Advantages and Controversy of US "Affirmative Action" concerning African - Americans

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Affirmative Action: Dealing with Diversity

3 History of Affirmative Action Politics concerning African-Americans: From Civil Rights Movement to Civil Rights Act of 1964
3.1 Situation of African- Americans in the 1950s..
3.2 Legal foundations: The beginning of affirmative action under President Lyndon B. Johnson

4 Affirmative Action: essential policy for social inclusion or “reverse discrimination”?
4.1 Political arguments and Legal Aspects for implementing Affirmative Action.
4.2 The socio-economic argument for Affirmative Action.
4.3 4.3 Controversy: Affirmative Action as “reverse discrimination”?

5 Conclusion: The future of Affirmative Action

6 Bibliography
6.1 Primary Sources
6.2 Secondary Sources

1 Introduction

In the seminar “Immigration and Ethnicity in American History” we dealt with the US as an immigrant and multiethnic society. One of our topics was the life, history and culture of African-Americans. In this context we explored the history and development of black Americans, from slavery to the election of the first African-American president Barack Obama in 2008. However we did not focus on the black minority alone, but on race relations between whites and blacks in general.

In this term paper we will discuss US race relations under the aspect of “affirmative action”. Under the influence of the civil rights movement African-Americans and white liberals managed to achieve a breakthrough in civil rights legislation in the 1960s. This became the foundation of administrative measures that were intended to get minorities into business, civil service and colleges. These are called “affirmative action”. The policy, designed to achieve equal opportunities for blacks, is itself ambiguous as the law prohibits discrimination ad preferential treatment of any US citizen. We will discuss this dilemma. First we will define what affirmative action is, what its purpose is and to what extend it can lead to preferential treatment. Then we will take a look at the history of African-Americans since the end of slavery in the 19th century. This is inevitable if we want to understand the intentions and goals of the civil rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s. Chapter four will focus on the pros and cons of affirmative action. One the one hand we will explore philosophical, legal and social arguments for the advancement of blacks. On the other hand we will analyse legal criticism of affirmative action and the argument of “reverse discrimination”. Finally, the author will explain why the US still needs affirmative action and how it can be revised.

2 Affirmative Action: Dealing with Diversity

First we have to define what “affirmative action” (AA) means. Then we will explore where it is applied, how this kind of politics affects African-Americans and whether the concept itself comprises a controversy. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that affirmative action:

“[…] means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection -selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity - affirmative action generates intense controversy.”[1]

AA programmes at the workplace and at universities were designed for African-Americans and other minorities (Hispanics, women, disabled persons, gays and lesbians etc.) to gain access to jobs and colleges from which they had been excluded in the past. Therefore this policy is not only about getting jobs, which had been reserved exclusively for whites before, but about ending discrimination, diverse interests, social inclusion and participation in the sense of the US Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The US is a diverse society, not only regarding race. This should be reflected in all areas of public life. Nevertheless the concept itself is ambiguous and sometimes misunderstood. From the historical point of view laws and judgements concerning AA are the result of desegregation and the abolishment of discrimination of Black Americans. Later in the 1970s AA programmes helped to open up “white” economic branches and colleges for African-Americans. Therefore they contributed to diversity management in a multi-ethnic society. So affirmative action policy developed from the demand to end discrimination to a systematic promotion or even “positive discrimination” of Black Americans. This is defined by its critics as “reverse discrimination” or “preferential selection”. As the quotation above implies, AA can involve preferential selection. If this is the case, AA itself would become a measure of “reverse discrimination”, if employers prefer to hire a member of a minority group, regardless of his or her qualification. However people in favour of AA argue there is no preferential selection intended, but this concept facilitates access to certain areas of social life. We will discuss that in chapter four. If we want to explain the unjust situation of Blacks in the US, that motivated the civil rights movement and affirmative action politics, we have to take a closer look at African-American history.

3 History of Affirmative Action Politics concerning African-Americans: From Civil Rights Movement to Civil Rights Act of 1964

3.1 Situation of African- Americans in the 1950s

If we want to comprehend American segregation, as well as the social and legal situation of Afro-Americans in the 1950s, we have to explore the historical development of Black life in the USA since the abolition of slavery after the end of the Civil War. In 1865 the 13th amendment of the US constitution announced the abolition of slavery.[2]

On the one hand the “freedmen” were not longer a property of white people, but one the other hand they were not really “free”, but still remained members of an “inferior race” and “second class citizens”.[3] They did not have the same rights as whites. This meant they were denied civil rights like suffrage, equality before the law or a free choice of employment.

The 14th amendment granted all persons born or raised in the US full citizenship and equality before the law, which theoretically applied to all people in the US, regardless of gender, religion, or colour of skin etc. However the relationship of blacks and whites did not change immediately. One could not expect an “overnight” emancipation of blacks and a change of a society based on white hegemony and racism. The newly created rights for black people hardly became reality. In 1870 the 15th amendment granted suffrage for black men, but it was not until 1965 when the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated discrimination of Blacks in the South. The refusal to enforce rights for African-Americans was intensified in the South by the introduction of so called Black Codes. These were certain laws enacted to uphold the system of dependent Black labour, restricted opportunities and rights for African-Americans:

“In the Black Codes, lawmakers barred blacks from attending white schools, marrying whites, testifying in court, having a gun, or owning property. Southern states rewrote their constitutions to separate the races from birth to burial.”[4]

These measures of separation were called segregation. Until the 1960s the South was characterized by segregated public and social areas, like institutions and facilities for black and white people, from separate drinking fountains to segregated hospitals and schools.

