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Affirmative action

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S087-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘affirmative action’ originated in the USA under President Kennedy. Originally it was designed to ensure that employees and applicants for jobs with government contractors did not suffer discrimination. Within a year, however, ‘affirmative action’ was used to refer to policies aimed at compensating African-Americans for unjust racial discrimination, and at improving their opportunities to gain employment. An important implication of this shift was that affirmative action came to mean preferential treatment.

Preferential treatment was later extended to include women as well as other disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups. The arguments in favour of preferential treatment can be usefully classified as backward-looking and forward-looking. Backward-looking arguments rely on the claim that preferential treatment of women and disadvantaged racial minorities compensates these groups or the members for the discrimination and injustices they have suffered. Forward-looking arguments rely on their claim that preferential treatment of women and disadvantaged racial minorities will help to bring about a better society.

There has been much criticism of both types of argument. The most common accusation is that preferential treatment is reverse discrimination. Other criticisms are based around who exactly should be compensated, by what means and to what extent, and at whose cost. Finally, there is the fear of the unknown consequences of such action. Arguments have been forwarded to try and solve such difficulties, but the future of preferential treatment seems to lie in a combination of the two arguments.

Citing this article:
Boxill, Bernard R.. Affirmative action, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S087-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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