Affirmative Action Is Expanded

The U.S. government’s evolving commitment to nondiscrimination was expanded with the signing of an executive order prohibiting discriminatory employment practices. Proactive efforts were mandated in the hiring of racial minorities and women in businesses holding federal contracts.

Summary of Event

Affirmative action, as developed through executive orders, has a long history, beginning with defense contractors in World War II. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s executive order of 1965 was an important milestone, best understood as an expansion of an evolving governmental commitment to nondiscrimination, which enjoyed bipartisan support until the 1980’s. In the mid-1990’s, affirmative action would become a lightning rod for discontent over class, race, ethnic, and gender differences in the United States in a time of shrinking economic and educational opportunities. Affirmative action
Executive Order 11246
Labor;racial discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;employment
Women;workforce participation
[kw]Affirmative Action Is Expanded (Sept. 24, 1965)
Affirmative action
Executive Order 11246
Labor;racial discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;employment
Women;workforce participation
[g]North America;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
[g]United States;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
[c]Business and labor;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 24, 1965: Affirmative Action Is Expanded[08550]
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;affirmative action
Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;affirmative action
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;affirmative action
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;civil rights

The term itself has many definitions. Some consider affirmative action to be merely a way to produce nondiscrimination and equal employment opportunity. Others characterize it as preferential treatment or quota hiring: choosing people solely because of a race or gender identity, with little or no reference to their qualifications or actual disadvantage. Affirmative action can refer to recruitment efforts at colleges and training for apprenticeships, government mandates that a percentage of contracts or radio licenses go to minorities, voluntary efforts on the part of employers to diversify the workforce, or court-ordered remedies for proven cases of unlawful discrimination.

All the preceding examples of affirmative action have been subjected to judicial scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;affirmative action to see if they violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s constitutional guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. Those who seek a definitive answer to the legal status of affirmative action are often frustrated and confused. The Court has spoken with many voices on the subject and changed its position over time. Perhaps even more confusing is the public debate over affirmative action, which often fails to articulate carefully which of the many incarnations of affirmative action is being debated, but instead lumps them all together.

The development of affirmative action through executive orders has its origins in the conviction of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that companies receiving federal government defense contracts should open their doors to workers who were not white. The idea was that government money should not be spent to discriminate against people because of race, color, religion, or national origin, specifically, by closing jobs to African American workers. President Dwight D. Eisenhower extended the purpose beyond ensuring that racism not hinder national defense to a more general commitment to equal employment opportunity.

Eisenhower’s Government Contracts Committee Government Contracts Committee, U.S. , chaired by then-vice president Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;affirmative action , recommended that government overcome private employers’ indifference by requiring them to take positive steps to ensure nondiscrimination. It was President John F. Kennedy in 1961, with Executive Order 10925 Executive Order 10925 , who mandated that government contractors have an equal employment opportunity clause in all contracts, that they implement affirmative action, and that the ultimate sanction for noncompliance would be loss of the contract. Kennedy’s order was the first to use the term “affirmative action.”

President Johnson continued the bipartisan support for nondiscrimination in government contracts when he issued Executive Order 11246, on September 24, 1965. While the first part of the order prohibited employment discrimination based on a person’s race, creed, color, or national origin, and mandated equal opportunity in federal employment, the second part of the executive order prohibited federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating and required them to take “affirmative action.”

Johnson moved responsibility for the program from the Office of the President to the Department of Labor Department of Labor, U.S. . With Executive Order 11375 on October 13, 1967, he added “sex,” or gender, to the list of prohibited categories of discrimination. In 1975, when the executive order program was extended to disabled and Vietnam War veterans, the office was renamed the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, U.S. (OFCCP). President Jimmy Carter later consolidated governmental efforts in the OFCCP and stepped up enforcement.

