Affirmative action

Definition: Policies used by government agencies, private businesses, and other organizations for the purpose of increasing the representation of members of specified minority groups
Significance: The convergence of affirmative action policy and mass immigration into the United States from Latin America and Asia has had some unintended consequences. Immigrants have often benefited from affirmative action programs, although they do not share the long histories of slavery and discrimination suffered by African Americans and members of other American minority groups.
Before the 1960’s, private American educational institutions and most employers could legally discriminate on the basis of race or other classifications. In 1964, the U.S. government took the lead in ending racial discrimination in education and employment by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Title VII of that law prohibited entities receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The language of the law itself and the content of the floor debates leading up to passage of the law make clear that nothing in the act required or even permitted preferential treatment for any group.
Shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in Executive Order 11246, promoted “affirmative action” programs to increase educational and employment opportunities for African Americans, women, and members of other disadvantaged minorities. Johnson justified affirmative action as necessary for achieving equality of opportunity and as a means of overcoming the effects of past discrimination. This “soft” approach to affirmative action called for nondiscrimination enhanced by aggressive recruiting of, and remedial training and internships for, members of minorities.
Following the urban riots that swept the nation during the late 1960’s, affirmative action programs shifted from the principle of nondiscrimination to the principle of preference. “Hard” affirmative action sets goals and time lines, in some cases setasides and quotas, specifying numbers or percentages of minority group members who were to be hired to jobs or admitted into programs. Regardless of the law’s intentions, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to preferences for minorities. One of the most controversial programs that followed in its wake was the Public Works Employment Act of 1977, which required at least 10 percent of public work contracts go to minority-owned business enterprises. Since that time, the affirmative action landscape has been littered with statutory and constitutional legal challenges. Judicially created limits on affirmative action have diminished its value to all minorities.

Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration


During the 1960’s, the U.S. Congress also reformednational immigration policy. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated ethnic distinctions among prospective immigrants. This change resulted in a wave of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia. While estimates of their actual numbers vary, the immigrant population living in the United States grew enormously—from about 5 percent of the total national population in 1965 to more than 12 percent, or about thirty-eight million immigrants, in 2009.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 were developed without reference to each other. The convergence of legislated nondiscrimination and racial preferences with mass immigration from Latin America and Asia resulted in some unintended consequences. Because the post-1965 immigrants were mostly Hispanic and Asian—both protected classifications under federal affirmative action policy— approximately 75 percent of all post-1965 immigrants qualified for affirmative action benefits immediately upon their arrival in the United States. In contrast, members of such immigrant groups as Hasidic Jews, Iranians, and Afghans did not qualify. The majority of new immigrants did, however, benefit from affirmative action remedies that had been developed to compensate African Americans for the disadvantages imposed by their heritage of slavery and discrimination. This fact has lead to intraminority tension and white native opposition.
Economic studies have established that poor African Americans have suffered as a result of employers hiring immigrants in order to obtain cheap labor while satisfying minority hiring requirements. Some studies have demonstrated that the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women, Hispanics, and Asians—not African Americans, who were the primary target group of affirmative action programs. Also, by extending favored treatment to members of immigrant groups who have not suffered fromthe American legacy of slavery and discrimination, affirmative action itself has lost some of its philosophical coherence. This has led many to conclude that the original intent of affirmative action—compensation for the consequences of slavery and discrimination—has been undermined by mass immigration. Early twentyfirst century recommendations have included excluding immigrants from the benefits of affirmative action under the logic that those who have only recently entered the United States have no claim to preferential treatment to make up for past wrongs. Critics of such recommendations respond that the purpose of affirmative action was not merely to compensate for past wrongs but also to give equal opportunities to those who still suffer discrimination, which would include many immigrants because of their race or ethnicity.

Immigrant Views on Affirmative Action


“Hard” affirmative action has never had strong public support, but “soft” affirmative action has. The vast majority of Americans, immigrants included, have supported equality of opportunity but have been opposed to preferential treatment for members of racial and ethnic groups. For example, polls have shown that more than 70 percent of Hispanics dislike racial preferences. Throughout the United States, anti-affirmative action ballot measures have been passed in individual states. Studies have shown that opposition to affirmative action is grounded largely in its inconsistency with the twin national values of individualism and merit. Members of numerous immigrant groups have pointed out that immigrants come to the United States looking for economic opportunity, not preferential treatment. As such, immigrants and immigrant families are largely ambivalent about affirmative action.
Richard A. Glenn

Further Reading
Graham, Hugh Davis. Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Explores how affirmative action and immigration policy came into conflict when employers, acting under affirmative action plans, hired new immigrants while leaving high unemployment among inner-city African Americans. Details how affirmative action for immigrants has stirred wide resentment.
Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2006. Surveys the historical developments and impacts of affirmative action policy and procedures.
Robb, James S. “Affirmative Action for Immigrants: The Entitlement Nobody Wanted.” The Social Contract 6, no. 2 (Winter, 1995). Argues that immigrants are taking advantage of affirmative action programs that were originally created to benefit disadvantaged native-born minorities and supports ending all preferences for immigrants.
Skrentny, John D. The Minority Rights Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004. Shows how Hispanics, Asians, and other groups of immigrants changed the face of American politics.
_______, ed. Color Lines: Affirmative Action, Immigration, and Civil Rights Options for America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Examines the role of affirmative action and civil rights in the light of shifts in America’s minority populations.
See also: African Americans and immigrants; Civil Rights movement; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Employment; Immigrant advantage; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

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