Affirmative action refers to an array of policies and practices aimed at redressing historical and ingrained inequalities, especially those experienced by people of color and women as a consequence of systemic discrimination. Affirmative action usually takes the form of education and employment initiatives aimed at creating access and opportunities for individuals from groups that have faced such discrimination. The controversy over affirmative action divides those who believe this is an effective way to push back against the sociological impact of systemic discrimination versus those who believe affirmative action is either ineffective or is, itself, a discriminatory policy.
Affirmative action has historically been carried out through an array of institutions including government agencies, public services, law enforcement agencies, hospitals and universities. For a significant period of its implementation, affirmative action was carried out through the imposition of racial quotas, which, for instance, would require a university to admit, or require a corporation to hire, a certain percentage of applicants from groups which were deemed to have experienced systematic discrimination. In addition to reversing the impacts of discrimination, an intended goal of affirmative action was to improve the diversity and representation in universities and hiring companies such that they reflected the diversity of the communities and consumers they served.
Though racial quotas are no longer imposed—having been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003—affirmative action initiatives remain in place in many educational and hiring contexts, in most cases at the voluntary will of the institutions themselves. However, this remains a highly contentious political issue, one in which:
The earliest incarnation of affirmative action could arguably be traced back to 1865. As the Civil War neared an end, and the Reconstruction Era appeared in sight, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman argued that it was incumbent upon the Confederacy to redress its abuses against freed slaves by creating opportunities for education and employment training. He also called for all freedmen to be given a share of their own land—an idea which formed the basis for the “40 acres and a mule” concept and which has long undergirded calls for reparations.
For a deeper dive on this subject, check out our look at the Reparations Controversy.
Such policies were extremely short-lived. As President, Andrew Johnson revoked any gains made by freed slaves. Those who were granted land soon saw their acreage revoked. However, 1868 did produce one critical long-term gain toward equality with the passage of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The clause prohibited discrimination based on race, proclaiming that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Though the end of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow laws meant that the Equal Protection Clause did little to protect Southern Blacks from widespread, brutal and systemic discrimination, it did provide a legal basis for the aims of the Civil Rights movement as it gained steam across the next century.
The phrase “affirmative action” was first used in the context of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but did not refer to race or gender at all. The focus of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also referred to as the Wagner Act after sponsoring New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, was to improve economic security for low-income labor groups. Therefore, the Wagner Act made it illegal to discriminate against employees associated with labor unions.
The implementation of “affirmative action” meant that workers who had been either fired or blacklisted for union involvement would now be reinstated. Though the terminology was unrelated to demographic features at the time, it would provide some framework for policies aimed at compensating individuals who had been the victims of discrimination.
In a broader sense, Roosevelt explicitly stated his support for equal opportunity clauses through numerous New Deal acts, most of which contained the phrase “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color or creed.” Under Roosevelt’s oversight, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes instituted what might be regarded as the first real affirmative action program by outlawing hiring discrimination for any projects funded by the Public Works Administration. Other New Deal initiatives would also require contractors to hire a specific percentage of Black employees, as well as instituting equal pay for women.
Most importantly, in 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, making illegal any form of hiring discrimination in either the military or government agencies. Creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), Roosevelt would build the foundation for the preliminary Civil Rights legislation that would emerge under his running mate and successor, Harry Truman. As President, Truman would share Roosevelt’s desire to advance equal opportunity for all Americans.
Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights which, in 1947, published a report called “To Secure These Rights.” The report asserted that “We can tolerate no restrictions upon the individual which depend upon irrelevant factors such as his race, his color, his religion, or the social position to which he is born.”
The text was widely read and is regarded by some as the blueprint for the progressive agenda of the next several decades, including its backing of the Civil Rights movement and the push for anti-discrimination policies in hiring and education. Truman also argued that a strong federal government was needed to protect individuals from discrimination at the state level.
In 1948, Truman addressed Congress as well as becoming the first sitting president to address the NAACP. He called for desegregation of the military and, shortly therefore after, issued Executive Orders 9980, which established the Civil Service Commission to ensure fair employment practices; Executive Order 9981, which formally desegregated the military; and, in 1951, Executive Order 10308, “which established an anti-discrimination committee on government contract compliance responsible for ensuring that employers doing business with the federal government comply with all laws and regulations enacted by Congress and the committee on the grounds of discriminatory practices.”
