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The term affirmative action refers to policies that take race, ethnicity, or sex into consideration in an attempt to promote equal opportunity or increase ethnic or other forms of diversity. The focus of such policies ranges from employment and education to public contracting and health programs. The impetus towards affirmative action is twofold: to maximize diversity in all levels of society, along with its presumed benefits, and to redress perceived disadvantages due to overt, institutional, or involuntary discrimination. Opponents argue that it promotes reverse discrimination.

Affirmative action is also known as positive action or positive discrimination in the UKmarker, reservation in India, and employment equity in Canada.


The principle of affirmative action stipulates to treat unequals as equals is to perpetuate inequality. Affirmative action is seen by its proponents as a foundational principle of democratic societies such as India, that seek to redress imbalances, due to disproportionate representation of underprivileged sections of society in governmental, educational and industrial institutions. Proponents of affirmative action argue, that the disproportionate representations, results from covert, institutionalized and involuntary forms of discrimination that permeates the fabric of society; particularly in societies that have had a long history of racial, ethnic, or sex based discrimination. Such acts of discrimination may take many forms. Some are overt such as stereotypes (e.g. women are only fit to be secretaries and housewives, and blacks are great entertainers and sportsmen—modern day gladiators but little else). Others are covert, such as "old boys" clubs, that tend to favor racially akin new members.

Most Americansmarker support affirmative action for women; with minorities, it is more split. Men are only slightly more likely to support affirmative action for women; though a majority of both do. However, a slight majority of Americans do believe that affirmative action goes beyond ensuring access and goes into the realm of preferential treatment.

In Ten Myths About Affirmative Action (2003) by Scott Plous, it is argued that critics of affirmative action often rely on misconceptions.

  • One cannot hope to create a color blind society by practicing color blind policies since such policies put racial minorities at a disadvantage. For instance color blind seniority systems tend to favor white workers against job layoffs, since senior employees tend to be white. The point being existing imbalances in representation tend to perpetuate themselves in the absence of affirmative action.

  • While a few studies claimed that affirmative action undermined the self-esteem of women and minorities, more recent studies and public opinion polls have indicated that such is not that case

  • The claim that one cannot redress one form of discrimination by introducing another is a play on words that uses the same word "discrimination" to refer to two different things. Racial, ethnic or sex based discrimination is often based on unfounded, often irrational and deeply ingrained prejudices. Affirmative action is a response to a statistically observed inequity in representation, reproducibly demonstrated by social scientists in many societies with a history of discrimination.

  • Some opponents of affirmative action believe the practice implies the preferential selection of unqualified candidates over qualified candidates. But in fact, most supporters of affirmative action oppose such preferential selection and instead prefer preferential selection among equal or comparable candidates.


Some opponents say affirmative action devalues the accomplishments of people who are chosen because of the social group to which they belong rather than their qualifications. Opponents also contend that affirmative action devalues the accomplishments of all those who belong to groups it is intended to help, therefore making affirmative action counterproductive.

Some people, such as Americanmarker Republican Ward Connerly, also feel that affirmative action is discrimination in itself since it judges people by their ethnicity.

Opponents, who sometimes call affirmative action "reverse discrimination," further claim that affirmative action has undesirable side-effects in addition to failing to achieve its goals. They argue that it hinders reconciliation, replaces old wrongs with new wrongs, undermines the achievements of minorities, and encourages individuals to identify themselves as disadvantaged, even if they are not. It may increase racial tension and benefit the more privileged people within minority groups at the expense of the least fortunate within majority groups (such as lower-class whites).

Conservative commentator Dr. Thomas Sowell identified some negative results of race-based affirmative action in his book, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. Sowell writes that affirmative action policies encourage non-preferred groups to designate themselves as members of preferred groups (i.e., primary beneficiaries of affirmative action) to take advantage of group preference policies; that they tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g., upper and middle class blacks), often to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g., poor whites or Asians); that they reduce the incentives of both the preferred and non-preferred to perform at their best — the former because doing so is unnecessary and the latter because it can prove futile — thereby resulting in net losses for society as a whole; and that they increase animosity toward preferred groups.

International policies

An in-depth examination of the legal status of affirmative action, as well as the different kinds of programs that exist and their pros and cons, can be found in a paper written for the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights by one of its members, Marc Bossuyt. United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Commission on Human Rights, Economic and Social Council, 17 June 2002

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination stipulates (in Article 2.2) that affirmative action programs may be required of countries that have ratified the convention, in order to rectify systematic discrimination. It states, however, that such programs "shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved." The United Nations Human Rights Committee states, "the principle of equality sometimes requires States parties to take affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the Covenant. For example, in a State where the general conditions of a certain part of the population prevent or impair their enjoyment of human rights, the State should take specific action to correct those conditions. Such action may involve granting for a time to the part of the population concerned certain preferential treatment in specific matters as compared with the rest of the population. However, as long as such action is needed to correct discrimination, in fact, it is a case of legitimate differentiation under the Covenant."


