National NOW Times >> August 1995 >> Article
The Origins of Affirmative Action
by Marquita Sykes
Affirmative action, the set of
public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate past and present
discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,
is under attack.
Originally, civil rights programs were enacted to help African Americans
become full citizens of the United States. The Thirteenth
Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal; the Fourteenth
Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law; the Fifteenth
Amendment forbids racial discrimination in access to voting. The 1866
Civil Rights Act guarantees every citizen "the same right to make and enforce
contracts ... as is enjoyed by white citizens ... "
In 1896, the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy
v. Ferguson upheld a "separate, but equal" doctrine that proved
to be anything but equal for African Americans. The decision marked the
end of the post-Civil War reconstruction era as Jim Crow laws spread across
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which
outlawed segregationist hiring policies by defense-related industries which
held federal contracts. Roosevelt's signing of this order was a direct
result of efforts by Black trade union leader, A. Philip Randolph.
During 1953 President Harry S. Truman's Committee on Government Contract
Compliance urged the Bureau of Employment Security "to act positively and
affirmatively to implement the policy of nondiscrimination . . . ."
The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown
v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
The actual phrase "affirmative action" was first used in President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Executive Order 10925 which requires federal contractors 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." The same language was later used in Lyndon
Johnson's 1965 Executive Order 11246.
- In 1967, Johnson expanded the Executive Order to include affirmative action
requirements to benefit women.
Other equal protection laws passed to make discrimination illegal were
the 1964 Civil
Rights Act, Title II and VII of which forbid racial discrimination
in "public accommodations" and race and sex discrimination in employment,
respectively; and the 1965
Voting Rights Act adopted after Congress found "that racial discrimination
in voting was an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated
in certain parts of the country through unremitting and ingenious defiance
of the Constitution."
Much of the opposition to affirmative action is framed on the grounds of
so-called "reverse discrimination and unwarranted preferences." In fact,
less than 2 percent of the 91,000 employment discrimination cases pending
before the Equal Employment Opportunities
are reverse discrimination cases. Under the law as written
in Executive Orders and interpreted by the courts, anyone benefiting from
affirmative action must have relevant and valid job or educational qualifications.
Support NOW with your purchase of print-to-order NOW products! Visit our store
Support NOW by shopping at Amazon.com!
Actions | Join - Donate | Chapters | Members | Issues | Privacy | RSS | Links | Home
© 1995-2012 National Organization for Women, All Rights Reserved. Permission granted for non-commercial use.