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What is affirmative action? How It Works and Examples

Business people sitting at office desk, putting puzzle pieces together, finding solution, high angle... Business people sitting at office desk, putting puzzle pieces together, finding solution, high angle view.

What is affirmative action? How It Works and Examples

Affirmative action increases workplace and educational opportunities for underrepresented groups. It targets historically underrepresented leadership and professional demographics. It is often used to combat group discrimination.

Affirmative action programs sometimes consider race, sex, religion, and national origin when hiring. It is frequently utilized in U.S. education, especially college admissions. In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the Supreme Court ruled in 2023 that colleges and universities could no longer base admissions on race.

How Affirmative Action Works

The basic goal of affirmative action is social diversity. The government-backed policy gives underrepresented groups access to academics, the corporate sector, and government jobs.

These prospects include schooling, professional jobs, housing, and financing.

Implementation and History

The 1960s saw the rise of affirmative action in the U.S. to promote social equality. The policy enforced the 1964 Civil Rights Act to end discrimination.

Early affirmative action efforts focused on reducing minority and other disadvantaged people’s social segregation from institutions and opportunities.

The U.S. law banning discrimination did not immediately transform the status quo.3

In recent years, gender diversity efforts have developed to make organizations and institutions more inclusive. New rules aim to expand chances for covered veterans and disabled persons.

In 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.1 In Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina companion case, the court overturned Grutter v. Bollinger and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which had approved some affirmative action in college admissions and limited race’s role in college administrators’ decision-making.

Affirmative Action Elements

Financial aid like grants, scholarships, and other funding for higher education have been used to promote change.

Hiring methods may also need diverse candidates for job openings. Government authorities may require corporations and organizations to hire a minimum number of qualified employees from diverse ethnicities, genders, and cultures.

Such limitations may prevent institutions from receiving government financing or competing for public contracts.

Affirmative Action Examples

  • Despite setbacks and Supreme Court rulings, affirmative action has been in use since the 1960s. Examples of the policy in effect.
  • LBJ issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965. It mandated all government contractors and subcontractors to hire more minorities. The OFCC was created to enforce the directive.
  • To address the federal contractor underutilization of minorities, the Labor Department mandated and permitted flexible targets and deadlines in 1970. In 1971, women joined the order.
  • Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973. The EEOC ordered agencies to provide an affirmative action plan detailing disability hiring, placement, and advancement.
  • Reagan signed Executive Order 12432 in 1983. Each federal agency with significant procurement or grant-making authority had to create a Minority Business Enterprise development plan.
  • President Bush signed the ADA in 1990. A year later, he signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act.
  • The House and Senate ended eliminating affirmative action programs in 1998. Neither House of Congress allowed DBE elimination. In addition, the House refused to eliminate affirmative action in Higher Education Act-funded admissions.6
  • The Wall Street Journal reported in 2022 that dozens of large U.S. firms, including Apple, Alphabet, American Airlines, and General Motors, urged the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in college admissions. They claimed that college campus diversity spurred corporate innovation and success.7. Pros and Cons of Affirmative Action.
  • Affirmative action has widespread support and fierce condemnation.


Affirmative action gives people chances they might not otherwise have. Opportunities include education for disadvantaged kids and professional advancement for individuals who may be blocked from corporate advancement.

Affirmative action supporters claim the endeavor must continue due to low diversity in authority and the media and little recognition of marginalized or unrepresented groups’ achievements.


These efforts are sometimes called a collective failure by affirmative action opponents. They point to minor changes to the status quo after decades of work. The cost of affirmative action programs and the notion that they require people to make unreasonable allowances motivate most resistance.

Some think society is bias-free. They claim that affirmative action causes reverse discrimination, which can cause qualified applicants to be disregarded in academia and the workplace in favor of policy-compliant individuals.

Affirmative Action Data

Affirmative action is a divisive issue that often sparks intense debates. Can you quantify how people feel and how it works?

According to Gallup, more than half of Americans (61%) support affirmative action. This has risen from the last poll, when 47% to 50% supported affirmative action. Given race and identity concerns in the U.S. and internationally, this support growth is crucial.8

Many Americans like diversity. They are happy with their communities and believe diversity benefits society.

Identifying race and ethnicity for hiring is divisive. About 74% of people think a candidate’s race or ethnicity shouldn’t matter when hiring or promoting. They think merit and qualifications should determine these activities.

The Goal of Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action expands chances for underrepresented groups in academics, government, and the commercial sector. Affirmative action policies give these communities money and scholarships.

Policies helped people of diverse races and nationalities. Their focus now includes gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

How did Regents v. Bakke alter affirmative action?

The Regents v. Bakke case abolished racial quotas in affirmative action. Allan Bakke said he was twice refused medical school at the University of California because he was white. Bakke won that the Supreme Court sustained affirmative action but declared racial quotas unlawful. The 2023 lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC overturned the ruling.5

The first U.S. president to define and use affirmative action?

President John F. Kennedy. In 1961, he ordered federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Though controversial, affirmative action schemes are a reality for all government-contracted firms. Many other firms use affirmative action plans to promote workplace diversity and openness in hiring and promotions.


  • Overcoming historical discrimination against specific identities is the goal of affirmative action.
  • Policies often set hiring targets, offer grants and scholarships, and withhold government funds and contracts to non-compliant institutions.
  • Affirmative action helps female representation, disabled individuals, and veterans.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard that race-based affirmative action schemes in college admissions violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

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