Affirmative action is generally established for:

Implementation worldwide

In some countries which have laws on racial equality, affirmative action is rendered illegal because it doesn't treat all races equally. This approach of equal treatment is sometimes described as being "color blind", in hopes that it is effective against discrimination without engaging in reverse discrimination.

In such countries, the focus tends to be on ensuring equal opportunity and, for example, targeted advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force. This is sometimes described as "positive action".

The Americas

  • United Statesmarker. The intended beneficiaries of affirmative action in the United States include historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and veterans. Affirmative action has been the subject of numerous court cases, and has been contested on constitutional grounds. In 2003 a Supreme Court decision concerning affirmative action in universities allowed educational institutions to consider race as a factor in admitting students, but ruled that strict point systems are unconstitutional. Conservatives say that state officials have widely disobeyed it. Alternatively, some colleges use financial criteria to attract racial groups that have typically been under represented and typically have lower living conditions. Executive Orders 11246 and 11375 prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, skin color, religion, gender, or national origin. Some states such as California and Michigan have passed constitutional amendments banning affirmative action within their respective states.

  • Brazilmarker. Some Brazilian Universities (State and Federal) have created systems of preferred admissions (quotas) for racial minorities (blacks and native Brazilians), the poor and people with disabilities. There are already quotas of up to 20% of vacancies reserved for the disabled in the civil public services.Plummer, Robert. "Black Brazil Seeks a Better Future." BBC News, São Paulo 25 September 2006. 16 November 2006 />. The Democrats party, accusing the board of directors of University of Brasília of "nazism", questioned the constitutionality of the quotas the University reserves to minorities on the Supreme Federal Courtmarker.

  • Canadamarker. The equality section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly permits affirmative action type legislation, although the Charter does not require legislation that gives preferential treatment. Subsection 2 of Section 15 states that the equality provisions do "not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." The Canadian Employment Equity Act requires employers in federally-regulated industries to give preferential treatment to four designated groups: Women, people with disabilities, aboriginal people, and visible minorities. In most Canadian Universities, people of Aboriginal background normally have lower entrance requirements and are eligible to receive exclusive scholarships. Some provinces and territories also have affirmative action-type polices. For example, in Northwest Territoriesmarker in the Canadian north, aboriginal people are given preference for jobs and education and are considered to have P1 status. Non-aboriginal people who were born in the NWT or have resided half of their life there are considered a P2, as well as women and disabled people.GNWT - Human Resources - Affirmative Action />See also, Employment equity in Canada.

South Asia

  • Sri Lankamarker. In 1971 the Standardization policy of Sri Lankan universities was introduced as an affirmative action program for students from areas which had poor educational facilities due to 200 years purposeful discrimination by Britishmarker colonialists. The British had practised communal favoritism towards Christians and the minority Tamil community for the entire 200 years they had controlled Sri Lanka, as part of a policy of divide and conquer.

East Asia

  • People's Republic of Chinamarker. "preferential policies" required some of the top positions in governments be distributed to ethnic minorities and women. Also, many universities are required by government to give preferred admissions to ethnic minorities.2007 Graduate Student Admission Ordainment - Ministry of Education, PRC/>Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of Guangdong Province />

  • Japanmarker. Admission to universities as well as all government positions (including teachers) are determined by the entrance exam, which is extremely competitive at the top level. It is illegal to include sex, ethnicity or other social background (but not nationality) in criteria; however, there are informal policies to provide employment and long term welfare (which is usually not available to general public) to Burakumin at municipality level.

South East Asia and Oceania

  • Malaysiamarker. The Malaysian New Economic Policy or NEP serves as a form of affirmative action. Malaysia is the only country in the world which provides affirmative action to the majority because in general, the Malays have lower income than the Chinese who have traditionally been involved businesses and industries. Malaysia is a multiethnic country, with Malay making up the majority of close to 52% of the population. About 30% of the population are Malaysians of Chinese descent, while Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 8% of the population. Government policy provides preferential placement for ethnic Malays, and 95% of all new intakes for the army, hospital nurses, police, and other government institutions are Malays. As of 2004, only 7% of all government servants are ethnic Chinese, a drop from 30% in 1960. All eight of the directors of the national petroleum company, Petronas, are Malays, and only 3% of Petronas employees are Chinese. Additionally, 95% of all government contracts are awarded to ethnic Malays. (See also Bumiputra) The mean income for Malays, Chinese and Indians in 1957/58 were 134, 288 and 228 respectively. In 1967/68 it was 154, 329 and 245, and in in 1970 it was 170, 390 and 300. Mean income disparity ratio for Chinese/Malays rose from 2.1 in 1957/58 to 2.3 in 1970, whereas for Indians/Malays the disparity ratio also rose from 1.7 to 1.8 in the same period The Malays viewed Independence as restoring their proper place in their own country's socioeconomic order while the non-Malays were opposing government efforts to advance Malay political primacy and economic welfare. The rising tension and resentment of the Malays for the Chinese and vice versa culminated in the vicious riots of 13 May 1969.

