Affirmative Action Debate

History and Debate of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action programs are created in an attempt to make sure that all groups within a given society have the same opportunity to succeed. The term "affirmative action" was coined by President John F. Kennedy and expanded by President Lyndon Johnson. Although different terms are used for affirmative action in different nations, the concept is the same; affirmative action means making sure that active steps are taken so that minority groups are represented and hired in organizations, government and businesses. Employment decisions, admission to educational institutions, public health policies and other arenas have all been affected by a commitment to affirmative action.

Instituting an affirmative action policy comes from a particular assessment of a nation's past; it is seen as necessary as a compensatory measure in cultures that have a history of discrimination or of withholding economic opportunities based on race or national origin. While some countries refuse to participate in affirmative action because they have so-called "color-blind" laws mandating that all races simply be treated equally, other countries feel that favoring previously oppressed groups, often called "reverse discrimination," at least for a period of time, is the only way to restore complete equality in the long term. This belief can lead to the adoption of hiring quotas in which a certain number of hires or appointments must come from previously under-represented groups of people. In the United States, affirmative action has been widely practiced, but nearly as widely critiqued.

Critiques of Affirmative Action

Proponents of affirmative action point out that the groups it currently favors are coming out of backgrounds such as slavery, which made it nearly impossible for them to succeed; thus, they deserve a positive advantage when competing for jobs or positions against others who experienced no systemic barriers to success. Without a special opportunity to enter into the system, disadvantaged groups might never be able to overcome the handicap which was forced on them by the exclusive priorities of their culture. Eventually, all should be able to compete equally, but discrimination is too recent to expect underprivileged groups to do so now. In the end, the goal is a free and equal society in which nobody gets a head start to success. There are, however, many people who are skeptical about these claims. These critics of affirmative action point out that selecting someone purely based on their ethnicity or origin actually devalues the person's real accomplishments; they also say that this devaluation ends up hurting the wider ethnic or racial group from which a candidate comes.

Another common criticism is that as a form of reverse discrimination, affirmative action keeps societies aware of the barriers that divide it and actually perpetuates alienation and resentment between ethnically diverse groups, thus increasing rather than reducing racial tension. Another concern is that affirmative action may encourage individuals to misrepresent themselves as members of an underprivileged group so that they can get a job or appointment.

Finally, critics claim that racially-based hiring or appointment policies encourage everyone not to perform at their best - the underprivileged, because they may get the position anyway, and the privileged, because they cannot be hired no matter how well they perform. The affirmative action debate is heated; while most Americans favor affirmative action when it is focused on gender and seeks to make sure that enough women are hired, fewer of them claim to support racially-based affirmative action programs.

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