Although the term “affirmative action” can be used in a variety of contexts, the most popular definition currently is within the arena of civil rights. There, affirmative action has been held to provide a special boost to qualified minorities, women, and disabled individuals in order to make up either for past discrimination or for their under representation in a specific area of the work force or academia. Though these categories of individuals have historically benefited most, affirmative action programs can also apply to other areas of discrimination, such as age, nationality, and religion.
Affirmative action can be administered in several ways. One way is through “quotas,” defined as a strict requirement for a proportion or share of jobs, funding, or other placement to go to a specific group, e.g., 50 percent of all new hires must be women. Another is “goals,” which require agencies and institutions to exert a good-faith effort toward reaching the assigned proportion or share goal but do not require that the proportion be reached. Affirmative action can also take the form of intangible “boosts” for the respective beneficiaries of the pro-gram; for example, all men shorter than 5283 will be given ten extra points on the physical fitness exam.
The reasons for affirmative action are myriad and tend to overlap, but generally two justifications have stood out. One is that the group has been discriminated against in the past, for example black Americans, and needs affirmative action in order to “catch up” to the majority that has not suffered discrimination. The other is that the group is under represented in whatever area is being scrutinized, say women in construction jobs, and needs to be helped to achieve some sort of representation in the area. Even in this situation, however, there is the tacit admission that discrimination might be the underlying cause of the under representation.