Affirmative Action Definition

A term describing the use of remedial classifications—usually but not always racial classifications—to promote employment, contracting, educational, and other opportunities for members of historically disadvantaged groups.

Throughout the nation's history, race and racial classifications typically have been used to discriminate against and disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities. Most affirmative action involves using racial classifications to remedy the effects of that historic discrimination.

Affirmative Action in Education

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the limited use of affirmative action in education. (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) (use of race in medical school admissions)). Twenty-five years later, in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), the Court again approved the remedial use of race, this time in law school admissions. But affirmative action has long been attacked as "reverse racism" and has repeatedly been challenged in the courts.

In Students for Fair Admission, Inc. v. Harvard College, 600 U.S. ___ (2023), the Court outlawed using race as a factor in nearly all educational admissions. Applying the "strict scrutiny" standard of review reserved for racial and other suspect classifications, the Court said that most affirmative action admission systems fail that demanding standard and are unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment equal protection clause.

Implications for Other Uses of Affirmative Action

While Students for Fair Admission dealt only with affirmative action in the educational setting, its reasoning likely means the eventual end of affirmative action in most employment and contracting, too.