The 1952 election of Dwight D. Eisenhower brought to an end a 20 year Democratic run of the White House. And with his election, Eisenhower reaffirmed his commitment to states’ rights. While he continued to carry out the desegregation of the military, Eisenhower chose a position of non-intervention with state-level employment practices. This, in essence, meant that states with discriminatory hiring practices were left to their own resources.
During the 1960 election, candidate John F. Kennedy was highly critical of Eisenhower for not doing enough to advance Civil Rights causes. Kennedy argued that confronting discrimination required more proactive steps, including the establishment of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. In March of 1961, only two months after taking office, President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which imposed the responsibility upon government contractors to “consider and recommend additional affirmative steps which should be taken by executive departments and agencies to realize more fully the national policy of nondiscrimination…. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”
This marked the first use of the “affirmative action” phrase in the context of a policy aimed at redressing racial discrimination. During his term, Kennedy continued his push to strengthen equal protection laws. In December of 1961, he created a Commission on the Status of Women to explore gender discrimination in labor, and in 1963, issued Executive Order 11114 which, building on Order 10925, required that any federal funds, including “grants, loans, unions and employers who accepted taxpayer funds, and other forms of financial assistance to state and local governments,” must be in compliance with the emergent affirmative action rules.
Kennedy’s efforts would forge another stepping stone on the path to the Civil Rights movement, a period encapsulated by protest, demonstration, and violence between activists and police officers. You can learn more about this important period in history with a look at two closely related controversies: The Civil Rights Controversy and the Controversy over Police Brutality.
In addition to bringing greater attention to and support for the causes of Black Americans, the Civil Rights movement led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among many others clauses, established Title VII prohibiting racial discrimination within hiring companies of more than 25 employees.
These conditions helped set the stage for a plan initially developed in a collaboration between the Office of Federal Contract Compliance and the Philadelphia Federal Executive Board. The plan was aimed at requiring government contractors based in Philadelphia to hire minority workers. The act was declared illegal in 1968, then reissued (and defended by the Nixon Administration) in 1969. As the Revised Philadelphia Plan, the policy set specific dates by which contractors had to meet quotas for hiring minority employees. Soon, other cities adopted the plan. This is, in many ways, the real starting point for the implementation of race-based affirmative action.
The Contractors Association of Eastern Pennsylvania challenged the order in 1971, claiming that it was both inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that it exceeded presidential authority in intervening with state-level policies. The U.S. Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit rejected the Association’s challenge, which was subsequently also refused by the Supreme Court.
In many ways, President Reagan established the ideological template for the Republican Party of the next several generations. His stated opposition to affirmative action would prove the consistent policy orientation of the conservative movement and of most Republican candidates thereafter. Moreover, the president’s case for opposing affirmative action would emerge as a primary point of critique for future opponents of the policy.
Reagan indicated an opposition to discriminatory hiring polices, but argued that affirmative action was a form of “reverse discrimination.” This argument holds that elevating the interests of any race above another constitutes race-based discrimination, regardless of minority or majority status. This was the impetus under which Reagan reduced funding for the Equal Opportunity Commission.
Though Reagan expressed opposition to affirmative action, the policy was actually strengthened during his administration through two key Supreme Court decisions. Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association v. EEOC (1986) determined that courts had the constitutional right to fight discrimination by imposing race-based quotas on worker unions, and Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, California (1987) ruled that employers were entitled to consider sex and race as hiring factors when evaluating qualified candidates.
During the 2000s, affirmative action concerns were increasingly concentrated around issues in higher education. During this period, support for, and opposition to, affirmative action became increasingly polarized along party lines. Accordingly, Presidents George W. Bush (2001-2008) and Donald Trump (2017-2020) generally opposed affirmative action whereas President Barack Obama (2009-2016) generally supported it.
However, most of the consequential events surrounding affirmative action occurred in the judiciary. It was here that 2003 became a landmark year both for opponents of affirmative action and for advocates. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found in Grutter v. Bollinger that the practice by which schools prioritize underrepresented minority groups in college admissions is constitutionally protected and consistent with the 14th Amendment. However, that same year, in Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court found that using actual racial quotas in college admissions is unconstitutional.
The elimination of racial quotas prompted a number of schools to establish their own voluntary “race-sensitive” admissions policies aimed at improving enrollment among underrepresented minorities through “good-faith” efforts.
