Affirmative action remains one of the most hotly debated topics in civil rights. The term refers to a broad range of programs that are intended to correct for the past effects of discrimination through preferential recruitment and treatment, numerical goals, quotas, or set asides in employment. In contracting with a municipal or state agency, companies that are identified as minority or women business enterprises, so-called MBE/WBE, may be given a preference over a firm owned by a white male. Affirmative action traditionally goes beyond equality of opportunity, long the goal of the civil rights movement, and seeks equality of outcome.
In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled in a controversial 5-4 decision that setting aside a specific number of places in a medical school class for minorities violated both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment. It ordered that a white applicant initially denied admission be admitted so as to avoid reverse discrimination. The Court also stated that the state had an interest in promoting a diverse student body in its schools. The upshot of the Bakke decision was confusing; although obvious quotas were unconstitutional, recent Court cases have further restricted affirmative action policies, so that they may be used only to redress a past pattern of discrimination.
Challenges to affirmative action
There is little doubt that affirmative action policies have changed the face of the workplace and many of our public institutions. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the group that has been helped most by affirmative action is white women. In the 1990s, the courts struck down numerous state and federal programs that used race and gender to discriminate and have considered quotas only where there is a specific history of past discrimination. Public opinion polls show broad support for ending affirmative action. This is reflected in the 1996 ballot proposition in California known as the California Civil Rights Initiative. Although voters approved the initiative to end affirmative action programs in the state except those mandated by the federal government, the constitutionality of the measure was immediately challenged in federal court.