Just as with many phrases, affirmative action can mean different things to different people. Not only do we find a difference in definition, but we find a difference among people in how they view it. Perhaps an individual’s view of affirmative action is sometimes affected by how it personally affects that person or someone close to that person. It is understandable that if one is personally helped by its presence, a person might be inclined to be in favor of it. Of course, if one believes that affirmative action should be used because it is better for society to provide opportunities for those who have not had them in the past, such an individual might also be in favor of it. On the other hand, if one has been personally deprived of an opportunity because of its implementation, this person may not be in favor of it. In addition, if a person believes affirmative action is not necessary today in our society, there might be opposition to it. Obviously, there are a host of other reasons for being in favor of it or being against it.
Affirmative action makes it possible for a number of our citizens who have not traditionally been given equal opportunities in this country to improve themselves and make contributions to our society. The policy has not remained the same over time. It continues to change and expand from the 1960s, when it first started to gain public notice. A number of former presidents and court cases have extended affirmative action policies. This is important because it recognizes the political implication of the policy. It is also important because government has the power and influence to bring about substantial changes in a society. Thus, we can expect affirmative action to be a topical concern for our present and future political leaders. We can also expect various public groups to lobby for and against the issue. Of course, it will be of interest to private individuals and concerns because it will also affect them in many ways.
There are a variety of reasons why affirmative action is present in our society. Certainly, a number of pressure groups or interest groups worked to bring it about. One can also cite a variety of other reasons for its presence. For example, there is ample evidence that some populations in our society, such as women and minorities, have not been treated fairly or equally in their aspirations to improve their lives. It is especially important to note this has taken place in the areas of employment and education. Affirmative action policies could reduce this inequity of treatment. In addition, one could cite a history of discrimination toward certain individuals in our society based on race, ethnic origin, and gender. Unfortunately, remnants of this discrimination still exist in our society. Perhaps they are not as evident in our public arena today as they were in the past, but they are still manifested in the behavior of some people. One should not believe that affirmative action will quickly eliminate all inequalities in our society, but it is a good start to improving the lives and conditions for many of our citizens who traditionally have had the doors of opportunity closed to them.
Of course, affirmative action policies have also been criticized for a number of reasons. For example, a popular view is that only the most qualified individual should be given preference in hiring or in acceptance for admission to a particular program. However, it is a view that does not lack criticism and is not without difficulties, such as determining the meaning of “most qualified.” Others may also believe that affirmative action is in reality a form of reverse discrimination. They suggest that those who are not chosen when qualified are really discriminated against because of their particular characteristics, such as gender and race. Still others may believe that the days of discrimination have been put aside and that our society can operate fairly without an affirmative action policy.
Advocates of affirmative action certainly can cite good reasons for its presence in our society. Obviously, it has helped and will help certain individuals obtain opportunities to improve their lives in many ways and also brings them into positions of influence, prestige, and power in our society. Many of these individuals may not be able to advance as well without an affirmative action program. Of course, their representation in desirable public and private areas will have an effect on the attitudes of our citizens. In particular, their presence should change some views about their abilities and their roles. For example, law enforcement has traditionally been a male-oriented type of employment, and it still remains so. However, with the hiring of more females as police officers, our society is learning that females are capable law enforcement officers. The same may be said for a number of other professions, such as law and medicine, which have traditionally been occupied primarily by white males.
No one knows for sure what the future holds for affirmative action. However, there is no doubt that our society is becoming more pluralistic. We can expect to see more calls for an extension of affirmative action policies—as well as opposition to this extension. In any case, we have seen and will continue to see a higher percentage of individuals who have traditionally not been publicly prominent in our society becoming more evident in a wide variety of positions. This occurrence will be due to a number of reasons, and certainly one is affirmative action. It is not easy to assess the effectiveness of affirmative action policies and whether our society is better with their enforcement. Again, we may see a difference of opinion here among our citizens. Thus, the controversy regarding affirmative action will probably continue in the future.
- Bergman, B. (1996). In defense of affirmative action. New York: Basic Books.
- Curry, G. E. (Ed.). (1996). The affirmative action debate. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
- Eastland, T. (1997). Ending affirmative action: The case of colorblind justice. New York: Basic Books.
- Lynch, F. R. (1991). Invisible victims: White males and the crisis of affirmative action. New York: Praeger.