What is Affirmative Action and Why Was it Created?

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Most people have seen the effects of affirmative action in one place or another. For example, most job and school applications now ask a person's racial and ethnic background, gender, and veteran status. But what is affirmative action really, and why was it created?

Affirmative action laws are policies instituted by the government to help level the playing field for those historically disadvantaged due to factors such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. These laws typically pertain to equal opportunities in employment, education, and business.

In the United States, affirmative action was first created by Executive Order 10925, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It required that government employers "not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin." It also required that government employees "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

President Johnson extended affirmative action in 1965, affirming the federal Government's commitment to promote equal employment opportunities. Affirmative action was extended to women by Executive Order 11375 in 1967, by adding the class of "sex" to the list of protected categories. Other sources of affirmative action law include the nondiscrimination mandates of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other laws protecting groups like veterans.

The purpose of affirmative action is to promote social equality through the preferential treatment of socioeconomically disadvantaged people. Often, these people are disadvantaged for historical reasons like years of oppression or slavery. However, these laws are not without their opposition. As the original segregation and disparate treatment that led to the creation of these laws has faded, more and more people have called for the abolition of affirmative action. Many have pointed out that selecting someone primarily on the basis of their membership in a protected class than on their actual qualifications can be counterproductive to society as a whole. Indeed, members of protected classes have even begun to call for the abolition of affirmative action, saying that it creates an assumption of lack of qualification and preferential treatment that robs minorities of the respect of their peers. Another problem is the creation of so-called “reverse discrimination,” in which non-protected class members are actually passed over in favor of less qualified diversity candidates.

If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination, either because of or despite affirmative action, you should speak to an attorney in your area. Discrimination laws can be very complicated, and an attorney can help you to identify every issue and procedure which must be followed in order to preserve your rights. You can find a list of attorneys in your area by visiting our Law Firms page on HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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