October 10th, 2012
05:43 PM ET

5 things to know about affirmative action

By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) - In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, ordering that federally funded projects "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

Five decades later, a young white woman and a Texas school's admissions policy stand central to a monumental Supreme Court case. The justices began hearing oral arguments Wednesday over the constitutionality of racial preferences in consideration of the students it accepts.

It could change how schools determine whom they let in and whom they keep out.

Justices to re-examine use of race in college admissions

Affirmative action began as a simple idea to expand equality and has morphed into a charged and divisive topic.

What is affirmative action, and how is it different from when it began?

Here are five things to know. What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.

1. Why it was started: The earliest implementation of affirmative action policies, before Kennedy coined the phrase, began under President Franklin Roosevelt in the second World War. He banned discrimination in the government and those involved in "war-related" work.

Later, President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded on Kennedy's order to include women and signed the Civil Rights Act into law. He explained the purpose of affirmative action in this speech to Howard University's 1965 graduating class:

"And this is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom, but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity, but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

Less known, though, is that President Richard B. Nixon created goals and time frames around the legislation. "We would not impose quotas, but would require federal contractors to show affirmative action' to meet the goals of increasing minority employment," he wrote in his memoirs.

2) Why it is controversial: Quotas. The idea of a limited number of admissions or jobs for members of underrepresented groups and any type of preferential treatment runs counter to how we view our American dream, critics argue.

That idea became central in the Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren. Warren was accused of using her Native American ancestry for jobs but has denied doing so.

Is she or isn’t she Native American?

In 1978, the landmark Regents of California v. Allan Bakke case made racial quotas unconstitutional. Bakke, a white student, sued after twice being denied admission to medical school, challenging the special admissions used to admit minority groups.

3) How it's changed: While affirmative action is usually spoken of in general terms, there is no singular policy or implementation of the ways in which affirmative action take shape in government organizations, colleges and corporations varies.

Court cases continue to refine interpretations of how race is used at the university level. Some schools have experimented with a variety of ways of non-race-based models, like the Top 10 model that the University of Texas employs, to ensure the racial diversity of students.

4) How we feel about it: In a 2009 Pew poll, the majority of Americans supported affirmative action but strongly disagreed about minority preference. And while most African Americans (58%) and Hispanics (53%) agreed that minorities should get preferential treatment, only 22% of whites agreed.

5) Where it exists: Though quotas have been outlawed in the United States, the European Union has had a recent push to punish companies whose boards aren't composed of at least 40% women. And India, Brazil and Malaysia, among other countries, have laws and policies that address affirmative action in schools and throughout society.

Should affirmative action still exist? Share your thoughts

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Filed under: Education • How we live • Race
soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. jhill86

    The diction that is used in many of these post are down right racist in origin. This same rhetoric was used in the descriptions of Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans from the 1700s until the 1970s. They are seen even now. Even until the 70s some schools and universities were segregated. Even looking at schools now, it is sad because they are still segregated. I am a teacher currently and I have seen how the majority of urban schools are 90-100% black and then how some suburban schools are 80-100% white. Then we wonder why there is educational inequity which lends to the need for AA. These schools that are majority black lack many basic resources. I have been in classes where we don't have enough books to even have a class set for students. Teachers don't even have working printers in their schools nor working computers. The educational gap in urban areas and rural areas is so disparaging that no matter what you view about AA, America will fall from being the number 1 economic power in the world. And these minority populations that people are so quick to write off, will soon be the majority. Then what?

    October 14, 2012 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim908

      Wake up and stop blaming funding. We need to address SOCIAL ISSUES in inner city schools. (Lack of parenting, obscene drop out rates, kids getting knocked up at 15). I graduated high school from a highly regarded "privileged" district within the last 10 years. We had great funding, but the bottom line is none of my core classes (calculus, physics, english, etc etc) used anything other than a text book.

