10 Reasons Affirmative Action Still Matters Today

10 Reasons the U.S. still Needs Affirmative Action

Affirmative action dates back to the 1960s when President Kennedy signed an executive order requiring all those who contracted with the US Government to take steps to make sure that all employees (and those seeking employment with the contractor) be treated without discrimination due to race, creed, color or national origin.  The requirements were later amended to prevent discrimination on the grounds of sex.

Despite many protestations to the contrary, America is still a class, gender and race based society where it is easier to get ahead if you are white, male and middle class.  In a country where your name matters (studies have shown that people with ‘black’ names find it harder to get a job interview than those with ‘white’ names)  and where women are still in the minority in the senior ranks of the professions, affirmative action is sadly still a necessity.

Affirmative action is, perhaps, most controversial when it comes to the question of quotas.  Whether in employment or access to college why should someone with a higher score be overlooked in favor of someone who has not done quite as well?  At first glance it does seem unfair but what affirmative action has done is level the playing field.  It makes sure that people who have potential but whose life circumstances have meant they have been unable to realize it still have access to all the opportunities they deserve.

So, here are our top 10 reasons why affirmative action is as relevant and necessary today as it was when it was first proposed in 1961.

10. Affirmative action helps make sure that the diversity of the American society is reflected across the board

Affirmative Action Ensures Diversity Across the Board
Affirmative Action Ensures Diversity Across the Board

America as a nation is growing ever more diverse.  Non-Hispanic whites are projected to be in the minority of the US population by 2050.  Minority groups are more fertile with white births accounting for only just over 8% of American population growth from 2000-10.  Allied to this change is the fact that interracial marriages have become more common with 29% of whites who have a family member married to someone of a different race.  These changes mean that there will inevitably be more mixed race and minority children.

These children will grow up to be the adults who drive the social and economic productivity of the United States.  If we limit the very best of opportunities in education we will have a limited pool of intelligent and able white middle class students to become our doctors, engineers, bankers, entrepreneurs and military leaders.  It would seem far better to enable affirmative action now so that the US has a wide range of candidates with the potential to excel in these positions when the time comes.

While affirmative action will have the benefit of ensuring that there is a diverse range of candidates to fill the necessary future positions of influence it will also ensure that these positions are filled with people who understand the complex needs of a culturally diverse society.  People who have struggled to be accepted will be best placed to eliminate the cultural and societal barriers that they had to overcome.  Once that happens and our diverse population is truly able to access all opportunities affirmative action will have fulfilled its goal and will no longer be needed.

9. Affirmative action will be needed as long as there is an education gap

Affirmative Action will be necessary as long as an US education gap exists
Affirmative Action will be necessary as long as an US education gap exists

America is becoming an increasingly educated country.  At the time of the Second World War less than 5% of Americans had a college degree, now almost 30% do. This is a fantastic increase, not only for the individuals concerned who already reap the benefits of higher pay and better employment opportunities but also for the nation – we all benefit from being better educated.  These increased rates of education are not reflected across society, however.  While almost 30% of Americans have a college degree only 17% of black Americans and 13% of Hispanic Americans have the same level of education.

This gap in educational attainment has negative impacts on society and the quality of the US workforce.  It also, sadly, becomes self-perpetuating as minority families start to believe that higher education is not a suitable aspiration for their children.  Affirmative action is the only way to eliminate that gap and ensure that Americans of all races have the ability to achieve their maximum potential.

8. Affirmative action helps make sure that people are qualified for the work they need to do

Affirmative Action Ensures Qualified people get the job. What one man can do another man can do.
Affirmative Action Ensures Qualified people get the job. What one man can do another man can do.

As the previous two points made clear American society is becoming ever more diverse and by 2050 more than 50% of the population will be non-white.

Over recent decades America has reaped the benefits of having a more educated workforce.  The more educated the general population the more competitive the national economy.  This leads to, in general, increased wages and therefore an increase in tax revenue.  It also promotes better health and an increase in educational aspiration for younger generations.  At the same time the number of people doing drugs or in jail decreases and families tend to be less reliant on social security.  Education benefits everyone!

If, however, the education gap is allowed to continue to exist the inequalities in opportunities available to those people from minorities will only increase.  The concomitant effect will be that there will not be enough people from the privileged classes with the aptitude to complete the education necessary to fill those positions for which a college degree is a requirement.  It is therefore in the interests of our society at large to promote affirmative action to ensure that enough members of our society have the level of education we need them to have to continue to allow America to prosper and be competitive on the world stage.

