History of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has its origins in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movement brought a dramatic change to U.S. social life through protests, court decisions, and legislative action, culminating in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, popularly known as Title VII.

But Title VII mentioned affirmative action in a positive sense only in the context of the American Indian. It allowed preferential treatment to be given “to individuals because they are Indians living on or near a reservation.” Otherwise, Title VII outlawed discrimination in a “color blind” fashion. The relevant part of Title VII states: “Nothing contained in this [law] shall be interpreted to require any employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee subject to this [law] to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of such individual or group on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin employed … in comparison with the total number or percentage of persons of such race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in any community, State, section, or other area, or in the available work force in any community, State, section, or other area.”

This part of Title VII was passed to assuage the concerns of moderate members of Congress that the Civil Rights Act would become a quota bill, requiring reverse discrimination against whites. Civil rights leaders, who for the most part felt distinctly ambivalent about affirmative action, did not object to the inclusion of this passage. Many saw affirmative action as a way of dividing working class whites from blacks and the civil rights movement from its natural allies in the labor movement.

But the riots of the mid and late-1960s convinced more and more civil rights leaders that a color-blind policy of enforcing civil rights was not enough and that there had to be steps taken to ensure blacks could complete equally with whites. President Lyndon Johnson endorsed this view in a speech before Howard University in 1965 in which he stated: “You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line and say you are free to compete with all the others.”

That same year, Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, requiring firms under contract with the federal government not to discriminate, and to “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.” Although not specifying what would constitute affirmative action and not applying to any firms outside the federal government, this order is considered the first attempt at positive affirmative action by a governmental entity. The order also created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) to enforce this policy.

Because the term, affirmative action, was left intentionally vague by the executive order, however, the OFCC was unsure how to enforce it. The OFCC formulated plans in several cities, such as Cleveland and Philadelphia, to facilitate the hiring of minorities for federal government work, but for various reasons these plans were determined to be illegal or never seriously enforced. Johnson left office without any definite affirmative action plan put forth on his watch.

It was left to the Nixon administration, ironically considered an administration not particularly friendly to civil rights interests, to pick up the issue and promote the first serious affirmative action plan that required government-determined, numerically specific percentages of minorities to be hired.

In 1969, the Nixon administration picked up a plan that the Johnson administration had put forth for the construction industry in the city of Philadelphia, referred to as the Philadelphia Plan. The Johnson administration plan was faulted for not having definite minimum standards for the required affirma-tive action programs. The Nixon plan did issue minimum standards—specific targets for minority employees in several trades. It did not require these minimum standards be met, simply that contractors submitting bids make a “good faith” effort to achieve these targets. This allowed the administration to argue it was not setting quotas, though critics of the plan suggested the administration was in fact doing so.

The Philadelphia Plan survived several challenges, both legal and Congressional, before being accepted as legitimate. The Plan set the tone for affirmative actions plans that followed. Soon, the standards put forth in the Philadelphia Plan were incorporated into Executive Order 11246 which affected all federal government contractors, who were required for the first time to put forth written affirmative action plans with numerical targets.

After the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan, legislation was passed at the federal, state, and municipal level implementing affirmative action plans using the Philadelphia Plan as a model. Today, almost all government affirmative action plans are offshoots of the Philadelphia Plan. Its mixture of numerical targets and requirements of “good faith” effort was a milestone in the history of affirmative action.


Inside History of Affirmative Action