whatever the affirmative action is being applied to, this will directly disadvantage individuals who otherwise meet the criteria that have been put forward.

In situations like these, the disadvantaged individuals are denied the opportunity based exclusively on whatever demographic element the affirmative action is attempting to correct, thus ironically discriminating against them for the same reasons. For this reason, many people say that affirmative action does not eliminate discrimination so much as it just keeps it going but in a different direction or with different targets.

2. Stifling and Inefficient Bureaucracy

Many affirmative action programs, policies, or implementation teams can end up more complex than is desired. When this happens, they can become very expensive, which diverts resources away from more essential destinations.

They may also become inefficient and easily exploited, allowing for a culture of corruption to grow. When this happens, affirmative action can end up being used by malicious individuals for their own benefit rather than for the greater good of society.

3. Culture of Dependency

By lowering barriers to entry for select groups, affirmative action can create a culture of dependency upon the ‘leg up’ rather than encouraging all groups to compete on a level playing field.

These hypothetical cultures of dependency are driven by complacency, which can happen both with performance and with any application process.

Where complacency leads to a reduction in performance, this lowers the efficiency of the workplace or institution within which it is happening. Where it leads to complacency in applications, it can make it difficult for those making the decisions to find the right people for the role or opportunity.

4. Lowering of Standards

In addition to a drop in efficiency due to the culture of dependency that may arise, affirmative action may also let a lot of unqualified people into roles that they would not have been accepted into even if the recruitment process was completely fair and free of discrimination.

Many affirmative action programs create a lower set of standards for the groups that they want to help. By doing this, assuming a normal distribution of qualifications along the new acceptance levels, the overall quality of the person in the role will go down. This can be especially critical for fields like medicine and others that involve life and death.

5. New Stigmatization

Because of the lower standards of entry and performance, affirmative action policies can create new stigmas – such as the girl in the office who “only got the job because she’s a woman”.

This can make them be perceived as not actually being as qualified as the other members of a team.

These created stigmas can prevent affirmative action programs from potentially achieving any positive change due to their being met with resistance the moment they are introduced to a new workplace or institution.

6. Loss of Meritocracy

Affirmative action policies necessarily take factors into account that are separate to each person’s merit and direct suitability for the role. Because of this, where these policies are used, the application and selection processes are no longer meritocratic.

A loss of meritocracy leads to less efficiency in the workplace and more accidents in critical fields like healthcare and engineering.

7. Frustration and Resentment

When qualified candidates are excluded from a role or opportunity due to affirmative action, this can lead to a sense of frustration with society and mistrust in institutions. This can reduce social cohesion.

Similarly, disadvantaged groups can begin feeling resentment toward the beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, which can eventually extend to all members of the demographic groups that could potentially benefit. This resentment can stoke societal conflicts like, for example, racial tensions.

8. Stereotyping of Benefiting Groups

Where affirmative action policies and programs are prominent, they can lead to the blanket perception of the groups which they benefit that they are less competent than candidates who got their role without this extra benefit.

Notably, this stereotype often extends to all members of the targeted group, including the many that themselves got their role without the help of affirmative action.

9. Reduction in Equality

Although affirmative action policies aim to increase equality, there are many circumstances in which they will have the opposite effect.

Affirmative action may make social inequality worse if being a member of the demographic that the policies target becomes a major or significant factor in success. In these situations, the “winners” are predetermined, creating a new stratification of society.

10. Alienation of Deserving Individuals

Qualified individuals who have lost out on an opportunity that they have qualified for due to affirmative action may begin to feel that they are playing a rigged game or that society is stacked against them.

This kind of alienation dissolves social cohesion, creates bigger tensions between communities, and leads to the ghettoization of society. Ironically, it is this broad societal damage that affirmative action was originally created to fix.


Affirmative action can bring benefits, but as we have learned today, it has many cons associated with it as well. For this reason, it can only work when a fine balance is struck.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

2 thoughts on “18 Affirmative Action Pros and Cons”

  1. Thanks for this! Well written. Very difficult to try and give fair space to both sides of this issue considering the extreme biases at play, I’m sure.

    I think many of the ‘cons’ here rely on the assumption that a beneficiary of affirmative action is actively depriving a competent, qualified candidate of an opportunity. If that’s the scenario we’re going with, shouldn’t the competent, qualified candidate have a multitude of opportunities before them? If not, then isn’t the larger issue more likely a scarcity of positions or an exclusive industry? I’m not seeing much evidence that affirmative action has been successful enough to be labeled as a leading cause of skilled / deserving individuals losing out on major opportunities.

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