7. Diversity gives rise to innovation

The diversity arising from affirmative action will spur innovation
The diversity arising from affirmative action will spur innovation

When Forbes Insights undertook a survey on diversity in business 85% of all respondents agreed that diversity in the workforce is a key driver of innovation in business because it brings a range of skills and perspectives to the table that interact in a way that promotes alternative thinking which leads to fresh ideas.  The most successful enterprises believe that it is necessary to build in diversity from the ground up.  In companies where everyone approaches a problem from the same cultural and intellectual standpoint it can be harder for the team to come up with truly unique and effective solutions.  Analysis of companies that actively promote diversity shows that they benefit from increased freedom of thought within their teams coupled with and assisted by a greater cross-pollination of ideas and an improvement in corporate cultural intelligence. This only works, however, if the organization in question creates a working environment where new ideas are nurtured and workers are encouraged to discuss them openly.

Research in Denmark looked for correlations between the diversity of firms and their patent activity.  They found that firms with a diverse workforce were more likely to apply for patents and worked in a broader range of fields.

Affirmative action ensures that there are enough people from minorities with the qualifications to enable them to make a meaningful contribution to these companies and drive the success of their employers and the American economy.

6. Diversity makes good financial sense

Affirmative Action will make it rain
Affirmative Action will make it rain

Simply put companies that look like their consumer base do better.  As America changes companies need to change too.

When the Supreme Court considered the question of affirmative action in Grutter v Bollinger more than 60 Fortune 500 companies wrote to the Court in Support of affirmative action.  They said “It is essential that they [students] be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse people, ideas, perspectives… the increasing diversity in the American population demands the cross-cultural experience and understanding gained from such an education.’

This statement reflects the common knowledge that diversity is good for the bottom line.  Generally speaking the more diverse a company is the more profitable it is likely to be.  A review of the Standard and Poors 500 showed that companies that put diversity and equal employment high on their agenda and performed well in regard to employment opportunities for women and minorities had a stock market performance 2.5 times better than those of the ones who did not see the promotion of diversity as a priority.  Even more starkly, a 2012 report showed that there was a 95% higher return on equity for public companies with a diverse executive board when compared to those without.

Increasing diversity has also been shown to make it easier to recruit ‘top talent’ and encourages successful employees to stay with the company leading to a loyal, productive and innovative workforce.  Companies with a diverse workforce and a diverse supply chain are better able to reflect their consumer demographic and create and market products that are appropriate to a more diverse society.

5. Diversity makes our nation more secure

Diversity is a matter of national security
Diversity is a matter of national security

In an increasingly diverse society it is easy for minority groups to feel victimized and oppressed.  Where poor minorities are corralled into ghettos and isolated from the rest of society unrest ad criminality inevitably follow.  This leads to higher levels of policing and increases the chances of negative interactions between minority groups and the police.  Where police are used to seeing criminal behavior from some members of a minority group they will start to look for it in other members of the same group and this will in turn result in an increase in ‘stop and frisk’ incidents between police and minorities.  Non-criminal minority members will start to feel victimized and a vicious circle starts to establish itself with minorities becoming increasingly distrustful of law enforcement and vice-versa.  In the worst case scenario this can lead to events like the recent Ferguson Riots.  The only way to address this is to allow minority groups to reclaim their relationship with the police.

Law enforcement agencies acknowledge that having a diverse set of employees that mirrors the community they serve can only be a benefit to them.  By 2003 over 23% of all law enforcement officers were from minorities, a significant increase from 14% in 1987.  The public tend to have more faith in and more positive experiences with the police when the officers of the force are dawn from a more diverse pool of applicants as a diverse force is acknowledged to be more sensitive to the cultures and traditions of minority ethnic groups.  Diversity helps police departments to become more responsive to community needs and allows them to undertake specific initiatives such as, for example, the use of liaison officers with specific communities.  Where diverse law enforcement agencies are able to put such practices and relationships to good use tensions decline and minority relationships with the police improve leading to a more law abiding, fair society.

Diversity is important not just nationally but internationally as well.  In recent years we have seen the threat to American borders change from an identified enemy (the Soviet Union) to an amorphous threat from terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and rogue states such as North Korea.  America is home to many minority groups and almost all of their members are patriotic Americans.  It is important, however, that minorities see that they have a valued part to play in the American dream to ensure that they remain invested in our nation.  An example from history is the work of the Manhattan Project.  The US was able to lead the world and develop the Bomb before any other nation in part because of the efforts of immigrant scientists escaping the ethnic tyranny of the Nazi regime.

The US military support affirmative action as necessary for national security.  They believe that a diverse officer corps trained to command diverse enlisted men is an essential requirement of the modern military.  To move away from this would be to move back towards the racial tensions seen in the days of Vietnam where white officers commanded ethnically diverse men.  The military state that it is impossible to ‘maintain the diversity it has achieved or make further progress unless it retains its ability to recruit and educate a diverse officer corps…there is no race-neutral alternative’

4. Diversity in college benefits all students

College kids love diversity. Varity is the spice of life, right.
College kids love diversity. Varity is the spice of life, right.