Regulations issued in 1968 and modified in 1970 defined affirmative action as “specific and result-oriented procedures designed to achieve prompt and full utilization of minorities and women at all levels and in all segments of the contractor’s workforce where deficiencies exist.” All contractors who employed fifty or more employees and had a contract worth more than $50,000 were forbidden to discriminate and were required to develop an affirmative action plan. Not only were contractors required to monitor and report on the composition of their workforces, but they also were to identify problem areas and develop goals and timetables to rectify them.


Affirmative action was implemented as a method to dismantle discriminatory policies, practices, and procedures in hiring and employment. Insofar as affirmative action was understood to mean the inclusion of ethnic groups and women in occupations from which they were traditionally excluded, employers were tempted to provide only token responses, such as hiring just one African American or one woman for a particular job. This form of tokenism was, and still is, vigorously protested.

As an increasing number of women and racial minorities were hired, some men began to complain of reverse discrimination. Furthermore, employers began to complain of the costs of collecting, organizing, and analyzing masses of statistics on employees.

After a 1978 case before the Supreme Court, in which the Court ruled against using segregated pools of applicants in determining university admissions but ruled for considering racial diversity instead, “diversity” began to replace “affirmative action” as a civil rights goal.

In the late 1990’s, President Bill Clinton announced standards for “mending” affirmative action. Affirmative action should not establish quotas or preferences for the unqualified, involve reverse discrimination, or continue beyond a point where there is a demonstrable need. Affirmative action
Executive Order 11246
Labor;racial discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;employment
Women;workforce participation

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A readable and well-presented political history of affirmative action, from its early years during the Roosevelt era through the backlash that began in the late twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first. Recommended.

  • Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523 (September, 1992). Special issue: Affirmative Action Revisited. Includes essays by many of the leading public voices, debating different sides of the issue.
  • Badgett, M. V. Lee, Andrew F. Brimmer, Cecilia A. Conrad, and Heidi Hartmann. Economic Perspectives on Affirmative Action. Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 1995. Comprehensive summary of economic studies evaluating the effectiveness of affirmative action.
  • Burstein, Paul. “Affirmative Action, Jobs, and American Democracy: What Has Happened to the Quest for Equal Opportunity?” Law and Society Review 26, no. 4 (1992): 901-922. A broad overview of the issue by a leading expert in discrimination law. Useful bibliography.
  • Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Provides a historical overview of the relationship between women’s labor activists and feminists concerning the rights of women who work outside the home. An award-winning book in labor history.
  • Leonard, Jonathan. “The Federal Anti-Bias Effort.” In Essays on the Economics of Discrimination, edited by Emily P. Hoffman. Kalamazoo, Mich.: W. E. Upjohn Institute, 1991. A broad overview of affirmative action history and law, and an assessment of studies on the issue. Written by a scholar who has conducted numerous studies measuring the effectiveness of affirmative action programs.
  • Lewis, Harold S., Jr., and Elizabeth J. Norman. Employment Discrimination Law and Practice. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2004. Covers federal legislation concerned with fair employment practices and employment discrimination.
  • Peterson, James S., ed. Affirmative Action: Federal Laws, Regulations, and Legal History. New York: Novinka Books, 2005. Outlines the laws and regulations of affirmative action in the context of legal history of government mandates against discrimination.
  • U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Education and Labor. A Report by the Majority Staff on the Investigation of the Civil Rights Enforcement Activities of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. 100th Congress, 1st session, 1987. This comprehensive staff report includes a lengthy history of the executive order program, an in-depth analysis of how the controversy over affirmative action has affected the OFCCP, an assessment of the agency’s ability to carry out its mission, and a case study of enforcement actions against Los Alamos National Laboratories. An appendix contains all the relevant orders, memoranda, and regulations.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Committee Analysis of Executive Order 11246 (Affirmative Action Program). 97th Congress, 2d session, 1982. A detailed, comprehensive legal and political history of the executive order program.

Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces

Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights

Civil Rights Act of 1960

Congress Passes the Equal Pay Act

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act