  • New Zealandmarker. Individuals of Māori or other Polynesian descent are often afforded preferential access to university courses, and scholarships.


  • Finlandmarker. In certain university education programs, including legal and medical education, there are quotas for Swedish-speaking applicants. The aim of the quotas is to guarantee that a sufficient number of Swedish speaking professionals are educated, thus safeguarding the linguistic rights of the Swedish-speaking Finns. The quota system has met with criticism from the Finnish speaking majority, some of whom consider the system unfair. In addition to these linguistic quotas, women may get preferential treatment in recruitment for certain public sector jobs if there is a gender imbalance in the field.

  • Francemarker. No distinctions based on race, religion or sex are allowed under the 1958 French Constitution. Since the 1980s, a French version of affirmative action based on neighborhood is in place for primary and secondary education. Some schools, in neighborhoods labeled "Prioritary Education Zones", are granted more funds than the others. Students from these schools also benefit from special policies in certain institutions (such as Sciences Po). The French Ministry of Defense tried in 1990 to give more easily higher ranks and driving licenses to young French soldiers with North-African origins. After a strong protest by a young French lieutenant in the Ministry of Defense newspaper ("Armées d'aujourd'hui"), this driving license and rank project was canceled. After the Sarkozy election, a new attempt in favour of Arabian-French students was made but Sarkozy did not gain enough political support to change the French constitution and then there is no affirmative action based on notions such an ethnicity, race or national origin. The closest thing is that highly ranked French schools are obliged to take a certain amount of student of poor background and then the closest thing to affirmative action in France is based on the social background.

  • Germanymarker. Article 3 of the German basic law provides for equal rights of all people regardless of sex, race or social background. There are programs stating that if men and women have equal qualifications, women have to be preferred for a job; moreover, the handicapped should be preferred to healthy people. This is typical for all positions in state and university service as of 2007, typically using the phrase "We try to increase diversity in this line of work". In recent years, there has been a long public debate about whether to issue programs that would grant women a privileged access to jobs in order to fight discrimination. Germany's Left Party brought up the discussion about affirmative action in Germany's school system. According to Stefan Zillich, quotas should be "a possibility" to help working class children who did not do well in school gain access to a Gymnasium (University-preparatory school). Headmasters of Gymnasien have objected, saying that this type of policy would "be a disservice" to poor children.

  • Swedenmarker. Swedish democracy, although very solicitous about minorities' rights and integration, does not allow affirmative action.

  • The United Kingdommarker. In the UK, the term positive action is generally used, and this term is used in legislation including the proposed Equality Bill. There are strict limits on positive action, as positive discrimination is unlawful. Quotas and selective systems are for the most part not permitted. An exception to this is a provision made under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which requires that the Police Service of Northern Ireland recruit equal numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics. Positive action in encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds to apply for jobs is permitted, but it is illegal to discriminate in favour of them in awarding employment. A form of positive action is used by the governing Labour Party, which uses All-women shortlists to ensure that more women are selected as election candidates. This is exempt from the ban on positive discrimination in employment under the Sex Discrimination Act 2002. The proposed Equality Bill, published in April 2009 includes provisions to allow positive action in employment in some cases.

  • Republic of Macedoniamarker. Minorities, most notably Albaniansmarker, are allocated quotas for access to state universities, as well as in civil public services.

  • Slovakiamarker. The Constitutional Court declared in October 2005 that affirmative action i.e. "providing advantages for people of an ethnic or racial minority group" as being against its Constitution.

South Africa

Apartheid policies were aimed at advancing the lives of white South Africans. There was job reservation policy aimed at improving the lives of white South Africans. Apartheid government favoured white-owned companies and created statutory companies for white South Africans. As a result, majority of companies in South Africa are owned by white people. The aforementioned policies achieved the desired results, but in the process they marginalised and excluded black people. Black people were forcefully removed from their previous property, without compensation, and said property was given to the white minority.

