In a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 75% of Americans responded that it was “very important” or “somewhat important” for companies to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. Indeed, equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is shown to empower employees and boost financial performance. 

But when it comes to how best to promote EDI, opinions vary. In the same survey, when asked whether companies should take a person’s race or ethnicity into account to increase diversity in the workplace, only 24% of Americans said yes. The remaining 74% responded that companies should not consider these factors, even if it results in less diversity. Thus, Americans see the advantage of racial diversity, but there are challenges to achieving it. 

Affirmative Action: Moving Towards Racial Equality in the US

One route to advance diversity in the workplace is affirmative action. Affirmative action is a set of policies that aims to provide marginalized groups with access to educational and employment opportunities. Affirmative action policies have been implemented in business, government, and education to ensure the inclusion of people from marginalized groups based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability.

The concept of affirmative action was born out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and is deeply connected to the historical oppression of Black Americans through slavery, segregation, and colonialism. While slavery in the United States was finally abolished in 1865 after the Civil War, the state-sanctioned marginalization of Black Americans continued throughout the Reconstruction period and beyond. Jim Crow laws – white supremacist legislation that enforced segregation – were introduced to ensure that White Americans were privileged while Black Americans were discriminated against economically, politically, and socially.

Specifically, under Jim Crow laws, Black Americans were barred from certain occupations and higher education, putting them at an extreme economic disadvantage. The mass protests of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to the 1960s culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While the Civil Rights Act was a huge milestone in African-American history, Black people continued to face systemic barriers in employment.

Putting Affirmative Action on Paper

In an attempt to move towards greater employment equity, President John F. Kennedy introduced Executive Order 10925 in 1961, the first formal document to reference affirmative action. The order states that employers who have contracts with the government will “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” While the order gave a new meaning to the idea of equal employment, it still lacked practical mechanisms. For instance, President Kennedy didn’t mention specific requirements or examples of affirmative action. As a result, the U.S. was still one executive order away from implementing affirmative action. 

Another attempt at mandating affirmative action was put into place by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Executive Order 11246 created an oversight mechanism to make sure firms took Kennedy’s proactive approach to inclusion. It created a new agency to monitor compliance, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance. It issued affirmative action obligations such as “to develop a written affirmative action compliance program” to address current issues. Specifically, an employer had to set actionable goals and a timeline to achieve equal employment opportunities.

Often cited as the origin of affirmative action, President Johnson’s executive order laid out the modern idea of affirmative action: setting diversity goals and enforcing equitable policies for minority groups to achieve those goals. In this approach lies the most contested aspect of affirmative action: giving what some consider to be “special consideration” to minority groups in hiring. Proponents support it for its proactive approach, while skeptics argue that “preferential” treatment is unfair. 

Arguments For: Striving for Equity Over Equality

Supporters of affirmative action advocate for affirmative action because it is based on equity, rather than equality. Equity means giving each person the opportunities or resources they need to achieve the same outcome, while equality means giving each person the same exact opportunities or resources, whether or not that guarantees them access to the same outcome. Thus, equity takes into consideration how historical and ongoing discrimination has placed many communities at a disadvantage.

Advocates for affirmative action argue that achieving equity is what we need in a job market designed to reward White Americans for so long. In fact, racial bias still bars minorities from recruitment. A 2021 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that there is still systemic discrimination in the American employment application process. These researchers discovered that 23 out of 108 Fortune 500 firms discriminated against applicants whose names were assumed to be that of someone African American. 

Supporters believe that affirmative action keeps discriminatory hiring practices from reverting to the status quo. There have been cases where removing affirmative action led to less diversity. A 2013 study found that when four states (California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington) repealed anti-discrimination laws, there was a significant decrease in workplace diversity compared to the states that kept affirmative action programs in place. State and local government jobs decreased by 7% among Hispanic men, 4% among Black women, and 37% among Asian women, while White men experienced a 5% increase in employment. Proponents argue that diversity is not naturally occurring but is politically maintained. To many supporters of EDI, diversity is a choice that we make as a society, and affirmative action gets us one step closer. 

Arguments Against: Saying No to “Reverse Discrimination”

Many people against affirmative action argue that it is reverse discrimination. Some do believe in equal – not equitable – employment opportunity, but they oppose achieving that through “preferential” treatment of minorities. In recent years, “reverse discrimination” claims against large corporations reveal how firms may favor applicants from a minority group at the expense of other qualified applicants not belonging to a traditionally marginalized group. In March 2018, former Google recruiter Arne Wilberg sued Google for allegedly discriminating against White and Asian male applicants to boost the number of Black, Latino, and female staff. In court documents, he claimed that Google instructed recruiters to “purge” all hiring pools of non-diverse candidates and cancel all interviews for applicants with 0-5 years of experience who were not Black, Hispanic, or female.

To skeptics, affirmative action incentivizes employers to engage in malpractice to achieve EDI goals and shut down controversies coming from minority underrepresentation. They believe that reverse discrimination will continue to increase if affirmative action stays in place. As if to echo their concerns, the Department of Labor investigated in 2020 how Microsoft and Wells Fargo plan to implement their commitments to increase Black Americans in senior management positions without race-based discrimination. 

Opponents not only believe affirmative action to be unfair but also question whether balancing the playing field in later stages of life (i.e. employment) is effective. This argument supposes that pursuing equity in adulthood, rather than in childhood, isn’t going to suddenly correct discrimination, so policies should instead focus on addressing the root causes of discrimination. Opponents propose concentrating on families, children, and early education by introducing policies that could help close the racial achievement gap in K-12 schools, for example. To skeptics, affirmative action strays far away from the original goal of providing equal opportunity to all. 

Escaping the Echo Chamber

Affirmative action has been debated ever since its inception in the 1960s. But perhaps it is controversial because both sides have merits and flaws. Proponents point out that affirmative action advances workplace equity and serves as an enforcement mechanism that prevents the revival of discriminatory practices. Opponents clarify the current solution’s problems, like its tendency to incentivize firms to “reverse discriminate” to shortcut its way to diversity goals and its focus on correcting discrimination at a late time. Recognizing the value of equity while acknowledging the issues with some instances of affirmative action in practice will help us improve unbiased employment access in the U.S. to marginalized groups. 

Edited by Pearl Zhou

Yulina Goto

Yulina Goto (she/her) is a Japanese undergraduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is Japanese and grew up in the US, Japan, Denmark, and Taiwan. In her free time, she...