      Unfortunately there's no "nice" way to say it but kids need an environment where they don't fear for their lives every day, and have incentive to not drop out of school and actually give a you know what about their education

      October 15, 2012 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
      • Penny

        I went to good suburban college-prep schools too, and yet when people see me they automatically assume because of my skin color that I couldn't possibly know Calculus or Physics let alone be licensed to TEACH them. And that's based on racist assumptions about people who may share my skin color but who tend to be segregated into schools that don't teach them those subjects assuming that they can't possibly learn them. It's a vicious circle that has to be broken somehow. Let's see - stop equating brown skin with stupidity and that might break that cycle.

        April 18, 2013 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. beautiful waters

    Affirmative action has undeniably helped many ppl but not enough bc before ppl can become employed, they must be educated in preparation. No secret that our educational system is a failure, primarily so to minority & lower income areas bc no accountability is applied to school boards who hold every school to same performance criteria but don't fund equally. It's like the old adage of the more things change the more they stay the same. Affirmative action gives school district the wiggle room to avoid doing the right thing which is to provide every public school an equal distribution of public funds., the minority students will feel confident competing on equal footing with non-minorities & eventually universities & employers will have to ignore quotas bc the issue of opportunity will have resolved itself – It's already been proven in the world of profesional sports & entertainment. If your good, your pay reflects that. Sincerely, a Hispanic woman who has learned how to navigate the educational system.

    October 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rick Springfield

    My company set up a booth at an Affirmative Action job fair at a local university. We hired young black man aged 24. We put him through the usual 90-day training and he messed up his job duties a few times. We finally had to let him work alone in a rather complicated technical position. He messed up quite a lot and cost us a lot of revenue. But we forgave him and we retrained him and then put him back by himself. It became evident that we hired the wrong person. Yes, we had passed over hiring white men and women to hire this Black man so we could get a tax credit. But it was affecting our revenue streams and finally someone at the top saw the losses and sent an investigator. He determined the man was a druggie and was using on duty and could not possibly do his work assignements because he was stoned out of his head most of the time. So we gave him one more chance. He blew it horribly, he just could not do the work. So, at 8AM on a Monday morning he walked in and our security guards met him at the foyer. They escorted him to a side conference room where the president, vice president, and director of human resources was. They told him why he was fired and then had security escort him from the building. He walked down the street and we never heard from him again. We never hired another person from an Affirmative Action project again for that position. The guy's mom called about 3 weeks later. She asked to talk to him. I had the privledge of telling her that he had been fired. Shd replied, "That is no surprise to me, he gets fired from every job he ever gets. He thinks everybody owes him a free ride."

    October 13, 2012 at 3:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Jo Ann

      You told her he had been fired? I thought personnel actions were supposedto be confidential.

      October 13, 2012 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. ron paul

    why do minorities get pionts added to federal test to help them out ?

    October 11, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • GET REAL

      because of AA and stuff like that. How is that fair? That's like saying since you are white we will take points off your score. What's the difference? Equal is Equal. End of story.

      October 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. GaryGuillermo

    I see it as the poor whites against the poor minority's. The slave owners that this goes back to were rich people and they are probably rich today. My family never had any slaves and I am dirt poor. Why should some black guy have an advantage over me when we are going for the same job?

    October 11, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tracy

      I dont believe the law selects one minority over another minority? However, anytime we are in a diverse community and you see 90-100% of any race dominating a sector, it makes one wonder...especially when the customers are not.

      October 12, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
  6. ron paul

    no preferential treatment for any one same for all over the board . even playing field .

    October 11, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tracy

      Where was the even playing field in 1760, 1860 or 1960? Lets forget about laws against reading writing, or census that show decades of same jobs with up to 70% less pay in 20th century in labor stats. Or record denials of otherwise good housing applications. Lets just the even playing field in 2012, they should understand. Right? I'm white, but Im willing to admit that its more complicated than that when money is involved.

      October 12, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
      • Tgallant

        You are missing the point. Why should a minority that has just arrived as an immigrant (or an illegal Dream Kid) get preference.