This racial discrimination gained legal support from a Supreme Court decision in the case Plessy v. Ferguson 1896. The judgement permitted racial segregation in public facilities and became the legal basis for the separate but equal doctrine, which shaped the social structure and racism of the southern US. In the 1950s blacks still were widely regarded as second class citizens and segregation was still reality in the South. Although African-Americans fought in World War II for a free Europe, they were still denied civil rights at home. Situation changed with the beginning of civil rights movement after 1945 and the slow and voluntary desegregation of public areas in communities. Then the first judgements against segregated areas of public life were pronounced and this facilitated desegregation. The initial case was the Supreme Court judgement concerning Brown vs. Board of Education 1954. This provided the legal basis for desegregating the school system. Segregated schools should be abolished, because they were not equal and contradicted the 14th amendment to the Constitution, i. e. equal protection before the law for all citizens.[5] Every US citizen is entitled to receive equal educational opportunities. This was not granted in schools limited to blacks only, as their education was limited and the schools badly equipped. Furthermore the judges argued racial segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” and so the separate but equal doctrine had no place at schools.[6] In 1957 the first nine African-Americans who entered Little Rock high school in Arkansas became a kind of precedent for the judgement. On their first day at school they had to be protected against angry whites by soldiers of the National Guard.[7] Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the end of segregation, but blacks were still discriminated in other facilities and whole branches like business and university education. Another key event of resistance against legal injustice was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. This massive boycott of public transport in Montgomery city was triggered by Rosa Parks. Parks, an African-American woman, refused to give up her seat in the bus for a white person, as required by law.[8] The time had come not only to abolish discriminatory laws but to enact and actively enforce civil rights with and for African-Americans.

3.2 Legal foundations: The beginning of affirmative action under President Lyndon B. Johnson

By 1960 civil rights activism had became a social movement capable of challenging and pressuring the white majority. Its activists, if they were organized, were members of the traditional organization for Black interests the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or the Christian Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King.[9] It was about time to destroy the society of the Black Codes; it was a unique chance to overcome segregation. On the one hand there were the civil rights activists; their participants spoke for those who rejected the unfair regime of segregation, injustice, disfranchisement and oppression. They intended to trigger this transition, to challenge white supremacy and pressure government. Their methods included civil disobedience, freedom marches and new forms of non - violent protests like freedom rides and sit-ins. For example, in 1960 black students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina that only served whites. They refused to leave and the next day there were fifty students who sat at the counter to demonstrate against the irrational rule.[10] On the other hand there was a new government, formed in 1961, with John F. Kennedy as a liberal President at the head. The Black civil rights movement pinned its hopes on Kennedy, but the President shied away from introducing civil rights legislation with regards to the effects on the population, especially the white South.[11]

Instead he issued an executive order that prohibited racial discrimination for government contractors and fostered affirmative action. This governmental document demanded “colour-blind” employment and was issued by President Kennedy on March 6, 1961. Executive Order 10925 declared that persons who worked or intended to work for the administration or any of its contractors should not be discriminated against, because of certain characteristics like race, colour of skin, ethnical background or religious beliefs. “Affirmative action” should guarantee a policy of equal hiring as section 301 of the original text said:

“The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin […].”[12]


[1] “Affirmative Action”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Retrieved March 4th

2010 from:

[2] “Amendment XII, Abolition of Slavery“, in: The U.S. Constitution. And Fascinating

Facts About It, ed. by Terry L. Jordan, Naperville 7 2005, 49.

[3] Horst Dippel, Geschichte der USA, München 6 2003, 59.

[4] Bruce J. Dierenfield, The Civil Rights Movement, Harlow 2008, 10.

[5] “Brown v. Board of Education”, 347 US 17 May 1954, in: Bruce J. Dierenfield, The

Civil Rights Movement,140.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 37.

[8] Donaldson, Gary A. Donaldson, The Second Reconstruction, A History of the

Modern Civil Rights Movement, Malabar 2000, 85.

[9] Hugh Davis Graham, The Civil Rights Era, Origins and Development of National

Policy 1960- 1972, New York 1990, 103.

[10] Terry H. Anderson, The Pursuit of Fairness, A History of Affirmative Action, New

York, 2004, 57 f.

[11] Mark Stern, Calculating Visions. Kennedy, Johnson and

Civil Rights, New Brunswick 1992, 43, 63

[12] „Executive Order 10925, March 6, 1961“, in: Affirmative Action, A Documentary

History, ed. by Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, Westport 2001, 79 f.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Advantages and Controversy of US "Affirmative Action" concerning African - Americans
University of Kassel  (FB 05 - Geschichte Großbritanniens und Nordamerikas)
Hauptseminar: Immigration and Ethnicity in American History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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affirmative action, social inclusion, african - americans, reverse discrimination, civil rights act, equality doctrine, equal treatment, democratic society, participation, quotas
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Katharina Fischer (Author), 2010, Advantages and Controversy of US "Affirmative Action" concerning African - Americans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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