There is a lot of confusion out there about the difference between equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. Both apply to the workplace, protecting individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, veteran status, etc. But affirmative action requirements apply only to a subset of the employers in the U.S., those that do a significant amount of business with the federal government (i.e those that provide contracted services or supplies to a federal agency or branch of the federal government), banks, and some universities. In contrast, the equal employment opportunity laws apply to nearly every employer.
Affirmative Action came into being in 1961 in the Kennedy administration, “as a method of redressing discrimination that had persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees” (see A History and Timeline of Affirmative Action by Borgna Brunner and Beth Rowen, 2009). It was brought into law as an Executive Order, which only applies to contractors doing business with the federal government. In other words, in order to do business with the federal government, you must meet the additional requirements of the Executive Order.
An Affirmative Action program requires that covered employers take action to not only eliminate discriminatory acts but to take steps to eliminate barriers that impact the hire or promotion of individuals based on their race, gender, veteran status and disability.
Much of the publicized dispute between supporters and opponents of affirmative action has involved university admissions processes, where minority candidates were granted admission in place of white candidates who scored better in the admissions criteria, in order to reverse the effects of prior discrimination in the admissions process. There also has been a fair amount of publicity surrounding affirmative action efforts in the hiring of police officers, firefighters and other public safety workers.
Opponents of affirmative action generally believe that there is no longer a need for it, that the equal employment opportunity laws are sufficient and that preferences are not needed. Proponents believe that it is still needed to reverse the effects of past discrimination and that it is not about giving preference, it is about “leveling the playing field”.
Assuming that we as a nation advance forward rather than backward in recognizing that we are all entitled to be treated with respect and without prejudice, the continued existence of Affirmative Action will no longer be required. Until then, it is worth pondering the length of time it is taking (57 years and counting) to address the persistence of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.