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affirmative action

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Affirmative action is the term used to describe steps and processes to consider systemic factors that have historically excluded and underserved certain groups in educational, legal, and workplace settings — but these actions don’t amount to automatic preferences. As policy, it emerged in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address historically discriminatory practices that adversely affected groups due to a widespread culture of systemic racism and sexism. 

Since its inception, critics have argued that affirmative action is unnecessary, that it’s an automatic practice, and that it unfairly discriminates against people from dominant groups. Some states have banned the consideration of race in college admissions.

In the 1978 decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the US Supreme Court ruled that universities cannot use quotas to reserve a certain number of admissions spots for students or color, nor can they use mathematical formulas to advantage applicants from certain backgrounds. The 2013 case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, in which a white applicant sued the university alleging that considering race in admissions violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, has set the standard for strict scrutiny for affirmative action at public universities. Policies that consider race must now be “precisely tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.” In 2022, the Court is set to hear Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, which centers on the admission rates of Asian American students. The challenge to Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions could end the practice of race-based admissions altogether. 

If discussing, especially in an employment context, noting that affirmative action policies are not interchangeable with “diversity initiatives” and “equal opportunity employment,” and providing some explanation of the distinctions, is helpful for clarity.

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Affirmative action is the name for steps or actions that consider the representation of historically excluded or underserved groups to achieve more equitable access to education, employment, and legal protections. If discussing, especially in an employment context, it’s important to understand that affirmative action policies are not interchangeable with “diversity initiatives” and “equal opportunity employment”; some explanation of the distinctions is helpful for clarity.