Studies have shown that affirmative action leading to greater diversity within colleges improves the outcomes and the college experiences of all students and also improves the quality of the teaching they receive.  Less than 10% of faculty members thought that the quality of students had declined as a result of affirmative action while more than 80% thought it had had no impact on quality of students or the teaching institution at all.  Less than 3% thought that diversity impeded discussion of substantive issues at college or gave rise to tension.  More than 2/3 of the respondents thought that all students benefited from a diverse environment by being exposed to different perspectives and examining their own thoughts and beliefs.

Faculty do not lower their standards or expectations for affirmative action students, indeed lecturers report that they would find it very difficult to teach some subjects (constitutional law, for example) in the absence of a diverse student body to encourage discussion, understanding and debate.  Exposure to such a range of different viewpoints and the inculcation of an ability and desire to challenge pre-conceived beliefs in the safe environment of a college can help to prepare students of all ethnic origins but perhaps particularly the white majority to operate comfortably and effectively in the multi-ethnic world.

3. ‘Neutral’ policies just don’t work

Reducing access to opportunity in some states like California has already had detrimental impacts which will last generations
Reducing access to opportunity in some states like California has already had detrimental impacts which will last generations

Looking at examples of states where affirmative action is not in place we can see what would happen if it were to end.  In 1996 California passed a motion that prohibits preferential treatment on the grounds of race – effectively ending affirmative action in the state.  Since that time the number of students from minority ethnic groups attending university has dropped in percentage terms from 81% of applicants in 1995 to 64% in 2011.  In UCLA the number of black students has fallen by 52% and Hispanic students by 43%.

Universities in California use other policies to try to increase diversity within their schools such as working on outreach to low income communities but they are not as efficient.  Class based admissions systems in California led to a 70% decrease in the number of Black and American Indian students enrolling in the School of Law.  Because neutral policies are applied to a non-neutral society where race is still important they are inherently unequal.  Minority applicants simply cannot compete on the same playing field as non-minorities.

2. Stopping affirmative action will cause problems in the long run

Getting rid of affirmative action will have dire future consequences
Getting rid of affirmative action will have dire future consequences

Considering all the benefits of affirmative action outlined in this article it is vital that this process be continued for the foreseeable future.  The past decades have brought huge advantages in terms of increasing diversity in the workplace, in university, in the military and in law enforcement.  As our nation becomes ever more diverse it is vital to continue to ensure not only that representatives of minority communities are able to function at all levels and in all positions within society but that non-minority community members are able to relate to them.  Failure to ensure this will only lead to an increasing stratification of American society and an increase in racial tensions.

America is not alone in promoting affirmative action.  The European Union, India, Brazil and Malaysia have acknowledged the need to ensure that there is a fair representation of society throughout their institutions and have legislated for it.  It would be perverse for the United States, having been a leader in affirmative action, to move away from this effective and necessary policy just as other countries around the world start to see the benefits.

1. Most Americans support affirmative action

Most American overwhelmingly approve of affirmative action
Most American overwhelmingly approve of affirmative action

Affirmative action is a popular policy with the support of the majority of the American public.  The ACLA claim that reviews in 2007 showed that support for affirmative action has broadly increased from a figure of 58% of the population in 1995 (in itself a substantial figure) to a huge 70% of all Americans by 2007.  This support is present even in minority groups, such as Asian Americans, who are typically perceived as gaining very little benefit from affirmative action programs.

While support for affirmative action has decreased in recent years it still runs at very high levels.  The support is also fairly broadly spread amongst different interest groups although, understandably, there is a greater degree of support for affirmative action in minority communities.  In 2014 a review by Pew found that only 30% of respondents felt that affirmative action was a negative program for society.  84% of black respondents and 80% of Hispanic respondents were in favor of affirmative action and a majority (5%) of white respondents also indicated that they had a favorable view of the policy.  While affirmative action has more support amongst Democrats than Republicans it is still favored by a large minority (43%) of Republicans.


America is a diverse nation and becoming more so every year. By 2050 there will be no ethnic minority in the United States.  Reflecting that diversity in our institutions of government, law enforcement, the military, business and education results in increased results and improved performance.  Most decent Americans abhor racial, gender or sexual discrimination and would agree that it has no place in modern society.  However, most members of the elite classes simply cannot comprehend or understand the nature of the insidious discrimination many of their compatriots deal with on a daily basis such as stop and frisk based solely on the color of their skin.

America is, sadly, still an unequal society.  Women may be allowed to work but their pay lags behind men doing the same work with the same qualifications by an average of 78%.  Black men and women may no longer be segregated from the rest of society but they are still treated very differently in the workplace with 16.1% of all black Americans being unemployed compared with 8.7% of whites and 12.4% of Hispanics.  More than 60 years after the Civil Rights Act came into force discrimination still exists, albeit in a much more subtle way.

In Grutter v Bollinger the Supreme Court noted that it hoped it would no longer be necessary by 2028; that is also our fond hope but, for the moment affirmative action still has its role to play to shape America’s future.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments below!

For another take on affirmative action read List Land’s Top 10 Reasons Affirmative Action Should Be Eliminated