Affirmative action is a two-pronged effort that includes “the right of all persons to be accorded full and equal consideration on the basis of merit” (K.U Medical School) and, concurrently, a policy of actively “hiring and promoting qualified individuals in protected groups such as minorities, disabled veterans, Vietnam-era veterans and women” (U. of South Dakota). It was created to focus on education and jobs, and the policies were put in place to take active measures, under the framework of non-discrimination, to ensure that disadvantaged groups that had prevalently suffered discrimination have the same opportunities as whites. The U.S. Department of Labor describes affirmative action as the “ban[ing of] discrimination and requir[ing of] contractors and subcontractors to take… action to ensure that all individuals have an equal opportunity for employment, without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or status as a Vietnam era or special disabled veteran.” (Dept. of Labor 2002)
Affirmative action also includes provisions for the monitoring of its compliance by seeking to establish standards of equality using a quantitative system to measure progress towards the goal. Importantly, “the goal-setting process in affirmative action planning is used to target and measure the effectiveness of affirmative action efforts to eradicate and prevent discrimination.” (Dept. of Labor) Whenever an employer is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, the EEOC has judicial powers aimed at remedying the situation.
The logic of affirmative action dictates that where a “certain criterion of merit”, even if it is not intentionally discriminatory, works to the disproportionate exclusion of minorities, the burden is on the offending organization to defend the policy in proportion to its exclusionary effect (Lovell 1974). The focus on criteria-fixed merit in the United States disregards that all people do not have equal access to private schooling, resume counselors, SAT prep classes, etc. The EEOC may see certain hiring criteria as intentionally or unintentionally excluding protected groups under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the “Commission shall endeavor to eliminate and such alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation or persuasion.” (Civ. Rights Act of 1964)
Why is it controversial? What arguments are presented for/against it?
The controversy surrounding affirmative action is directly related to public perceptions -- or misperceptions -- of the policy, coupled with its equivocal nature. Lack of specific guidelines for the execution of the policy has led to variations in actual practice; this lack of uniformity lends itself to ideological clashes regarding the nature of affirmative action and practical ones concerning its implementation. Points of contention and the arguments (both for and against) include the following: