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Affirmative action (or AA) refers to policies that favor members of disadvantaged groups in an attempt to make up for historic or continuing oppression, particularly racism and sexism, and for other circumstances which cause(d) such groups to be disadvantaged, such as disabilities. A more neutral term for it might be minority- or underclass-preferential selection/hiring. These policies are very prevalent in the United States, due to its history of slavery and difficulty in getting over it.
In its crudest forms, affirmative action would mean giving some sort of preference to a person from a historically-oppressed group over that of someone from a historically-advantaged group, all other things being equal. Universities giving additional "points" on admissions scales to individuals from under-represented groups or employers actively recruiting people from those groups are examples of this approach. Another very crude form would be the outright quota. While not seen (and indeed legally and politically taboo) in the US, such tactics are occasionally seen elsewhere, as with India's reservation system, though it should be noted that caste and race aren't exactly synonymous.
Affirmative action was welcomed by many progressive thinkers and activists as an effective way to enable black people or women to compete with white males on an even footing, due to the inability of blacks and women to get jobs or educational opportunities solely open to white males.
However, opponents of the concept see it as a form of reverse bias against whites, males, and white males. Some opponents argued that a "hand up" should only be given on the basis of social class (to help people from poor neighborhoods, for instance), rather than race or gender, and that only material assistance, rather than quotas or the like, should be used (due to the fact that not all minorities or women are poor or without advantage, and not all white males are rich or even middle class). Nonetheless, the outcome has not been positive in states that have banned affirmative action policies.
Straw man criticism
A good deal of opposition to affirmative action is based on the misconception that it imposes hard quotas that require employers to hire unqualified minorities. As in, affirmative action requires candidates from a majority group to be passed over in favour of any and all minorities. This is false and the Supreme Court has ruled against any policies doing so. Employers simply need only to make a good faith attempt to hire qualified minorities, by, for example, choosing the minority candidate as a tie-breaker decision or at the very least not being a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic bigot in the hiring process (so in principle not that difficult). It's worked out pretty well in the NFL, as the Pittsburgh Steelers would no doubt attest. Affirmative action laws vary widely by state and many of the programs are enforced voluntarily. Obviously bad hires related to affirmative action can happen, as the Jayson Blair fiasco arguably attests, but to generalize such cases to attack the concept as a whole is a classic use of the spotlight fallacy.
Black Asian Best Friend
Often trotted out are Asians being affected negatively by affirmative action, because they are model minorities (in spite of the oppression and animosity they faced historically) and thus selected against by affirmative action. However, it is debatable if this is or isn't true.
Some argue that the legal doctrine of adverse impact, sometimes called disparate impact, is used to impose hiring quotas. In reality, adverse impact is only relevant when an organization's hiring standards can not be proven to have any practical purpose other than to discriminate.
- "positive discrimination". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/positive-discrimination?q=positive+discrimination. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
- "affirmative action". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/affirmative-action?q=affirmative+action. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
- "Executive Order 11246—Equal employment opportunity". The Federal Register. Archived from the original on 30 March 2010. http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/11246.html.
- "Affirmative Action". Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/affirmative-action/.
- Most notably, Michigan, at their State University undergraduate level.
- Ira Katznelson. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. W.W. Norton, 2005.
- Overview of some AA laws.
- Casey Quinlan (December 9, 2015). "7 Criticisms Of Affirmative Action That Have Been Thoroughly Disproved".
- The model minority is losing patience. (October 3, 2015). The Economist. Retrieved June 21, 2016.