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Affirmative Action

relates to Affirmative Action
Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg
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Conceived in the 1960s as a temporary measure to help blacks overcome centuries of discrimination, affirmative action has become an engrained part of American life. Even so, it remains one of the country’s most divisive issues. Opponents have pointed to Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 as evidence that special treatment is no longer necessary. Advocates say affirmative action remains an essential tool against persistent racial disparities. The Supreme Court has been the arbiter of the debate.

In August 2017, there were reports that President Donald Trump’s Justice Department was recruiting lawyers from its Civil Rights Division to try to put the brakes on college affirmative action policies that the agency believes discriminate against white applicants. The department said, though, that it was only looking at one complaint filed by a group of Asian-American students. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are being sued on claims that they used racial preferences to unlawfully limit the admission of Asian-Americans. The last time the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, in June 2016, it upheld an affirmative action policy used by the University of Texas to foster campus diversity. The case involved a white woman rejected from the university who said its policy was unjustified because a program that guaranteed admission to Texans graduating near the top of their high school class had created a sufficient racial mix. Race is often a consideration when U.S. employers are making hiring decisions, governments are awarding contracts or universities are admitting applicants. The goal is to increase the percentage of minorities to more closely resemble the population at large. Some strategies are generally accepted, such as encouraging minorities to apply for positions. More controversial are policies that favor certain groups, usually blacks and Hispanics, at the expense of whites and Asians. Courts have permitted racial preferences for the sake of fostering diversity or as a remedy for specific instances of past discrimination. But the law does impose restrictions, both through federal anti-discrimination statutes and the Constitution’s equal protection clause.