Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
What Is Affirmative Action?
Affirmative action is commonly referred to as the backbone of the civil rights movement. It is the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for women and minorities.

Affirmative action is commonly referred to as the backbone of the civil rights movement. It is the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for women and minorities. Over the years, the Reform Movement has opposed a number of legislative proposals aimed at dismantling federal affirmative action programs. As long as negative racial and gender stereotypes are real and persistent, so must be our efforts to neutralize prejudice and discrimination.

In recent years, the fight to preserve affirmative action programs has largely moved from the halls of Congress to the state level. With many states considering anti-affirmative action measures in state legislatures or through ballot initiatives, it will become increasingly important to garner support at the local level to preserve affirmative action. At the same time, the federal courts continue to play an important role in deciding the future of affirmative action. Recently, affirmative action has been more active at the judicial level than the legislative level, centering around two cases involving the University of Michigan that were heard and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Definition of Affirmative Action
Affirmative action means taking positive steps to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence, and to create new opportunities that were previously denied qualified minorities and women. As President Lyndon Johnson explained the rationale behind the contemporary use of affirmative action to achieve equal opportunity in a 1965 speech, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair."

Forty years after Brown v. Board, it has become clear that integrating schools is only one step toward making equal racial participation a reality in our society. We must also confront the impact of de facto segregation in higher education, business, and politics.

Employment, Education and Opportunity
The debate over affirmative action carries enormous implications for the lives of women and people of color. In the workplace, for example, affirmative action encompasses a broad range of actions, all intended to ensure a fair chance at job opportunities for all Americans. Examples of affirmative action programs in the workplace include:

  • Identifying and dismantling discriminatory barriers such as biased testing or recruitment and hiring practices;
  • Conducting outreach to under-represented women and minorities by targeting colleges, ethnic media, or women and minority organizations;
  • Instituting and reviewing mentoring and targeted training programs;
  • Addressing hidden biases in recruitment, hiring, promotion and compensation practices, such as unnecessary job requirements; and
  • Setting flexible goals (not quotas) for diversity among managers and supervisors.

These programs do not guarantee success based on race, ethnicity, or gender -instead, race, ethnicity, or gender may be but one factor considered among many in evaluating qualified candidates. As a result, women and people of color have broken down barriers at all levels and in all segments of the American workforce - as professors, police officers, doctors, engineers, pilots, firefighters, and corporate executives.

Moreover, affirmative efforts to extend equal education opportunities to qualified women and people of color have significantly increased the participation of underrepresented groups in the mainstream of our society - to the benefit of our entire nation. Indeed, gains in the employment context have often been made possible by affirmative action programs that have created educational opportunities for women and people of color in colleges, law schools, medical schools, and other educational institutions.

Similarly, federal economic development programs counter the effects of discrimination that have raised artificial barriers to the formation, development, and utilization of businesses owned by disadvantaged individuals, including women and people of color.

Critics of affirmative action sometimes inject the issue of "quotas" into the public debate. Such arguments mislead many to believe that affirmative action and "quotas" are the same thing - for example, that employers are required by law to hire fixed percentages of members of specific groups, regardless of their qualifications. These claims are erroneous: the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that quotas are illegal and that properly-designed affirmative action programs simply create opportunities for qualified women and people of color.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor's regulations implementing affirmative action programs for federal contractors specifically provide: "Goals may not be inflexible quotas which must be met, but must be targets reasonably attainable by means of applying every good faith effort to make all aspects of the entire affirmative action program work." The law thus establishes clear safeguards against abuses to ensure that such programs achieve their goal of enhancing equal opportunity for all.


Page last updated May 17, 2010

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