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.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web The Supreme Court is hearing cases that challenge affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Char Adams, NBC News, 11 Nov. 2022 This week, the Supreme Court appeared ready to vote to disallow affirmative action policies in higher education. Lila Maclellan, Fortune, 2 Nov. 2022 There was not much credence given by the conservatives on Monday to the notion that affirmative action policies are meant to address existing inequities. Zachary M. Seward, Quartz, 1 Nov. 2022 That would be a major shift for the court, which first ruled in favor of affirmative action policies in admissions in 1978. Jessica Gresko,, 30 Oct. 2022 One such viewpoint last weekend came by way of Michael Roberts, an NYU graduate student in educational theater from San Antonio, embodying Rosana, an older woman who expressed a belief that affirmative action policies may have gone too far. Peter Marks, Washington Post, 26 Oct. 2022 On the court’s docket are cases that could limit the federal government’s enforcement of clean water regulations, narrow the Voting Rights Act, outlaw affirmative action policies at universities and protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, 20 Oct. 2022 The reality is that blacks were advancing at a faster clip, both educationally and economically, before the implementation of affirmative action policies in the 1970s. Jason L. Riley, WSJ, 8 Mar. 2022 The reality of where Asian Americans stand on affirmative action is complicated. Harmeet Kaur, CNN, 3 Nov. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'affirmative action.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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 5 Dec. 2022.

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

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