        October 12, 2012 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. Debbie

    the playing field is NOT level, but not just for minorities for disadvantaged whites as well. I think qualifications should get you into colleges and jobs, not color and certainly not influence of well connected parents. Many rich kids BUY test answers and cheat and that is a widespread problem. My nephew had a 4.0 and couldn't get into med school, while my friends brother got in with a 2.5 to that same school, and yep you guessed it Dad is a doctor, both are white, so if you want to level the playing field do it on ALL levels, we don't need more incompetence in any field just because dad bought your way in or you got points added. If I were black I would find it insulting that whites think they are smarter than me.

    October 11, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jo Ann

      Good point. Why is it that no one seems to be getting upset that ~30% of those admitted to Ivy League colleges have parents who attended those colleges and/or made large contributions, but students with higher test grades and test scores are routinely deied admission? Some people think it is OK to show favoritism to those who are born into privilege, but not OK to give a break to a minority kid, who faced significant challenges. Why are people raising questions about how Obama got into Harvard Law, but not how G. W. Bush got into Yale?

      October 13, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
      • B X

        your response made me laugh because it makes so much sense in a sea of bigoted and angry banter (on both sides). it really is more about poor kids having fewer options in the end, because they start out so far behind. that's not to say that darker skinned kids don't have a special set of issues to deal with, they're all exacerbated by being poor. and you're so right about how "dubya" got into yale...forget obama's transcripts, i wanna see his!!!

        October 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sam

    I think your comment is the exact argument in favor of affirmative action. Minority students often struggle because the schools they attend as children and teens are often inferior to those provided to the larger white population. If our society cannot find a way to level the playing field for the young then I think affirmative action is appropriate.

    October 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Teachers are equally trained and overpaid,school size don't matter,excuses are bountiful from the DEMS and their failures.

      October 11, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tracy

        Both parties have failed the education period.

        October 12, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
      • Rik James

        Teachers are overpaid? Where the hell do you live?

        October 12, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
      • jhill86

        Exactly. Where do you live. I am a teacher and haven't received a pay raise in 3 years. Our district hasn't given a pay raise in 5 years. And we have furlough days where we are not paid.

        October 14, 2012 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  9. chris

    Democrats support affirmative action programs in employment and college programs. Think before you vote.

    October 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      A great reason to either not vote or go to the right

      October 11, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Debbie

      Nixon came up with quotas, he was republican, helps if you read but I know you right wingers are not big on facts

      October 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • miracle

      yea dem dam democrats.....tryiing to do the rt. thing. What would God say? Who would God vote for? I know repubilicans because they are against abortion, and that is the entire message God is concerned about.

      October 14, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ross Parks

    I'm an African American female working at an Aerospace company. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA in Mechanical Engineering. My white male co-worker graduates with a 2.8GPA. When applying to the company a 3.0GPA is required. I agree that affirmative action made it possible for my resume to be reviewed, but there a misconception that whites are turned down because "unqualified" individuals of color get the job.
    In a lot, hell, most cases, whites don't get jobs because they are less qualified, and even then, some of them manage to fall through the cracks.
    Notice that you never catch extremely qualified white complaining about affirmative action.

    October 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Let me ask you a question Ross. Do you know how to be a Fire Fighter? No? Well go to Baltimore City and take the test anyway and even if you get every question wrong you still get 10 points for writing your name on the top of the test. Guess why? So if you did study and you get an 89% on the test and I get a 98% then we sign our names guess what? You go from 89% to 99% and I become "Less Qualified"

      October 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • GET REAL

        I'm in Baltimore and they give all Government & Corporate jobs to blacks. That's what it seems like. I went to Comcast yesterday and did not see one white person working. All black people. Black people have somehow made it so they can have the 1 up in getting a job in the government and corporations. But the thing is, they are the worst jobs to any one with a real education as to what is really going on. Anyone with a brain and an education knows that wealth is in having your own business. Too bad that can't be given to you and there is no affirmative action in that.

        October 14, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. CitizenKK

    Just another way to lower the bar of accountability....

    October 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. WhiteLatino

    Thirty-six percent of Latinos identify their race as white (according to a Pew Hispanic survey.) Remember, Hispanic/Latino is an ethnicity, not a race.

    October 11, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
    • klay

      Yeah, unless there's something to be gained as a minority lol

      October 12, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |