Affirmative Action in the 21st Century

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 11
Words: 2905
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: Master

Affirmative action was introduced 46 years ago by President Kennedy, who sought to set equality not just as the right or the theory, but as the fact. In its long history, affirmative action has been both complimented and pilloried. Recent research indicates that affirmative action has failed and does not protect or guarantee equality. Just as in 1961, discrimination persists in spite of the civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. However, society has changed; the labor market and demographic situation are different today as well. Shifts in immigration policy, the aging of the baby boomers generation, and the increasing diversity of the American population dictate the need to introduce the new program aimed at meeting the needs of all social segments. Affirmative action should be fundamentally revised or replaced by new initiatives to become more advantageous for every member of the community and help all people who are underprivileged.

History Overview

John Kennedy (1961) was the first to use affirmative action as the instruction for federal contractors to ensure that all applicants were treated equally. This initiative was aimed at protecting human rights to employment despite race, sex, color, or ethnic origin. Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law which prohibited discrimination by employers with over 15 subordinates. President Johnson supported affirmative action and further expanded it, requiring all contractors to hire minorities and women. Under President Nixon, flexible goals were applied to make sure that women and minorities had the opportunity to uncover their full potential at the workplace (Bowen and Bok, p. 58).

Affirmative action was initially focused on the education and employment market and sought to become the foundation of active measures to ensure that minorities and women were granted the same opportunities. Ideally, it was seen as the temporary policy which would finally end discrimination and ensure that all employees were granted the same opportunities for bonuses, salary increases, and promotions, as well as all students, were equally eligible for scholarships and admissions. Despite its honorable aims, affirmative action gave birth to reverse discrimination by the late 1970s. Recalling the Bakke case, the white male was rejected by the medical school while less qualified minority representatives were accepted because two separate admission policies existed for them. Notably, in this case, the court outlawed the quota system, while in the same ruling, the legality of affirmative action was upheld (Bowen and Bok, p. 58).

Many white people started campaigns against affirmative action. Conservatives viewed affirmative action as the door for minorities to jobs and education. At the same time, others thought that preferential treatment received by minorities is unfair to the majority. Liberals referred to the history of African Americans (245 years in slavery and 100 years of legal discrimination) and stated that affirmative action took away jobs from whites. Looking back at recent history, many states have banned affirmative action plans even though both the House of Representatives and Senate inhibited attempts to eliminate affirmative action plans in 1998. The same year, the University of California banned affirmative action in admissions. Voters in Washington and Florida supported this initiative and banned affirmative action in hiring, education, and contracting.

Affirmative Action advantages and disadvantages

Supporters of affirmative action claim that it is the myth that the only way to create discrimination in society is to adopt discriminative policies. In fact, affirmative action puts racial minorities at an advantage. Employment policies protect while employees because most of the senior supervisors are whites. The same situation is with the colleges: college admission favors white students because they have more educational advantages. Nevertheless, these claims are not based on the real situation and affirmative action does not correct the racial discrimination; it rather reinforces it (Plus, p. 206). If during the first years of its existence, affirmative action succeeded in increasing minority representation in employment and educational spheres, today there is no need for it because all organizations and colleges eliminated employment and admission quotas granting equal rights and rules to all American citizens despite their race.

Affirmative action has been vital for the economy and political life 20 years ago because minorities and women were treated with inferiority. Even though today women continue to earn only 75 percent for every male dollar and black people still have an unemployment rate twice bigger than whites (Plus, p. 207), these figures are not caused by discriminative policies as well as affirmative action is not the solution to this situation. According to the polls, the majority of the American population supports affirmative action: 80 percent of all respondents felt that affirmative action should be continued for women and minorities. Here are some of the questions and results of the survey (the U.S. Bureau of the Census, p. 22):

  1. Do you favor affirmative action programs in the workplace? 58% favor, 36% oppose
  2. Do you favor affirmative action programs for admission? 56% favor, 39% oppose
  3. Should affirmative action programs left as they are, changed, or banned? 42% favored leaving at they are, 43% favored changing, and 25% favored banning.

It is clear that society is divided in its attitude towards affirmative action. Affirmative action, therefore, is the superficial solution to discrimination and does not address societal problems. It is merely one of the tools to redistribute opportunity and develop educational and employment equality. Affirmative action is not the solution to inequality but is aimed at eliminating discriminatory practices in hiring and university admissions. As Edward Kellough has noted, if action supports people who do not receive encouragement to the same extent as others, society has moral reason to give affirmation to this action.

The central idea that individuals benefiting from affirmative action are not able to get the same support in another way. Thus, those people who are in a harder position than others get the opportunity to get into better universities or get the job they would not otherwise get. As the result of affirmative action, minorities receive the benefits that would not have been given to them; if it was not so, then the question about racial preferences would appear. On the other side, minority representatives receive the benefits without any effort and would not be able to get them if the standards were not lowered for them. Thus, they are allowed not to work as hard as others to get into good schools and be employed.

Affirmative action shows both encouragement and approval. Minority representatives and females feel happy about getting into a better university or hired for a job of their dreams. At the same time, not all minorities get into universities because of affirmative action, and they manage to get into college because they satisfy all of the standards and requirements (Kellough, p. 147). If less suitable people are hired for work while more experienced candidates are rejected, it is neither good for the company nor for the person who is not capable of contributing to the organizational success. Employment and hiring decisions should not be made based on skin color or ethnic origin. It is against laws and moral reasoning, while affirmative action forces the decision-makers to consider race and favor those who are in a minor position. Every college or employer pays attention to the final result, not to the race of the one who achieved this result.

Banning Affirmative Action


Affirmative action has been banned to some extent in many states because both the majority and minority representatives agreed that setting the specific quota on admissions or hiring does not help any party. In the year 2000, Florida has implemented the so-called “One Florida” Plan, which canceled affirmative action in the state. The plan was intended to be applied to graduate school, law, and medical school with the focus on banning affirmative action in admissions. The plan has also introduced the “Talented 20” initiative which guaranteed admission to the top 20 percent of all students in graduating class of each school in the state, and such factor as race, sex or ethnic background was not to be taken into account (Stewart, p. 2). Thus, the issue of the minority was totally eliminated.

Most of the people living in the state of Florida supported the new plan, however, some of the activists noted that previously “Talented 20” was applied only to the undergraduate level, and affirmative action was banned at the graduate level, it was not replaced with anything. In addition, the study of minority enrollment was not conducted, and the effect of the new program was not evaluated or measured. At the same time, most of the universities in the state have similar practices and increase recruitment efforts. The “One Florida” plan went into action at the beginning of the school year, and its effect was seen only in 2001. According to the attorney Steven Uhlfelder, there has been an increase in the number of African American enrollments compared to the previous year when affirmative action was practiced (Stewart, p. 2).


Texas has supported the initiative introduced in Florida, and the top ten percents of all high school graduates are automatically eligible for public universities and colleges admissions. As Hockstader has noted, race-based admission has become the main feature of public education in the United States, and while Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the affirmative action, the new system implemented in the state of Texas has the potential to replace the existing affirmative action (Hockstader, p. 1). Notably, a similar law was applied in early 1998 in California and covered the state-funded colleges, while other states have started to follow this initiative only five years later.

The initial aim of the new program to ensure diversity among public universities students without the need to change the constitution. Thus, minority representatives are guaranteed places at universities without affirmative action plans. On the other side, university officials express some regret about the ban on affirmative action, even though they agree that the new program is the means to achieve social justice without emphasis made on race. For many applicants, the 10 percent rule has eliminated the anxiety with college applications. If previously many students argued that affirmative action granted minorities the rights they did not deserve (did not work hard enough), the new program gives a chance to successful students to enter universities on their own, independently (Hockstader, p. 1).

Nevertheless, there is another side of the issue. With the major emphasis being made on GPA, a course such as a choir (easy A’s) has become very popular, and students are more focused on grades rather than knowledge and experience. Hockstader notes that the new law has benefited Asian Americans the most: nearly 15 percent of the freshman class at UT-Austin are Asians, even though only 2.7 percent of the whole population in the state are Asian Americans. Moreover, UT-Austin has adopted several initiatives to attract more blacks: free test preparation classes, advanced placement course, and other.


Michigan has recently banned race and sex-based admissions to public colleges and universities; however, the US Court of Appeals has declined the ban, and public universities still have to apply affirmative action. Notably, it has never been said that the states are required to follow affirmative actions plans. The current situation in Michigan is that public universities have either to accept the smaller enrollment of minority representatives or find a way to overreach the ban (Flagler, p.12). Based on the new programs introduced in Florida, California, and Washington State, Michigan is not far from adopting the new program as well. The vast majority of the Michigan population agree that admissions to colleges and universities must be race-blind, while affirmative action is initially race-based.

Alternatives to Affirmative Action

Returning to the time when affirmative action was the foundation of most admission policies in the country, President Clinton was already proposing alternatives to it. In the year 1997, the University of California in San Diego has banned racial preferences, and the enrollment rates have much dropped. In particular, the admission rate of African Americans has dropped by 85 percent (Horowitz, p.1). Public opinion has changed since that time, and today society agrees that affirmative action promotes the system of racial preferences and is based on racial discrimination. As a result, new programs and initiatives are introduced, and states support the ban of affirmative action.