When the new majority government came to power, they decided to implement an affimative action campaign to correct previous imbalances. As such, the previously disenfranchised majority and minority groups are being supported by forcing the formerly privileged white minority group to implement certain policies. These policies include quotas regarding how much of the procurement is bought from non-white companies, how much of the equity is owned by non-whites, how many employees are non-white, and what position the non-whites have.

The Employment Equity Act and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act aim to promote and achieve equality in the workplace (in South Africa termed "equity"), by not only advancing people from designated groups but also specifically dis-advancing the others. Those specifically hindered are the white minority. By legal definition, the designated groups who are to be advanced in society include all people of colour, white women, people with disabilities, and people from rural areas. The term "black economic empowerment" is somewhat of a misnomer, therefore, because the acts cover empowerment of any member of the designated groups, regardless of race. However, government’s employment legislation reserves 80% of new jobs for black people and favours black-owned companies. It is quota-based, with specific required outcomes. By a relatively complex scoring system, which allows for some flexibility in the manner in which each company meets its legal commitments, each company is required to meet minimum requirements in terms of representation by previously disadvantaged groups. The matters covered include equity ownership, representation at employee and management level (up to board of director level), procurement from black-owned businesses and social investment programs, amongst others. In 2008, the High Court in South Africa has ruled that Chinese South Africans are to be reclassified as black people. As a result of this ruling, ethnically Chinese citizens will be able to benefit from government Black Economic Empowerment policies.

Other types of affirmative action

Given the history of discrimination against LGBT people, actions in favor of them in activities such as hiring, promotions, and college admissions have been proposed. In many college campuses in the United States, for example, sexual orientation is a characteristic asked on college applications so that administrators can promote what they see as a diverse student body. A 2009 Quinnipiac Universitymarker survey found American voters opposed to the application of affirmative action to gay people, 65 over 27 percent. African-Americans were found to be in favor by 54 over 38 percent.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Christophe Jaffrelot , India's Silent Revolution : The rise of lower castes in northern India, pg. 321 2003
  4. Ezorsky, G. Racism and justice: The case for affirmative action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1991
  5. Heilman, M. E., Simon, M. C., & Repper, D. P. Intentionally favored, unintentionally harmed? Impact of sex-based preferential selection on self-perceptions and self-evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 62-68. 1987
  6. Steele, S. The content of our character: A new vision of race in America. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  7. Taylor. M. C. Impact of affirmative action on beneficiary groups: Evidence from the 1990 General Social Survey. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 15, 143-178. 1994
  8. Roper Center for Public Opinion. Question ID: USGALLUP.950317, R31 [Electronic database]. Available from Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe Web site, 1995
  9. Graves, L. M., & Powell, G. N. Effects of sex-based preferential selection and discrimination on job attitudes. Human Relations, 47, 133-157. 1994
  10. Bowler, M. Women's earnings: An overview. Monthly Labor Review, pp. 13-21. December 1999
  11. Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1998
  12. Sher, George, "Preferential Hiring", in Tom Regan (ed.), Just Business: New Introductory Essays In Business Ethics, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1983, p.40.
  13. American Civil Rights Institute
  14. Cultural Whiplash: Unforeseen Consequences of America's Crusade Against Racial Discrimination / Patrick Garry (2006) ISBN 1581825692
  15. ISBN 0-300-10199-6, 2004
  16. United Nations Committee on Human Rights, General Comment 18 on Non-discrimination, Paragraph 10
  17. Indy fire-fighters sue city, charge bias
  18. Highlights of the 2002-2003 Supreme Court Term
  19. [1]
  21. Bumiputra Policy in Malaysia
  22. Perumal, M., 1989, 'Economic Growth and Income Inequality in Malaysia, 1957–1984', Singapore. Economic Review, Vol.34, No.2, pp.33–46.
  23. Income Inequality and Poverty in Malaysia by Shireen Mardziah Hashim
  24. UK Commission for Racial Equality website "Affirmative action around the world"
  25. Jean-Pierre Steinhofer: "Beur ou ordinaire" in "Armee d'Ajourd'hui, 1991.
  26. [2]
  27. Susanne Vieth-Entus (29. Dezember 2008): "Sozialquote: Berliner Gymnasien sollen mehr Schüler aus armen Familien aufnehmen". Der Tagesspiegel
  28. Martin Klesmann (23. February 2009). "'Kinder aus Neukölln würden sich nicht integrieren lassen' - Ein Politiker und ein Schulleiter streiten über Sozialquoten an Gymnasien". Berliner Zeitung
  31. "Is there a case for positive discrimination?"
  33. [3]
  34. Simon Wood meets the people who lost most when Mandela won in South Africa
  35. We agree that you are black, South African court tells Chinese, The Times
  36. U.S. Voters Disagree 3-1 With Sotomayor On Key Case. Quinnipiac University. Published June 3, 2009.

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