affirmative action


: the use of policies, legislation, programs, and procedures to improve the educational or employment opportunities of members of certain demographic groups (such as minority groups, women, and older people) as a remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination against such groups

Note: Affirmative action gives limited preference to qualified groups (which may include racial and ethnic minorities, women, older people, people with disabilities, and some veterans) in job hiring, admission to institutions of higher education, the awarding of government contracts, and other social benefits.

The term affirmative action was … used in an executive order issued by President Johnson in 1965, which banned all federal contractors and subcontractors, as well as unions involved in federal work, from practicing employment discrimination.Michael L. Levine
Unlike previous measures, such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, which prohibited discrimination, the goal of affirmative action was to adopt a proactive approach to redressing past discrimination. It goes beyond the prohibition of overtly racist practices by requiring employers, public contractors, and college admissions officers to cast a wider net in their searches for qualified workers and students through active recruitment of racial minorities.Shirley J. Yee et al.

Examples of affirmative action in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Nikole Hannah-Jones examines how the fall of affirmative action may be viewed as part of a 50-year campaign to undermine the progress of the civil rights movement. John Hodgman, New York Times, 5 Apr. 2024 The nearly five-decade-old policy of affirmative action is now unconstitutional. Andre Archie, National Review, 4 Apr. 2024 Law student diversity, particularly at elite schools, shrank by up to 17% in the wake of the affirmative action reversal, a new study finds. Lila MacLellan, Fortune, 3 Apr. 2024 Their warning followed the Supreme Court’s decision to deem affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina unlawful. Marisa Garcia, Forbes, 29 Mar. 2024 The class of 2028 marks the first admissions cycle after the US Supreme Court took an axe to affirmative action in college, ruling the Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions programs were unconstitutional. Matt Egan, CNN, 28 Mar. 2024 This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action. Collin Binkley, Annie Ma, and Noreen Nasir, The Christian Science Monitor, 27 Mar. 2024 Their lawsuits represent the latest front in a conservative campaign to roll back affirmative action programs in government and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the corporate world since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned race-conscious college admissions last year. Julian Mark, Washington Post, 9 Mar. 2024 The piece also touches on who actually benefits from affirmative action—Black or otherwise. Ruth Umoh, Fortune, 20 Mar. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'affirmative action.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

1961, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of affirmative action was in 1961

Dictionary Entries Near affirmative action

Cite this Entry

“Affirmative action.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

affirmative action

: an active effort to improve the educational and employment opportunities of members of minority groups and women

Legal Definition

affirmative action

: an active effort (as through legislation) to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups or women

More from Merriam-Webster on affirmative action

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!