Introduction to Affirmative Action

Introduction to Affirmative Action

This feature has been updated, as of June 6, 2014. Please refer to State Bans on Affirmative Action for the most recent information.

On June 4, 1965, US President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a commencement address at Howard University in Washington, DC, that applauded efforts by the federal government to address race discrimination. Despite these efforts, however, the president stressed that the job was far from being complete. Though President Johnson did not explicitly use the phrase “affirmative action” in the address, he articulated the general policy behind such programs:

Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough to just open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

According to President Johnson, achieving racial equality required remedying America’s history of racial discrimination.

Racial discrimination against African-Americans was prevalent in early American society. In the South, slave owners treated African-American slaves like property. When a white citizen killed or raped an African-American slave, the action was typically prosecuted under property laws, such as trespass. In the North, free or escaped African-Americans encountered violence from whites, and faced segregation in public places and skilled labor. Some whites, like the founders of the American Colonization Society, argued for emigrating free African-Americans to Africa because they considered African-Americans unfit for existence in American society.

The US Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision reinforced legal racial discrimination. The Court held that African-Americans, whether free or enslaved, were ineligible to become US citizens. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger Taney reinforced notions of racial discrimination by stating that African-Americans were distinctly separate and inferior to whites. According to Justice Taney, the founding fathers did not intend for African-Americans to receive the rights that come with US citizenship. The decision also prohibited Congress from banning slavery in newly acquired territories.

Though the Union victory in the Civil War brought an end to the institution of slavery, racial discrimination persisted. State governments in the South and Midwest passed laws, collectively referred to as “Black Codes,” which required African-Americans to sign mandatory labor contracts, denied them the right to vote and prohibited them from serving on juries or in militias. In an effort to combat racial discrimination, the federal government passed the Reconstruction Acts, which divided the South into five military districts and required the southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the federal government abandoned proactive measures to combat racism, and the South ushered in a new era of legal and social race discrimination.

As whites regained political power in the South, they pushed for new era of social and legal race discrimination. By 1890, many southern states mandated racial segregation in areas such as education, marriage, entertainment and transportation through Jim Crow laws. In May 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the idea of a separate but equal society in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court stated that the Fourteenth Amendment only ensured equality in the legal and political spheres of society, and states were free to pass legislation that segregated the social sphere.

In the decades following the Plessy decision, African-Americans throughout the US encountered increasing racial discrimination. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), however, challenged the legality of segregation. Starting in the 1940s, the Supreme Court began to reverse their earlier endorsement of racial discrimination: the Court upheld the Fifteenth Amendment and ruled against segregated interstate busing in Smith v. Allwright and Morgan v. Virginia, respectively. In May 1954, the Court overturned Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that racial segregation in public schools deprived minority children of educational opportunities and that “separate but equal” educational institutes were inherently unequal. The decision was later extended to invalidate segregation in other public places.

Native Americans were also subject to racial discrimination. Early white Americans considered Native Americans to be uncivilized, and American leaders like President George Washington wanted Native Americans to abandon their traditional lifestyles and embrace white European practices. Accordingly, many white Americans compelled Native Americans to assimilate into white society. US President Andrew Jackson equated Native Americans to children and considered their relocation under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 as necessary for their future well-being.

Native Americans faced racial discrimination in American society due in part to clashes with settlers. In March 1804, Congress passed a law that divided the recently acquired Louisiana territory and offered Native Americans lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their holdings to the east. It was not until President Jackson approved the Indian Removal Act that the forced relocation of Native Americans became federal policy. One particular relocation effort, the Trail of Tears from 1838 to 1839, resulted in the deaths of approximately 8,000 people, including Cherokee Indians and free and enslaved African-Americans. The mid-nineteenth century westward expansion of American settlers forced Native Americans further west in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” a policy fueled in part by the belief of white superiority over Native Americans.

In 1851, Congress passed the first Indian Appropriations Act, which created a reservation for Native Americans in the Oklahoma Territory. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 eliminated the treatment of Native American tribes as sovereign nations, weakened tribal authority and rendered Native Americans dependent upon the federal government. The Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century further disrupted Native American tribal sovereignty and diminished the total Native American population in the West. The reservation system created numerous societal problems for Native Americans, and the poor conditions on Native American reservations have attracted international attention.

Mexicans faced racial discrimination in the aftermath of the 1848 Mexican-American War. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded 500,000 square miles of territory to the US. In return, the US offered $15 million to the Mexican government and US citizenship to Mexicans within the territory. Absent the treaty, Mexicans in the newly acquired territory would have been barred from naturalization because they were not white. The US Senate, however, amended the treaty, granting Congress the option to determine when citizenship should be offered to the Mexicans and erasing protections for Mexican land grants. Mexicans encountered discrimination from society at large.

Persons of Asian descent also encountered racial discrimination in the American West. Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century were paid less for labor than their white counterparts, lived in segregated communities and were treated as generally inferior to whites. Starting in May 1882, the US Congress banned entirely the immigration of Chinese persons into the country and placed limits on the mobility of those already in the US through the Chinese Exclusion Act. Persons of Japanese descent encountered similar discrimination during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During World War II, West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans were placed into internment camps under a wartime policy that the Supreme Court upheld in Korematsu v. United States.