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Timeline of Affirmative Action Milestones

by Borgna Brunner and Beth Rowen

Learn about the major milestones in the history of affirmative action (from the Columbia Encyclopedia: Programs to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to members of specific groups, such as minorities and women). Read more about the history of affirmative action.

1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s

March 6, 1961

Executive Order 10925 makes the first reference to "affirmative action"

President John F. Kennedy issues Executive Order 10925, which creates the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and mandates that projects financed with federal funds "take affirmative action" to ensure that hiring and employment practices are free of racial bias.

July 2, 1964

Civil Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson

The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

June 4, 1965

Speech defining concept of affirmative action

In an eloquent speech to the graduating class at Howard University, President Johnson frames the concept underlying affirmative action, asserting that civil rights laws alone are not enough to remedy discrimination:

"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair . . . This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

Sept. 24, 1965

Executive Order 11246 enforces affirmative action for the first time

Issued by President Johnson, the executive order requires government contractors to "take affirmative action" toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment. Contractors must take specific measures to ensure equality in hiring and must document these efforts. On Oct. 13, 1967, the order was amended to cover discrimination on the basis of gender.

1969

The Philadelphia Order

Initiated by President Richard Nixon, the "Philadelphia Order" was the most forceful plan thus far to guarantee fair hiring practices in construction jobs. Philadelphia was selected as the test case because, as assistant secretary of labor Arthur Fletcher explained, "The craft unions and the construction industry are among the most egregious offenders against equal opportunity laws . . . openly hostile toward letting blacks into their closed circle." The order included definite "goals and timetables." As President Nixon asserted, "We would not impose quotas, but would require federal contractors to show 'affirmative action' to meet the goals of increasing minority employment."

June 28, 1978

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

This landmark Supreme Court case imposed limitations on affirmative action to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities did not come at the expense of the rights of the majority—affirmative action was unfair if it led to reverse discrimination. The case involved the Univ. of California, Davis, Medical School, which had two separate admissions pools, one for standard applicants, and another for minority and economically disadvantaged students. The school reserved 16 of its 100 places for this latter group.

Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was rejected twice even though there were minority applicants admitted with significantly lower scores than his. Bakke maintained that judging him on the basis of his race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that while race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, the use of such inflexible quotas as the medical school had set aside was not. The Supreme Court, however, was split 5–4 in its decision on the Bakke case and addressed only a minimal number of the many complex issues that had sprung up about affirmative action.

July 2, 1980

Fullilove v. Klutznick

While Bakke struck down strict quotas, in Fullilove the Supreme Court ruled that some modest quotas were perfectly constitutional. The Court upheld a federal law requiring that 15% of funds for public works be set aside for qualified minority contractors. The "narrowed focus and limited extent" of the affirmative action program did not violate the equal rights of non-minority contractors, according to the Court—there was no "allocation of federal funds according to inflexible percentages solely based on race or ethnicity."

May 19, 1986

Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education

This case challenged a school board's policy of protecting minority employees by laying off non-minority teachers first, even though the non-minority employees had seniority. The Supreme Court ruled against the school board, maintaining that the injury suffered by non-minorities affected could not justify the benefits to minorities: "We have previously expressed concern over the burden that a preferential-layoffs scheme imposes on innocent parties. In cases involving valid hiring goals, the burden to be borne by innocent individuals is diffused to a considerable extent among society generally. Though hiring goals may burden some innocent individuals, they simply do not impose the same kind of injury that layoffs impose. Denial of a future employment opportunity is not as intrusive as loss of an existing job."

Feb. 25, 1987

United States v. Paradise

In July 1970, a federal court found that the State of Alabama Department of Public Safety systematically discriminated against blacks in hiring: "in the thirty-seven-year history of the patrol there has never been a black trooper." The court ordered that the state reform its hiring practices to end "pervasive, systematic, and obstinate discriminatory exclusion of blacks." A full 12 years and several lawsuits later, the department still had not promoted any blacks above entry level nor had they implemented a racially fair hiring system. In response, the court ordered specific racial quotas to correct the situation. For every white hired or promoted, one black would also be hired or promoted until at least 25% of the upper ranks of the department were composed of blacks. This use of numerical quotas was challenged. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the use of strict quotas in this case as one of the only means of combating the department's overt and defiant racism.

Jan. 23, 1989

City of Richmond v. Croson

This case involved affirmative action programs at the state and local levels—a Richmond program setting aside 30% of city construction funds for black-owned firms was challenged. For the first time, affirmative action was judged as a "highly suspect tool." The Supreme Court ruled that an "amorphous claim that there has been past discrimination in a particular industry cannot justify the use of an unyielding racial quota." It maintained that affirmative action must be subject to "strict scrutiny" and is unconstitutional unless racial discrimination can be proven to be "widespread throughout a particular industry." The Court maintained that "the purpose of strict scrutiny is to `smoke out' illegitimate uses of race by assuring that the legislative body is pursuing a goal important enough to warrant use of a highly suspect tool. The test also ensures that the means chosen `fit' this compelling goal so closely that there is little or no possibility that the motive for the classification was illegitimate racial prejudice or stereotype."

June 12, 1995

Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña


What Croson was to state- and local-run affirmative action programs, Adarand was to federal programs. The Court again called for "strict scrutiny" in determining whether discrimination existed before implementing a federal affirmative action program. "Strict scrutiny" meant that affirmative action programs fulfilled a "compelling governmental interest," and were "narrowly tailored" to fit the particular situation. Although two of the judges (Scalia and Thomas) felt that there should be a complete ban on affirmative action, the majority of judges asserted that "the unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minority groups in this country" justified the use of race-based remedial measures in certain circumstances.

