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The Untold History and Timeline of Affirmative Action

Suganya Sukumar Jun 3, 2019
Affirmative action refers to the policies that are designed to eliminate the concept of discrimination on the basis of race, caste, religion, color, gender, etc., in various government programs. Here's a glimpse of the history and timeline of affirmative action.
Affirmative action has a negative effect on our society when it means counting us like so many beans and dividing us into separate piles.
~ John Kasich
This term was first used in the United States of America. It was defined in 1977, by the United States Civil Rights Commission as "a term that in a broad sense, encompasses any measure beyond a simple termination of discriminatory practice, adopted to correct for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination recurring in the future".
When we look back to the history, a group of people were discriminated on all the factors such as race, caste, creed, color, origin, etc., and were deprived of their rights in all the sectors of life and this situation prevails even now. Whereas, the other section of the society enjoyed the privileges and improved their standard of living.
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is an United Nations convention, which monitors discrimination in all factors in countries that have signed their pact. ICERD defines it as:
"any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin, which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life".
Policies were designed to obviate such differences between people in the United States of America. Preferences or quotas in employment and educational opportunities were provided to the underprivileged, minorities and women.
The criteria for minority section are race, creed, color, ethnic origin, etc. President Lyndon Johnson took initiative to amend the opportunities and stop discrimination against African-Americans.

Origins and Timeline of Affirmative Action in the US


The concept of White affirmative action is said to have begun in 1640 with the John Punch case. John Punch was a Black and he worked as a slave to a Virginia planter, Hugh Gwyn. Because of continuous exploitation and struggles, John Punch, James Gregory, and Victor who worked under the same master decided to flee away.
But they were caught after some days and the judge sentenced them to whippings and added four years of servitude time in the indenture. But, only John Punch was sentenced to serve for his lifetime period, just because he was a Black. This is the first recorded case of lifetime slavery and race discrimination.


In 1691, the Virginia General Assembly prevented the owners of Black slaves, to set them free and the Virginia colony council, even condemned the slave owner who set his African-Black slaves free.
In the state of Virginia, if a Black commits any one of the 72 crimes, he will be sentenced to death. Many European-Americans were kidnapped from England and were forced to work under abysmal conditions for their masters. Some of them fought against their masters and took them to court, but few of them even committed suicide.


No significant things happened during 1700s, except that very few African-Americans got their admissions into American Universities.


In 1866, the Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act, which was first formulated by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to give equal opportunities to the Blacks. Freedmen's Bureau Act aimed at providing good opportunities to the Blacks in education, health facilities, employments, etc., to the Blacks who were discriminated and taken as slaves.
This act is similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which states that - "All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence,...
...and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by White citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other."


In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested by the Louisiana authorities for refusing to leave the car in which, only Whites can travel. The Supreme Court upheld a verdict of separate but equal accommodation and Plessy was fined.
This case paved the way for segregationist policies. Ferguson is the name of the judge who gave the verdict. This was the popular Plessy vs. Ferguson case.


In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive order 8802, for removing discrimination of African-Americans in the employment opportunities, and after two years, the order was passed to all the contractors in the country. The result of this executive order lead to a Black trade union headed by A. Philip Randolph.


In 1954, after Brown vs. Board of Education Case, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, outlawed the rule of separating the public schools for Blacks and Whites and declared the rule separate is inherently unequal as unconstitutional. The schools in the south, were then integrated and made into one.


In 1961, President John F. Kennedy passed Executive Order 10925, in which affirmation action was taken to provide indiscriminate employment opportunities and equal treatment of the employees, irrespective of a person's race, color, origin, creed, etc.
Later in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, included employment opportunities and benefits for women also, thereby expanding the order, passed by his precedent.


In 1971, President Richard Nixon gave incentives to the contractors of construction industries, who hired minority communities in the bidding process. This was called 'The Philadelphia Order.'
In 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was a popular case that dealt with reverse discrimination. Allan Bakke, a White applicant, was rejected by the University of California medical school, even though his qualifications were better than the minority candidates, who got their seats in the school.
In 1979, President Ronald Reagan, a conservative politician, opposed such policies in the country. He did not promote anything that involved minority quotas.


In 1983, President Ronald Reagan, passed an Executive Order 12432, for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) development.
In 1897, a transportation agency, named, Santa Clara appointed a woman over a man, even though, both were equally qualified for the job. In this case, sex was one of the factors, that was taken into account in employment decisions. This case is known as Johnson v. Transportation Agency case.


In 1995, President Bill Clinton, declared his full support by saying "Mend it, Don't end it". He also declared his opinion by saying, "I am absolutely convinced that we cannot restore economic opportunity or solve our social problems unless we find a way to bring the American people together.
And to bring our people together we must openly and honestly deal with the issues that divide us". In 1995, the University of California, voted against it and did not include the policy in their admission process.


In 2000, University of Michigan case was one more step towards countering the effects of discrimination. The University gave adequate importance to minority representation in their institution.
This invoked a controversial scenario in the politics of US, when President George. W. Bush commented that, "Quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education... are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution".
But still, Supreme Court gave its support to the issue of compensation for past discrimination in university admissions and declared it, constitutional.

Affirmative Action Outside the US

South Africa

Apartheid is an important social policy that involved racial discrimination of Blacks, in political, economical and legal factors. This kind of racial segregation was imposed in South Africa, and was announced as an official policy by a political group called National Party, who won the 1948 general elections in South Africa.
The residential areas were disintegrated according to the racial groups. Among all the racial groups in South America, Blacks were badly discriminated and were even deprived of citizenship in the country.
Finally, salvation to the Black people, came in the form of a person named 'Nelson Mandela'. African National Congress won the elections in 1994, and Nelson Mandela was elected as President of South Africa.
He enforced policies with an aim to end this insensate action, 'apartheid'. But the truth is, evil, many times leaves its traces where it existed. Likewise, traces of apartheid still influences South African politics to a certain extent.


According to section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, "equality provision do not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups...
...including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability".


In countries like India, the discrimination is mainly caste oriented rather than color discrimination, which exists in many western countries. A community called Dalits (lower caste people), were inhumanely treated by the so-called upper caste Hindus.
In an attempt to assuage the discrimination that happened to Dalits in its history, the country has introduced quota system for the lower caste people, minorities, etc.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was under the British bondage for almost 200 miserable years. Standardization policies in the Universities in Sri Lanka, were imposed to provide educational facilities to poor children who are seeking them.


France did not allow quotas or distinctions on any factors, in their constitution. Germany, embraced the basic law of equality to all its citizens, but there are programs that emphasize job preferences for women having adequate qualifications. Linguistic quotas for Swedish people were included in Finland. But then, Finnish speaking people opposed it.
There is a certain special community called Jews, who were discriminated for no reason, just because they were believed to be the descendants of God.
Brutal holocausts, assassinations, unspoken discrimination, mindless executions, landless years, genocides, humiliation, crucifixion, stripping, continuous invasions, physical tortures etc., crippled the lives of Jews.
Discrimination is really a gentle word to use, for what kind of sufferings they were subjected to by some cold-blooded people. Could there be an incident of discrimination worse than what these Jews have suffered? Definitely NO! Adolf Hitler who was famous for his brutality, said that, "Hate is more lasting than dislike".
What we need to understand from the history of the world is that, discrimination is a sin against humankind and God, which should not be committed by anyone of us.
Even though, various measures and amendments are taken by the government to eradicate discrimination, we people, also have a major role in implementing these policies and should discourage any form of discrimination in our society, otherwise, affirmation action will remain only in papers.