In the U.S., the effort to improve the employment and educational opportunities of women and members of minority groups through preferential treatment in job hiring, college admissions, the awarding of government contracts, and the allocation of other social benefits. First undertaken at the federal level following passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action was designed to counteract the lingering effects of generations of past discrimination. The main criteria for inclusion in affirmative action programs are race, sex, ethnic origin, religion, disability, and age. The Supreme Court of the United States placed important limitations on affirmative action programs in its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke; several subsequent Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Adarand Constructors v. Pena in 1995 and Texas v. Hopwood in 1996) imposed further restrictions. In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 209, which prohibited government agencies and institutions from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to individuals or groups on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity, or national origin. Similar measures were subsequently passed in other states. In 2003, in two landmark rulings involving admission to the University of Michigan and its law school, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action but ruled that race could not be the preeminent factor in such decisions.
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