How did the term ‘affirmative action’ originate?
Affirmative action, as a term, came to the fore in 1935 with the Wagner Act, a federal law that gave workers the right to unionize and join. But John F. Kennedy was the first president to associate the term specifically with policy to advance racial equality, according to Smithsonian magazine.
In 1961, Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, establishing the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and requiring federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are given their race, Be treated during employment regardless of creed, color, or national origin.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson cemented the relationship with his own, more detailed, executive order.
Over time, the term took hold in academia as well, inspired by the civil rights movement and social unrest that, according to Jerome Carbell’s history of the Ivy League entry, “the chosen one.”
The assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a turning point, with students pushing colleges to redouble their efforts to become more representative of American society. Less than four weeks after Dr. King’s death, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions announced a commitment to enroll a significantly higher number of black students than ever before.
The dean said that a student who “survived the dangers of poverty”, was “intellectually thirsty” and “had room for growth” would be given preference, Dr. Carabel remembers.
For the Harvard class admitted in 1969, there was a boom in black enrollment. According to Dr. Carabel, 90 of the 1,202 newcomers to the class were African American, a 76 percent increase from 51 in 1968. Competitors such as Yale, Princeton and Columbia also intensified efforts to enroll black students.
Through decades of legal rulings, the scope and meaning of affirmative action has changed – from what schools may have previously imagined. Universities are no longer allowed to use affirmative action as a measure to reduce centuries of racism in the United States. Now, affirmative action is legal if admissions programs try to assemble different student bodies, with race as a factor among many – but the permanent element of race is being challenged in court today.