The Historical Development of Affirmative Action: An Aggregated Analysis

By Woodhouse, Shawn | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Historical Development of Affirmative Action: An Aggregated Analysis

Woodhouse, Shawn, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Equal opportunity is a concept that was, at best, elusive for many years prior to the Civil War. Social acceptance of indentured servitude paved the way for indulgence in racial discrimination and was apparent in the exclusionary practices used in higher education admissions and employment. The permeation and perpetuation of a stratified social class system further precluded the participation of African Americans in the political, economic and educational systems of America. Education is the mechanism by which to improve one's social, economic and political influence in America. The result of the denial of educational opportunity for African Americans was an uneven distribution of wealth and power (Rudolph, 1990).

Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 constituted the first national policy to address racial discrimination in employment. This was followed by federal anti-discrimination legislation in 1972, designed specifically to address problems in higher education (Connor, 1985). One aspect of this legislation was affirmative action. The group most affected by these laws were African Americans.

Every concept or idea has an historical background, and in order to acquire a full understanding of any topic, it behooves us to know the history of the subject. Affirmative action is an important impetus in the achievement of employment equity for African Americans and other minority groups who had been historically oppressed and had experienced discrimination. It is also a policy that is intended to rectify exclusionary practices experienced by these groups with hopes of correcting past and present social injustices. For these reasons, it is paramount to explore the aggregate accounts of its historical development.


Affirmative action is a concept that arose from two somewhat separate legal roots, the first a case law on racially segregated public schools, proceeding from the Brown v. The Board of Education decision in 1954, and the second root was legislative, focusing primarily on employment discrimination and beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Gluckman, 1976). It involves two major areas, employment and educational admissions, although it is only required for employers or institutions receiving federal funding or contracts (Kaplin et al., 1995).

As the Civil War ended in 1865, rights were secured for African Americans through the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution (Rudolph, 1990). Wilson (1989) opined that the Civil War culminated with the integration of African Americans into mainstream American society, which served as the first phase of affirmative action. He further explained that the integration of African Americans began with the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867, from which derived the Freedman's Bureau Act created by Congress. This act ensured that the Federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands would appropriate land, buildings, and funds to educate the newly freed people (Turner, 1990).

The first period of affirmative action culminated in less than a decade when Northern Congressmen negotiated with Southern politicians, leading to the withdrawal in 1877 of federal protection which ensured the rights of freedmen (Wilson, 1989). This signaled the dismantling of Reconstruction, dealt its most serious blow by Justice Joseph P. Bradley of the U.S. Supreme Court who struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This act provided that all citizens were entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of public facilities (Turner, 1990).

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decided that the "separate but equal" doctrine was constitutional. Statutes that dictated separate facilities for African Americans and Whites, according to the Courts, did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed equal protection under the law (Turner, 1990).

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