"Affirmative action" means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas
of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps
selection -- selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity -- affirmative action generates
The development, defense, and contestation of preferential affirmative action has proceeded in two streams. One
has been legal and administrative, as courts, legislatures, and executive departments of government have applied
laws and rules requiring affirmative action. The other has been public debate, where the practice of preferential
treatment has spawned a vast literature, pro and con. Often enough, the two streams have failed to make
adequate contact, with the public quarrels not always very securely anchored in any existing legal basis or
The ebb and flow of public controversy over affirmative action can be pictured as two spikes on a line, the first
spike representing a period of passionate debate that began around 1972 and tapered off after 1980, and the
second indicating a resurgence of debate in the 1990s. The first spike encompassed controversy about gender and
racial preferences alike. This is because in the beginning, affirmative action was as much about the factory,
firehouse, and corporate suite as about the university campus. The second spike represents a quarrel about race.
This is because the only burning issue now is about preferential admissions in higher education.
1. In the Beginning
2. The Controversy Engaged
3. Rights and Consistency
4. Real-World Affirmative Action -- The Workplace
5. Real-World Affirmative Action -- The University
8. Desert Confounded, Desert Misapplied
Other Internet Resources
1. In the Beginning
In 1972, affirmative action became an inflammatory public issue. True enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had
made something called "affirmative action" a remedy federal courts could impose on violators of the Act.
Likewise, since 1965, federal contractors had been subject to President Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order
11246, requiring them to take "affirmative action" to make sure they were not discriminating. But what did this
1965 mandate amount to? The Executive Order assigned to the Secretary of Labor the job of specifying rules of
implementation. In the meantime, as the federal courts were enforcing the Civil Rights Act against
discriminating companies, unions, and other institutions, the Department of Labor mounted an ad hoc attack on
the construction industry, cajoling, threatening, negotiating, and generally strong-arming reluctant construction
firms into a series of region-wide "plans," in which they committed themselves to numerical hiring goals.
Through these contractor commitments, the Department could indirectly pressure recalcitrant labor unions, who