Affirmative action is one of the most controversial political issues facing America. Most often, affirmative action assists disadvantaged groups by improving placement in higher education and employment, and the term is most often conceived as a program to improve the standing of African Americans. People take several stances on the issue, supporting their opinions with various justifications, such as the need for equality and natural competition. Although it was created to help advance the position of disadvantaged peoples, some view affirmative action as an unfair, and even prejudicial, force in our society.
Institutionalized in 1965 by the Johnson administration, Executive Order 11246 required that federal contractors "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." The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both during Johnson’s tenure, helped to ensure the equal treatment of African Americans in the 20th century.
While the Johnson administration institutionalized affirmative action, the struggle for equality actually began a century earlier with the passage of important legislation. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments respectively abolished slavery, guaranteed African Americans citizenship and voting rights. The 1866 Civil Rights Act helped to ensure property rights for African Americans. However, in 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Case justified segregation, declaring that African Americans could be “separate but equal,” spurring the rise of prejudicial and racist Jim Crow laws. The consequential 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and helped to undermine segregation, eventually dismantling the largely segregated U.S. society.
Affirmative action was conceived to provide equal advantages to all peoples, and to address past governmental injustices by providing support for groups that have been historically discriminated against. Many people would argue that it is our government’s prime responsibility to correct inequities and to create a more just society.
Nevertheless, many take the view that affirmative action is more of a patch than a cure-all. Opponents of affirmative action argue that affirmative action shares the same purpose as the concept of slavery reparations: it punishes the majority for the misdeeds of earlier generations. Further, while affirmative action may seem to make society more egalitarian, its critics argue that the policies are anti-meritocratic and are, actually, a manifestation of “reverse-racism.”
The affirmative action debate lends itself to some important questions: Does the government have a responsibility to correct social inequities? Does affirmative action accomplish its objective of creating a more just society, or is it simply “reverse-racism”?