Class-Based Affirmative Action

It is a fact that Latino and African-American students mostly pooper than white students. Poverty is the key reason why disadvantaged groups score lass on standard tests. Therefore, affirmative action based on class has the potential to increase minority representation without stressing racial differences. Class-based affirmative action is more targeted. It gives the opportunity to be enrolled into the universities and colleges to those individuals who need it the most, to those who do not have the same educational opportunities as kids of richer families. Nevertheless, the key problem related to class-based affirmative action is that it does not work well. School performance is directly related to the socioeconomic status of families as well as the performance difference between the minority representatives and whites exists.

The research indicates that culture, social position, and parental education do have an impact on the enrollment rate. Class-based affirmative action is a very weak substitute for race-based affirmative action. Harvey Gee, on the other side, argued that university admissions should be based only on the class while race and sex should not be considered at all (p.273). He supported the initiative to give representatives of low-income families an additional plus during admission. He further adds that class-based affirmative action is easier to implement in the educational field because university officials have detailed information about students. While class-based affirmative action may not work in the employment field because of the lack of this information about the candidates.

Class-based affirmative action and diversity

Affirmative action has failed to increase diversity in education and employment fields. Class-based affirmative action, similar to race-based affirmative action, does not succeed in this direction as well. Alternatively, the emphasis of affirmative action plans should be shifted from race and class to diversity, even though Gee notes that it is a problematic task. For example, many universities have active programs on recruiting foreign students, even though most of them are not disadvantaged (Gee, p.273). Current diversity programs are based either on race, ethnicity, or social class, and they proved to be a failure. Neither race-based nor class-based affirmative action plans can contribute to increasing diversity.

Other programs

Many states have tried to implement the programs alternative to affirmative action. Nevertheless, most of the programs have proved to be preferential and based on the assumption that women and minorities are underrepresented in employment and education fields. Thus, the qualified individuals from these groups should be granted the position and be preferred over men and majority representatives (Selden, p. 14). For example, open admissions and lotteries are race-neutral means to ensure that minority students have the opportunity to be accepted in the universities of their choice. More than 80 percent of all American students are enrolled through open admission programs. Thus, without using race-based policies, universities guarantee the representation of minority students.

Percentage plans (the new programs) which are already successfully implemented in many states have proved to be fair admission policies not based on race, ethnic origin, or social status. The new programs are mostly based on the ten-percent rule: the top ten percent of graduates of all state schools are guaranteed acceptance in the public university of their choice. The diversity is further increased by the additional recruitment efforts, and the minority representation has much improved. For example, in the state of Texas, the new programs have changed the composition of the public universities: the majority of students are top ten performers. Even though the ten percent initiative is not applied in graduate and professional schools, it is the best alternative to affirmative action so far.

Affirmative action as the tool to increase diversity has many limitations. Its purpose to eliminate educational segregation: exclusion of racial minorities and women from educational and occupation sectors. It has partially achieved this goal, and many minority representatives were able to go to the colleges they wanted to as well as many disadvantaged social groups have been employed. If affirmative action was all about a positive impact on American society, the debate over its effectiveness was not raised by the community, and now the discussion would be shifted to finding the ways to expand affirmative action to other fields.

The future of Affirmative Action: Concluding note

Affirmative action does not work any work. It was and is race-based and promotes the preference on race, therefore, it promotes reverse discrimination. Society stresses the importance of personal achievement, while affirmative action undermines this core value of American culture. Affirmative action will not survive in the 21st century, and the new programs initiated in Florida, Michigan, Texas, and other states have proved to be more successful in increasing diversity at the workplace and public colleges. Affirmative action did not take into account the social issues, even though it had an honorable mission. Today most colleges provide all necessary resources to the students of all races, ethnic origins, and social positions who are willing to prepare themselves for college admission (Wydick, p. 27). Affirmative action did not decrease discrimination; on the contrary, it further promoted race-based preferences and, therefore, should be banned.

Works Cited

  1. Bowen, W., and D. Bok. The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  2. Fliegler, Caryn. “Affirmative action and Michigan.” University Business 9.10 (2006): 12.
  3. Gee, Harvey. “A class-based remedy.” Howard Law Journal (2000): 273-275
  4. Hockstader, Lee. “Texas Colleges’ Diversity Plan May Be New Model.” Washington Post 2002: A01
  5. Horowitz, David. “Alternatives to Affirmative Action?” 1997.
  6. Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006.
  7. Plous, S. Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
  8. Selden, Sally. “A solution in Search of a Problem? Discrimination, Affirmative Action, and the New Public Service.” Public Administration Review 66.6 (2006): 12-18.
  9. Stewart, Pearl. “NAACP Files Brief Against “One Florida” Plan – plan cancels affirmative action.” Black Issues in Higher Education  2001: 2.
  10. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical abstract of the United States: 2000 (120th ed.). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000.
  11. Wydick, Bruce. “The case for a new affiramtive action.” San Francisco Chronicle 2001: A27.