Affirmative Action began with a 1960’s Civil Rights movement that was created to provide equal employment and educational opportunities to groups that had been historically discriminated against. The movement first became known as Affirmative Action in 1961, when President Kennedy issued an Executive Order that directed government contractors to 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.” This same order established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which is now known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Initially, Affirmative Action policies focused on improving educational and employment opportunities for African Americans. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed an Executive Order requiring government contractors to increase their numbers of minority employee by enacting Affirmative Action policies. He expanded the policy to include women, and signed he Civil Rights Act into law, stating “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.” This led to colleges and universities adopting similar systems over the following years. This caused enrollment rates for African American and Latino students to steadily increase. While there are still opportunity gaps that exist in the educational system, they have been steadily shrinking. However, the use of race as a factor in college admissions has been, and continues to be, a highly contested issue. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has strongly supported Affirmative Action, stating “Our commitment to civil rights is ironclad…We support affirmative action to redress discrimination and to achieve the diversity from which all Americans benefit.”
Increasing Workplace Diversity
Many critics of Affirmative Action believe that the policies encourage employers and colleges to accept under qualified applicants simply to sway the acceptance statistics. The Democratic Party disagrees. They believe that the purpose of Affirmative Action is simply to ensure that all qualified candidates, of any gender or race, are fairly considered for the position in question. They believe that not only does Affirmative Action require employers and educators to draw on a wider range of candidates, it requires them to draw on a wider range of skills and knowledge.
President Clinton was a strong proponent of Affirmative Action and Democrats often call on his time in office to defend such policies. 60 percent of the federal judges appointed by President Clinton were minorities or women. 65 percent of his judicial appointees received the highest ranking by the American Bar Association. This percentage was the highest any recent president had ever achieved.
Democrats vs. Republicans on Affirmative Action
While in office, President Bush took action to lessen or eliminate the impact of Affirmative Action on the educational and employment systems. Many Democrats were greatly upset by these actions, due to the decline of minority enrollment in elite institutions after legislation against Affirmative Action was passed. In response to the controversy surrounding these issues, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that “diversity in education serves a compelling state interest and that race is therefore a constitutional factor in admissions decisions.” They also ruled that Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which had previously been used to “disallowed use of race in assigning public elementary and secondary school children” was not relevant to cases of upper level education or employment.
This ruling called for President Bush to: reaffirm, strengthen and expand efforts to realize the goals of affirmative action…implement a policy of outreach to underrepresented constituencies in the awarding of government contracts, grants and opportunities.” It also called upon him to be a role model regarding these policies by “Issuing an Executive Order giving the Administrative Judges of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the authority of Administrative Law Judges in other agencies of the federal government, so that they may rule on complaints of discrimination by federal employers without being overridden by the agency which is charged,” and by “Requiring all federal agencies to document outreach in job recruitment, promotions, housing and educational programs.” The policy goes on to demand an increase in funding for the EEOC, urge Congressmen of both parties to vote in favor of Affirmative Action in the future, and to urge concrete actions in support of continued diversity.
Public Opinion On Affirmative Action
While a large percentage of the general public supports Affirmative Action as a general idea, they also seem to have complicated and sometimes contradictory ideas surrounding the finer details of Affirmative Action policies. A Pew Research study showed that the more specific details of Affirmative Action were discussed, the more likely polltakers were to resist the idea. Opinions also tended to turn negative when programs involving preferential treatment for minorities were discussed. Only 16 percent of respondents reported being impacted by Affirmative Action. In general, white respondents reported being harmed by it, while black respondents reported being helped.
In a poll of 1,201 adults nationwide, 63 percent responded that they favored “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education.” When the question was rephrased to mention giving “special treatment” to these groups, only 57 percent responded in favor. A survey taken the previous year, which did not state the words “Affirmative Action” but discussed “preferential treatment” and supporting “every possible effort” to improve the position of minorities received only 24 percent support. All of the polls saw a larger support for Affirmative Action than a previous poll taken in 1995.
The Fairness Of Affirmative Action
While 60 percent of Pew Research study respondents reported feeling that Affirmative Action as part of college admissions was a good thing, this number was not supported by questions discussing the fairness of the program. Only 47 percent reported feeling that the policies were fair, with 42 percent stating that they were not fair. These statistics varied greatly with race and with gender.
Barack Obama on Affirmative Action
Like the majority of his party, Barack Obama supports Affirmative Action. While he did not weigh in heavily on the issue during his presidential races, this is because it was not a hot-button issue at the time. He told author Jeffrey Toobin that he believed Affirmative Action should continue “if the University of Michigan or California decides that there is a value in making sure that folks with different experiences in a classroom will enhance the educational experience of the students, and they do it in a careful way.” He went on to add, “most of the time the law’s principal job should be as a shield against discrimination, as opposed to a sword to advance a social agenda, because the law is a blunt instrument in these situations.”
Obama also believes that college admissions and the job field should not be the primary focus of such initiatives. In a 2014 interview, Obama stated that he believed Affirmative Action policies should continue, but that programs that helped minority students receive their high school diplomas would be far more beneficial to the cause. He elaborated by stating, I understand, certainly sitting in this office, that probably the single most important thing I could do for poor black kids is to make sure that they’re getting a good K-through-12 education. And, if they’re coming out of high school well prepared, then they’ll be able to compete for university slots and jobs. And that has more to do with budgets and early-childhood education and stuff that needs to be legislated.”
Hillary Clinton on Affirmative Action
Hillary Clinton is a supporter of Affirmative Action. Many believe that she was a driving force in her husband’s successful diversification of his cabinet during his time in office. For Love of Politics, by Sally Bedell Smith states “Hillary assigned herself the task of ensuring that Bill kept his pledge to appoint more women and minorities than any previous president, to make his Administration “look like America.” She pressed him to fill half of the senior positions with women. And she urged her husband to make history by appointing the first woman to one of the big four cabinet posts.”
When asked about Civil Rights issues, Clinton states that she believes in reparations for the past, but she also hopes to focus on fixing issues here and now. In a 2000 Senate debate she stated, “We have mental, emotional and psychological reparations to pay first. We have to admit that we haven’t always treated people in our own country fairly. We have some issues that we have to address when it comes to racial justice right now. I’m willing to work hard to be a strong advocate for Civil Rights and human rights here at home and around the world. I want to do everything I can to make sure that the programs and policies that have helped generations of African-Americans have a better life in this country continue. I think we should be focused on the present and on the future. We owe an apology to African-Americans for hundreds of years of slavery.” Clinton has also worked avidly for equal pay initiatives and other women’s rights efforts.
Bernie Sanders on Affirmative Action
Bernie Sanders not only supports Affirmative Action, he received a 97% by the NAACP on Affirmative Action. This score has been interpreted as extremely pro-Affirmative Action. Despite this rating, Sanders is severely disadvantaged among African American voters. In a recent poll, he saw only 3 percent of black voter support, as opposed to the 91 percent that supported Hillary. Sanders believes that this is largely due to a lack of knowledge about his stance on such policies. In an interview on This Week, Sanders stated, “I have a long history in fighting for civil rights. I understand that many people in the African-American community may not understand that. But I think the issues that we are dealing with, combating 51 percent African-American youth unemployment, talking about the need that public colleges and universities should be tuition free, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure. These are issues that should apply to every American.”
- Affirmative Action Overview – National Conference of State Legislatures
- Democratic Party on Civil Rights – On The Issues
- Affirmative Action No. 102 – Americans for Democratic Action
- Conflicted Views of Affirmative Action – Pew Research Center
- Obama: No rush to end affirmative action – The Washington Times
- Republican Views On Affirmative Action
- Republican Views on Civil Rights
- Democratic Views on Welfare
- Democratic Views on Jobs
- Democratic Views on Small Business
- Democratic Views on Poverty
- Democratic Views on Defense Spending
- Democratic Views on Gay Rights
- Democratic Views on Abortion
- Democratic Views on the Military