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Affirmative Action - Historic Prejudices

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Although affirmative action programs and civil rights legislation both share a common history and address the question of how to end societal discrimination, they provide quite different approaches on how to accomplish that objective. Civil rights legislation forbids individuals or institutions, such as employers or university admissions offices, from considering factors such as color or gender in decision-making processes. Many affirmative action programs, however, do just the opposite. These programs require that color and gender be taken into account when making decisions about who will be hired or admitted to a school and that preference be given to people of color and or women.

There are no affirmative action laws, per se. Most affirmative action mandates are a result of a series of presidential executive orders and government programs. Affirmative action initiatives were not intended to be permanent measures; rather, they were designed to be temporary actions. The goal of affirmative action is to help support the economic development of minorities and women, who have historically suffered prejudice in employment and educational opportunities in the United States. For affirmative action purposes, it is assumed that these groups are at a disadvantage in our society and need programs to give them a level playing field. The most visible affirmative programs, and the most controversial, are those that involve affirmative preference, such as government set-asides. Set-aside programs have a stated goal that five percent of all government contracts should be awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses. In order to achieve this, it becomes necessary to take race and gender into consideration when making a contract award.

While preference programs have received a great deal of public scrutiny they are not the only affirmative action initiatives. Other measures include affirmative recruitment and affirmative fairness. Affirmative recruitment occurs when an employer or educational institution takes proactive steps to encourage women and minorities to apply for jobs or school admissions. An example of affirmative recruitment is when a corporation participates in a job fair that is targeted to minorities. While the goal of affirmative recruitment is to make women and minorities aware of opportunities, it does not guarantee that they will be hired by a company or gain admission to a school.

Affirmative fairness assesses the capability of a candidate for a job or promotion or school admissions on an individual basis. The purpose of affirmative fairness is to make the selection process a fair one for minorities and women. For instance, even though an applicant lacks the usual university admission requirements, that does not mean that the person might not have the ability to be a successful student. If that is the case, the admissions office would take into account other factors, such as obstacles this person had to overcome in order to graduate from high school, that would indicate a potential to do well in college. With affirmative fairness, standard measures, such as test scores, would be only one element to determine a candidate's merit. Unfortunately, because affirmative fairness requires weighing many subjective factors, it often is quite impractical to use when qualified applicants far outnumber the available spaces.

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