Affirmative Action Policies

Affirmative action is a term applied to policies designed to redress inequalities created by historical legacies of racial, ethnic, and other types of group discrimination and disadvantage. Such policies have also been called affirmative discrimination, usually by those opposed to such measures, or positive discrimination, by proponents  of these  strategies. Like  most social action aimed at redistributing resources and opportunities between groups, affirmative action is generally a controversial set of procedures and can lead to violent protests and opposition. The scope of affirmative action can be applied to a variety of different social institutions, but access to (higher) education, employment opportunities, and political quotas are the major arenas where affirmative action  has  been  used. Differential  group access to educational or employment positions is nothing new as powerful groups in most societies have  tended  to  monopolize life chances, even when the society claims to be based on egalitarian principles. What makes affirmative action so prone to conflict is that it represents an attempt to mitigate or reverse such inequalities for the sake of disadvantaged and generally less powerful groups.

In modern times, affirmative action policies were introduced in India, under British colonial rule, to compensate for the exclusion of lower caste and  dalit  (outcaste) groups in employment and educational institutions in the 1890s. India has by far the longest experience of such measures in recent times and provides  interesting  illustrations  of  the strengths and weaknesses of these measures. Similar procedures were developed in the United States in the 1970s as a reaction to the perceived inadequacies of the Civil Rights legislation of the mid 1960s. Malaysia adopted affirmative action in the wake of the bloody ethnic riots between Malays and Chinese in 1969; Sri Lanka used the strategy during the Sinhalese–Tamil tensions following independence; and South Africa has employed the same approach to rectify some of the gross inequalities between whites and Africans after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

The main advocates of affirmative action argue that it is a necessary political initiative when group-blind policies fail to produce significant results in rectifying past inequalities. Even when formal measures have been passed to enshrine equality in the constitution, and in major areas of economic and social life, it is rare that theoretical equality can be rapidly transformed into a genuinely egalitarian society. This is because equality of opportunity is unlikely to lead to equality of outcomes – however approximately defined – after long periods of group domination, segregation, and discrimination. Large accumulations of human and social capital, wealth, knowledge, and influence may take generations to overcome. Situations of tense intergroup conflict, and delicate political and military balances of power, may lead to urgent calls for rapid and demonstrable changes in group resources, and affirmative action is often presented as a necessary, if not sufficient, strategy to bring about some tangible evidence of the success of such social engineering within a reasonable length of time.

The key debates are centered on a series of questions about whether affirmative action leads to effective results; helps to diminish, or actually enhances, group conflict; in practice merely substitutes one injustice for another; has unintended consequences that are more detrimental than the positive aspects of the policies; and raises complex questions of the morality of one generation paying the price for the sins of another. A number of comparative issues arise that appear to have relevance in most situations. Like other social policies, affirmative action has a mix of costs and benefits that are phased in a typical pattern: the former tend to be experinced immediately while the latter tend to be delivered at a much later date. This is particularly striking in cases, like the United States and India, where affirmative action is geared to redressing minority disadvantage rather than in societies where the beneficiaries are the disadvantaged majority, as in Malaysia or South Africa. In democratic political systems where the majority is prone to bear the ‘‘cost’’ of such policies, the electoral backlash against them, due to the timing problem, is a major obstacle.

Certain critics of affirmative action make the point that such policies tend to be cosmetic and do not address the fundamental problems generating inequality. Proposing targets or quotas in higher education or employment fails to rectify inequities in primary and secondary education, or in levels of technical skill and managerial expertise. Instead of fixing the basic problems, affirmative action policies divert attention away from them and also may place underqualified individuals in a position where they can fail to meet minimum performance standards or complete academic courses. This sets in motion a self fulfilling prophecy and feeds the stereo types of those opposed to greater assistance to the disadvantaged.

Affirmative action policies also raise potentially difficult moral questions concerning inter generational accountability, and individual as opposed to collective responsibility. While most accept the need to take some state action to compensate for past categorical discrimination, when specific individuals are confronted with situations where they lose out to those whom they perceive as ‘‘less qualified’’ members of other ethnic and racial groups there is a tendency to interpret this as ‘‘reverse racism.’’ Pointing to the historical record, to the current legacy of unequal opportunities, or to the dubious nature of many ‘‘objective’’ indices of merit (SAT scores, IQ tests, etc.) provides little comfort to the individuals on the losing end of these decisions. In political systems where such individuals are part of the democratic majority, this invites a considerable political backlash.

Another issue that is frequently raised by both supporters and opponents of affirmative action is the skewed social class impact of many types of preferential policies. It can be argued that this is not a critical matter in the early stages of redistributional strategies as some inclusion of formerly disadvantaged elites is an essential first step in reducing ethnic violence and conflict. Apart from integrating these groups into the mainstream of society, they can also act as vital role models – Du Bois’s ‘‘Talented Tenth’’ – to inspire hope and emulation. However, when an increasing economic chasm opens up between the newly affluent and a dangerously alienated underclass, the time has come to reassess the targeting of affirmative action policies to ensure a greater focus on economic, as much as ethnic and racial, justice. William J. Wilson’s concern for the ‘‘truly disadvantaged’’ in America, and the Indian Supreme Court’s rulings in the 1990s, reflected this realignment.

