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Affirmative action: lesson overview

A high-level overview of how the Court has interpreted affirmative action policies.  
In the 1960s, the executive branch began calling for the use of affirmative action in hiring practices and admission processes to help create equal opportunities for members of disadvantaged groups.
Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled on several cases relating to the constitutionality of affirmative action. These decisions highlight the debate between justices about the constitutionality of racial classifications to help minorities. At times, the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action practices, while at other times it has struck them down.

Key terms

affirmative actionEfforts to improve opportunities for underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, especially in relation to employment or education.
the “colorblind” ConstitutionThe belief that the Constitution protects citizens of all races equally, and that additional measures such as affirmative action are unnecessary.
equal protection clauseA provision of the Fourteenth Amendment that prohibits states from denying equal protection of the laws to their residents.

Key takeaways

Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action: The Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has influenced the debate on affirmative action: some justices argue that affirmative action is constitutional, holding that the Constitution only forbids racial classifications designed to harm minorities. Other justices disagree, arguing that affirmative action is unconstitutional because it creates race-based and gender-based classifications, benefitting certain genders and race groups over others.
For example, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in circumstances where race was one factor among many considered in admissions decisions, and when the purpose of the school’s affirmative action policy was to achieve a diverse student body. But in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), the Court ruled against affirmative action when it takes the form of a points- or quota-based system.

Review questions

Why has the Supreme Court determined affirmative action programs to be constitutional at some times, but unconstitutional at other times?
Do you think race-based classifications are constitutional when they are designed to help minority groups? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Ariana
    what caused this act and on what constitutional principles was it made?
    (7 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user tucker.george10

      Efforts to remedy socio-economic disparities between American citizens of different races have been in place since the early 1960s. Affirmative action admissions policies at public universities have been challenged and refined since the 1970s, and every year lawsuits are filed to challenge their constitutionality.

      Develop an argument about whether race-based affirmative action in college admissions for public universities is the best means of achieving the goal of equality.

      Use at least one piece of evidence from ONE of the following foundational documents:

      The Declaration of Independence
      U.S. Constitution
      Letter From Birmingham Jail
      (0 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user JohnC
    Does affirmative action lead to more representation.
    (2 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user wbdalemurphy
    If race-based classifications are designed to help minorities which have suffered from past history of discrimination, segregation, and slavery, it should be considered constitutional as it supports those whose lineage suffered economically from unconstitutional policies. However, using race-based classification as a means of an obligatory status quo, a requirement of a specific group of people, is by definition unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lamont.s3410
    what was the purpose of this act?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user N
    As of 2023, hasn't affirmative action been ruled unconstitutional? Why is that not mentioned here?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lordia.owusu
    Do you feel that Affirmative Action is still necessary? Explain your answer *
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Timwm417
      I wish I knew the correct answer to this question, but there are so many nuances to it. Looking at the Constitution, I don't feel that there is any obvious provision for affirmative actions for those who have been oppressed. Of course, private institutions can do what they want under state and federal law. I guess the real question would be, how can we help minority groups to reach similar levels as majority groups? And, should this be through obvious affirmative actions, giving a person different treatment because of the color of their skin? Isn't that discrimination, even if it is trying to help not hurt?
      Should all people be judged by their character, not their color, wealth, or religion?

      There are probably flaws in my reasoning, but I think we need to consider this issue even if we feel secure in our own view.
      (5 votes)