2013 brought with it another important challenge around student admissions. According to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s findings on Fisher v. University of Texas, the defendant’s undergraduate admissions policy met the test of strict scrutiny which must be applied in determining whether a race-sensitive admissions policy can be constitutional. The Supreme Court upheld this finding in 2016 and, in doing so, established the strict scrutiny test which is now seen as the standard for determining the constitutionality of such practices in educational settings.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of affirmative action in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. A few of the top influencers appearing in this ranking are scholars, sociologists, and policy-makers. However, given the critical importance of the legal case history surrounding affirmative action, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of influencers are Supreme Court Justices, specifically those who have written opinions on related cases.
|2||Sandra Day O’Connor|
|6||Ruth Bader Ginsburg|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of affirmative action in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is composed of political, sociological, and historical texts aimed at either opposing, supporting, or simply examining the subject of affirmative action.
|1||Affirmative Action Around the World|
|2||A Hope in the Unseen|
|3||Race and Economics|
|4||Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One|
|5||The Bell Curve|
|8||A Conflict of Visions|
|9||Democracy in America|
|10||An American Dilemma|
Today, affirmative action is generally supported by judicial precedent, however it also remains a deeply divisive political subject. In fact, at the time of writing, nine sites in the U.S. have passed bans on the practice of affirmative action— California (1996), Washington (1998), Florida (1999), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), New Hampshire (2012), Oklahoma (2012), and Idaho (2020).
Affirmative action policies continue to generate court challenges up to present day, especially around college admission issues. The organization Students for Fair Admissions—formed by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum—presented a case against Harvard University in 2019 claiming that its prioritization of Black students contributed directly to discrimination against Asian American candidates. A federal court in Boston rejected the claim.
The SFFA has sought an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals and, at the time of writing, many observers believe this case could eventually reach the Supreme Court. The findings here could have a profound impact on the current legal standing of affirmative action policies in higher education.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of affirmative action, this requires us to consider related key terms such as “anti-discrimination” and “equal opportunity” as well as terms associated with the persistence of discrimination such as “glass ceiling.” We also consider key terms related to the opposition of affirmative action, both practically (“Project for Fair Representation”) and ideologically (“Mismatch Theory/Reverse Discrimination”).
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the affirmative action issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The key term in our current discussion, “affirmative action” refers to policies calling for the elevation of underrepresented minorities and women in both education and employment as a way of countering the impact of historical discrimination and ongoing implicit bias. Key influencers include social scientists and policy-makers who have worked to implement measures of affirmative action, as well as prominent and successful beneficiaries of such policies.
The term “anti-discrimination,” in this context refers to policies and strategies aimed at undoing the impact of racial and gender discrimination in a wide range of public contexts including in education, armed services, public service, employment, and more. Key influencers include Civil Rights activists and legal experts.
The “glass ceiling” refers to the invisible barrier to professional advancement that women have faced in the workplace and which they continue to face in the form of unequal pay, harassment, and implicit bias. Influencers include those who have studied and exposed the existence of the glass ceiling as well as those who have taken pioneering professional steps to overcome or “shatter” that ceiling.
The core clause of the 14th Amendment, “Equal Opportunity” broadly denotes that all Americans should be afforded equal protection under the law and equal opportunity for education and employment regardless of race, religion, or gender. This is considered a foundational Constitutional condition in any and all cases involving any form of discrimination. Today, it may be invoked both by supporters of affirmative action who believe it protects the use of such policies, and by opponents, who argue that affirmative action deprives groups such as Asian Americans and white men of equal opportunity. Influencers, therefore, include activists and legal professionals who both support and oppose affirmative action.
Largely selected as a key term for its involvement of a single figure, “Project on Fair Representation” was formed by Edward Blum, who consequently also formed the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). This group, through the efforts of the only influencer identified here below, is active in today’s most prominent legal challenges to affirmative action.
The two key terms lumped together here—“Mismatch Theory” and “Reverse Discrimination”—are two frequently supplied objections to affirmative action. Mismatch theory reflects the view that this is not an effective policy response to discrimination and inequality, with its adherents arguing that affirmative action instead mismatches minority students with universities where they will ultimately struggle to fit in, succeed, or graduate. Reverse discrimination is another common claim made by opponents, who assert that it is not constitutional to prioritize one candidate over another—in employment or education—on the basis of race, regardless of minority status. Key influencers are generally opponents of affirmative action, but may also include those who have conducted research on the veracity of such claims.
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