What is Affirmative Action?
What does it mean to have preferences based upon race?
Many ethical discussions are undermined when people do not have a clear grasp of
what it is they are discussing. Even worse, disagreements over an issue can become
magnified when people operate under very different understandings of the same
concepts. It is crucial, therefore, to take the time to address exactly what needs to be
discussed and why.
Typically, when people think of Affirmative Action, what comes to mind are hiring and
admissions quotas - a certain number of people from this group, a different number
from that group, and so on until some particular goal is reached. This sort of hiring
and admissions process appears to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with
the merits of those involved, their qualifications, or even basic fairness - thus leading
to an even more common conclusion that Affirmative Action not only fails to promote
justice, but in fact thwarts it.
Understanding Affirmative Action and why so many people sincerely believe that it is
necessary for achieving racial justice and equality in the United States requires
recognizing, however, that the much maligned "quotas" play only a partial role, if any,
in Affirmative Action programs. Indeed, for Affirmative Action to truly work and be
genuinely effective, there must be effort on a number of fronts.
At its most basic, Affirmative Action is any attempt to work proactively in order to
achieve greater diversity in a workplace or school (whether for race, gender,
ethnicity, etc.) rather than simply ceasing to actively discriminate. Thus, just about
anything beyond the simple absence of discrimination might qualify as a form of
This can exist as training seminars for management, human resources, and
admissions staff about past practices of discrimination, how that discrimination can
continue without being recognized, and why that discrimination contributes to the
overall problems of race and gender in the country. It can also involve training for
how to actively eliminate discrimination and prejudice, not simply in terms of hiring
and admissions, but also as it concerns the ongoing atmosphere which people must
work and study in.
Of course, Affirmative Action also commonly includes the sorts of programs which
everyone has heard about, like actively recruiting job or student candidates from
historically underrepresented minorities or even actively hiring, promoting, and
admitting the members of such groups in order to deliberately diversify the workplace
or classrooms. All of this can occur either as part of a formal, structured program or it
can simply involve the efforts of a single manager who is trying to do more in a self-
When we are discussing Affirmative Action, whether to support its continued or even