Opinions differ widely on whether affirmative action is the cause of or solution to ethnic and racial conflicts. The extent to which such conflicts are fostered by resource imbalances is also a matter of debate, but in many cases economic and social inequities are closely associated with such conflicts. Attempts to rectify these conditions are likely, as mentioned earlier, to stimulate immediate resistance, but in the longer term can help to reduce some of the causal factors underpinning racial and ethnic strife. Few would suggest that the degree of inequality is the only variable involved, just as few would maintain that affirmative action is the sole cause of racial and ethnic strife.

There  may be some indirect and often unintended  benefits,  valuable  side effects, from these policies. These include pressures to expand opportunities; increasing the pool of talent; improvements in efficiency; and the encouragement of positive political mobilization. In the Malay case, it has been argued that there has been an expansion of private education and eventually public education, as well as the beneficial exploitation of overseas educational opportunities. Such benefits can be seen as a result of the pressures created by the Malay Rights policies. On the other hand, critics maintain that attempts to radically alter economic management and ownership inevitably produces incentives for bribery and corruption. In order to meet ethnic targets, existing entrepreneurs appoint token directors and managers who simply add to costs and bring about little structural change. The so called ‘‘Ali Baba’’ corporations are a much cited example in which bumiputera (‘‘sons of the soil,’’ i.e., Malay) directors are appointed as the official owners of the business, but the actual organizations remain firmly in the hands of the Chinese or Indian minorities. While it is true that this often happens in the short run, it is necessary, however, to evaluate the longer term outcomes of such regulations. In South Africa, Anglo American and other major conglomerates struck deals with aspiring Nationalist (white Afrikaner) businessmen after 1948 which undoubtedly enhanced Afrikaner entrepreneurial success over the next few decades. After 1994, in the newly democratic society, a similar process developed with African entrepreneurs,  like the former ANC politician Cyril Ramaphosa, moving into multiple business ventures as a consequence of affirmative action for the African majority.

Another line of argument suggests that public policy can be more effective in bringing about greater ethnic equality by using non ethnic strategies. This is a parallel argument to the advocates of class based affirmative action, and stresses the beneficial outcomes of regional investment and location decisions that attack ethnic inequalities in a more indirect manner. Such an approach has the added advantage that it avoids the question of which groups should be eligible for preferential treatment. In the United States, opinions differ on whether affirmative action should be confined to African Americans and Native Americans, or whether Latinos, Asian Americans, and women should also be included. Moskos and Butler (1996), in their study of the American military, argue that blacks should be the only recipients of preferential policies; others disagree. The  legitimate scope of affirmative action is clearly an important and complex question in post apartheid South Africa, with the claims of groups like the mixed race Coloureds and the Indians, who were also discriminated  against under  apartheid,  but  not perhaps as severely as the African majority, subject to varying interpretations.

A particularly vital factor, as most of the comparative evidence suggests, is the wider economic context in which these policies are pursued. Other things being equal, the faster the rate of economic growth of the total economy, the less disruptive will be the process of resource redistribution that lies at the heart of the affirmative action strategy. Much of the success of the Malaysian case, which at the outset – in the wake of the 1969 race riots – was hardly promising, can be attributed to the sustained and rapid expansion of the economy. By 2004 the policy, which is usually seen as a temporary measure to bring about rapid social change, was on the verge of being abolished. A major criticism of affirmative action policies is that they are introduced as temporary measures and then, once started, are politically impossible to end. The Indian case offers examples where this is supported, the Malaysia experiment suggests the reverse.

The politics of affirmative action in the United States reflects the continuing American Dilemma. Developed as a response to the lack of results flowing from the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, preferential policies were seen as a means to achieve greater equality of outcomes among an increasingly diverse population. Like school busing, it has proved to be a controversial method toward the fulfillment of a generally approved social goal. Even if affirmative action goes the same way as busing, American society will still have to face the reality of the persistence of racial inequality.


  1. Adam, (2000) The Colour of Business: Managing Diversity in South Africa. P. Schlettwein, Switzerland.
  2. Bowen, & Bok, D. (1998) The Shape of the River: Long Term Consequences  of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Prince- ton University Press, Princeton.
  3. Glazer, (1975) Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy. Basic Books, New York.
  4. Moskos, & Butler, J. (1996) All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. Basic Books, New York.
  5. Sowell, T. (2004) Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. Yale University Press, New
  6. Stone, J. & Dennis, R. (Eds.) (2003) Race and Ethnicity: Comparative and Theoretical Approaches. Blackwell, Malden,
  7. Wilson, J. (1987) The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago University Press, Chicago.

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