affirmative action

[ uh-fur-muh-tiv ak-shuhn ]
/ əˈfɜr mə tɪv ˈæk ʃən /
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the encouragement of increased representation of women and minority-group members, especially in employment.
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Origin of affirmative action

First recorded in 1960–65

OTHER WORDS FROM affirmative action

af·firm·a·tive-ac·tion, adjective

Words nearby affirmative action

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is a general term for a policy that encourages organizations to increase their representation of historically oppressed groups, such as racial minorities and women. Affirmative action is especially common in employment and education.

At one time, affirmative action was actually sometimes enforced through quotas. Organizations had to have a specific number of their members be from various groups. However, the Supreme Court declared this to be unconstitutional. Instead, many organizations use the phrase goals and timetables to refer to the number of applicants of disenfranchised groups they hope to recruit, admit, or hire. Legally, an organization does not have to actually meet their affirmative action goal but is supposed to use the goal to measure how effective it is at representing certain groups.

Affirmative action is, generally speaking, more strictly enforced by the federal government. This means that businesses that have contracts with the federal government or are funded by the federal government (such as college scholarship programs) could lose their funding or face other effects if they fail to meet their affirmative action goals. 

Private organizations, on the other hand, cannot be forced to implement affirmative action programs. Still, many schools and businesses voluntarily create their own programs or pursue what is known as “equal opportunity employment” to avoid violating discrimination laws.

Why is affirmative action important?

The first records of the phrase affirmative action come from around 1960. The phrase was used by President John F. Kennedy to show that the government affirmed (stated or asserted) its intention to take action against discrimination. This is still largely the intent behind many affirmative action programs today.

Affirmative action has been extremely controversial and polarizing throughout much of US history and remains so today. In the legal system, for example, courts have seen numerous affirmative action policies challenged, ruled unlawful, upheld, appealed, re-upheld, re-appealed, and so on. Supporters of affirmative action argue that these policies help fight against wider discrimination and improve organizations by encouraging diversity. Opponents argue that affirmative action is a form of positive discrimination and is often itself biased toward upper- and middle-class people.

Did you know … ?

Affirmative action policies are illegal in California, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Michigan, Florida, and New Hampshire. Affirmative action was also illegal in the state of Texas from 1996 until 2003.

What are real-life examples of affirmative action?

This video shows a news story on affirmative action and gives an example of why it is often considered to be controversial among Americans:

Affirmative action is a very divisive subject among Americans. Even mere mentions of affirmative action on social media often result in angry debate and arguing.


What other words are related to affirmative action?

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True or False?

Affirmative action encourages organizations to increase their representation of historically oppressed groups

How to use affirmative action in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for affirmative action

affirmative action

US a policy or programme designed to counter discrimination against minority groups and women in areas such as employment and educationBrit equivalent: positive discrimination
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for affirmative action

affirmative action

A term referring to various government policies that aim to increase the proportion of African-Americans, women, and other minorities in jobs and educational institutions historically dominated by white men. The policies usually require employers and institutions to set goals for hiring or admitting minorities.

notes for affirmative action

Affirmative action has been extremely controversial. Supporters maintain that it is the only way to overcome the effects of past discrimination and promote integration. Critics dismiss it as “reverse discrimination,” denying opportunities to qualified whites and men. (See Bakke decision).
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.