July 19, 1995

White House guidelines on affirmative action

President Clinton asserted in a speech that while Adarand set "stricter standards to mandate reform of affirmative action, it actually reaffirmed the need for affirmative action and reaffirmed the continuing existence of systematic discrimination in the United States." In a White House memorandum on the same day, he called for the elimination of any program that "(a) creates a quota; (b) creates preferences for unqualified individuals; (c) creates reverse discrimination; or (d) continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."

March 18, 1996

Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School

Cheryl Hopwood and three other white law-school applicants at the University of Texas challenged the school's affirmative action program, asserting that they were rejected because of unfair preferences toward less qualified minority applicants. As a result, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals suspended the university's affirmative action admissions program and ruled that the 1978 Bakke decision was invalid—while Bakke rejected racial quotas it maintained that race could serve as a factor in admissions. In addition to remedying past discrimination, Bakke maintained that the inclusion of minority students would create a diverse student body, and that was beneficial to the educational environment as a whole. Hopwood, however, rejected the legitimacy of diversity as a goal, asserting that "educational diversity is not recognized as a compelling state interest." The Supreme Court allowed the ruling to stand. In 1997, the Texas Attorney General announced that all "Texas public universities [should] employ race-neutral criteria."

Note: The June 23, 2003, Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger invalidates Hopwood.

Nov. 3, 1997

Proposition 209 enacted in California

A state ban on all forms of affirmative action was passed in California: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Proposed in 1996, the controversial ban had been delayed in the courts for almost a year before it went into effect.

Dec. 3, 1998

Initiative 200 enacted in Washington State

Washington becomes the second state to abolish state affirmative action measures when it passed "I 200," which is similar to California's Proposition 209.

Feb. 22, 2000

Florida bans race as factor in college admissions.

Florida legislature approves education component of Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative, aimed at ending affirmative action in the state.

Dec. 13, 2000

University of Michigan’s undergrad affirmative action policy

In Gratz v. Bollinger, a federal judge ruled that the use of race as a factor in admissions at the University of Michigan was constitutional. The gist of the university's argument was as follows: just as preference is granted to children of alumni, scholarship athletes, and others groups for reasons deemed beneficial to the university, so too does the affirmative action program serve "a compelling interest" by providing educational benefits derived from a diverse student body.

March 27, 2001

Univ. of Michigan Law School's affirmative action policy

In Grutter v. Bollinger, a case similar to the University of Michigan undergraduate lawsuit, a different judge drew an opposite conclusion, invalidating the law school's policy and ruling that "intellectual diversity bears no obvious or necessary relationship to racial diversity." But on May 14, 2002, the decision was reversed on appeal, ruling that the admissions policy was, in fact, constitutional.

June 23, 2003

Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action in University Admissions

In the most important affirmative action decision since the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court (5–4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School's policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." The Supreme Court, however, ruled (6-3) that the more formulaic approach of the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program, which uses a point system that rates students and awards additional points to minorities, had to be modified. The undergraduate program, unlike the law school's, does not provide the "individualized consideration" of applicants deemed necessary in previous Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action.

See Grutter v. Bollinger.

June 28, 2006

Supreme Court Rules Against Considering Race to Integrate Schools

In Parents v. Seattle and Meredith v. Jefferson, affirmative action suffers a setback when a bitterly divided court rules, 5–4, that programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., which tried to maintain diversity in schools by considering race when assigning students to schools, are unconstitutional.

November 4, 2008

Ballot Measure to Ban Affirmative Action Goes Before Voters

Ballot measures proposing to ban affirmative action — race and gender based preferences by public entities — goes before voters in two states, Nebraska and Colorado. The ban passes with more than 50% of the vote in Nebraska. Voters in Colorado, though, reject the proposed ban.

June 29, 2009

Ricci v. DeStefano, Firefighters Go to Court

In a lawsuit brought against the city of New Haven, 18 plaintiffs—17 white and 1 Hispanic—argued that results of the 2003 lieutenant and captain exams were thrown out when it was determined that few minority firefighters qualified for advancement. The city claimed they threw out the results because they feared liability under a disparate-impact statute for issuing tests that discriminated against minority firefighters. The plaintiffs claimed that they were victims of reverse discrimination under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court ruled (5–4) in favor of the firefighters, saying New Haven's "action in discarding the tests was a violation of Title VII."

June 24, 2013

Court Orders University to Re-examine Affirmative Action Policy

In Fisher v. University of Texas, the court allows universities to continue considering race as a factor in admissions to achieve diversity, but tells them that they must prove that “available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice” before considering race. The court ruled 7–1 to send the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for further review to determine if the school passed the test of "strict scrutiny," the highest level of judicial review. The ruling is considered a compromise between the court's conservative and liberal factions.

On July 15, 2014, a federal appeals court upheld the UT-Austin's consideration of race in admissions in a 2–1 decision.

April 22, 2014

Supreme Court Upholds Michigan Ban on Considering Race in College Admissions

The Court rules, 6–2, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action to uphold a state constitutional amendment that bans public universities and colleges in Michigan from implementing a race-sensitive admissions policy. The ruling does not address the state's affirmative action policy; instead, it confirms the constitutionality of the amendment process. Writing for the plurality, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it." In a 58-page withering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Constitution "does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process. It does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently."


Read more about the history of affirmative action.


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