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The acceptance or rejection of affirmative action as a means to achieving the purpose of having the minorities in political, education and professional sector is dependent on the indept understanding of the concept. Thus, this chapter is set to discuss the various definitions of affirmative action and the history of affirmative action, that is, how and why it came about.


Affirmative action has various definitions as offered by different philosophers, and here, I shall give a few.

‘“Affirmative action” is a term familiar to most Americans but one not always well understood. Over time, it has signified a variety of strategies designed to enhance employment, educational, or business opportunities for groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities and women, who have suffered discrimination’1.

This definition of affirmative action, as is the most general definition, views affirmative action as a measure put in place to reward those who were at the receiving end of the evil of discrimination: affirmative action is put in place on the platform of employment, that is, they are given special preference when they request for a job, on the political platform, that is, they are given a number of slot(s) or seat(s) to contest for political positions or to occupy a particular ministerial post (as is the case in Nigeria), thus, before others will be considered, these ones that are recipient of affirmative action will first be considered.

‘Affirmative action means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in the areas of employment, education and culture from which they have been historically excluded’2.

‘Affirmative action is a policy of favoring qualified women and minority candidates over qualified men or nonminority candidates, with the immediate goals of outreach, remedying discrimination, or achieving diversity, and the ultimate goals of attaining a colorblind (racially just) and gender-free (sexually just) society’3.

This definition goes a little bit beyond what the general definitions of affirmative action provided. While the general definition did not specify as to whether the minorities and women that are favoured under affirmative action actually qualify for the employment position or the academic admission that they received or they do not, but just because they were victims of discrimination, one is quick to conclude that these people were actually given this position not because they qualify but because they were victims. Thus, the criticism of ‘mediocrity’, that is, that those who do not qualify for a position were given and so they will not see any reason to better themselves, stands against affirmative action in this light.

However, this definition of affirmative action emphasizes that those who were even given special preference themselves are qualified for the position in which they are being considered or preferred, for example, if the least of qualification that is to be considered for a job is bachelors degree, then before anyone can be considered, be it women or the minority group, they must actually possess a bachelors degree certificate. Thus with this definition, affirmative action is more easily defended.

‘An affirmative action program is designed simply to put an end to an existing discriminatory practice, and to create, possibly for the first time in a particular setting, a truly equal opportunity environment, and it can attempt to compensate for past discrimination and the effects of that discrimination’4.

This definition also adds something to the definition, although it also talks about the fact that it compensates those who suffered the effects of discrimination in the past, but it sees affirmative action as a method that can be used to promote equality in opportunity that is available. This means that the way in which those who suffered discrimination in the past are compensated by giving them equal opportunity as those who are of the majority group.

Social scientists Nijole Benokraitis and Joe Feagin defines it thus:

‘Affirmative action means more than passive nondiscrimination. It means that various organizations must act positively, affirmatively and aggressively to remove all barriers, however informal or subtle, that prevents access by minorities and women to their rightful places in the employment and educational institutions of the United States’5.

‘Affirmative action is a term that in a broad sense encompasses any measure, beyond a simple termination of discriminatory practice, adopted to correct for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination recurring in the future’6.

 ‘Affirmative action is not just public policy or political and legal history: it also represents a social and cultural struggle over whether there should exist a property value in whiteness and if equality should be really equal’7.

‘Affirmative action in reality represents a compromise fusion of disparate social and legal elements brought into being by the black protest tradition against white privilege’8.

This definition traces affirmative action to its root, that is, that affirmative action arose as a response to the protests of the blacks against the privilege given to the whites.

Affirmative action is literally the practice of “acting affirmatively”: taking positive, specific steps to overcome the history and current practice of discrimination by having employers, schools, and government contractors make a special effort to include people of color and women in predominantly white and/or male workforces, student bodies, and businesses receiving government contracts9.

In summary, in all of these various definitions, the motive for affirmative action is one and the same, thus, affirmative action is such that create a society in which there is equal opportunity available to every citizen, regardless of gender, race or colour. However, affirmative action, in doing this, first has to give special preference to the gender and race that has hitherto been wronged.


Every policy that exist or that holds in a society has its beginning and has some situation that brought it into being. Affirmative action as a policy also has a/some situation(s) that brought it into being.



From the very birth of the United States, the question of slavery and the legal inequality of African Americans was problematic, as was the position of women. Although the statement of “inalienable Rights” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, was meant to be universal, it implicitly excluded women as well as those who are brought to the United States to live in slavery10. This was the period when any other person whose skin is different from white is seen as inferior, thus, they were dominated and taken as slaves. Even though there were also some white servants, the terms of service for a black slave is very different from that of a white servant, that is, while a white servant has a stipulated time that he can be freed from the service of his master or even leave at will, the black slave is bond to a life of ‘life slavery’, such that they can be sold to new masters or even used as wager in games and lost in bets.

This period of slavery was the period when the white race is seen as an autonomous, privileged social caste and social control mechanism11.

White businesses such as hotels, boarding houses, and restaurants did not serve blacks. Signs were hung in public places, over entrances and exits, ticket windows, waiting rooms, water fountains, and toilets, designating “Whites only” or “Colored.” Blacks were either restricted from, or segregated, at public facilities such as libraries, theaters, sports arenas, parks, and beaches. Some recreational areas had signs: “Negroes and Dogs Not Allowed”12. The most educated and gentleman who is black is not seen as equal to an illiterate white rogue. Blacks were usually unable to testify in court or bring suit against a white person, serve on a jury, or vote, Even if they are allowed to testify or bring a suit, the bible with which black witnesses swear is different from that which the white person swears with, the textbooks used in schools by the black and whites are separated (only when they can attend the same schools), even to purchase tickets, there had to be a 25 feet long space between a white and a black13. Even any black man who dare to join the force, navy for example, is only restricted to the kitchen where they scrub dishes or serve as stewards to the white who are not even half as skilled as they are. If blacks didn’t learn the racial difference, or “their place,” then whites often discharged rigorous enforcement14.

Whites owned the law, police, courts, press, and government. If a black brought charges against a white, it demonstrated disrespect to the superior race, an example was a case in Mississippi in which a black woman in 1897 charged a white man with having beaten her with an ax handle. The justice of the peace dismissed the case, remarking that there was “no law to punish a white man for beating a Negro woman”. Some 20 years later in Texas a white man was accused of killing a Mexican. The Judge went to his legal books and reported that he could find no law against killing a Mexican: case dismissed!15.

The regime of President Woodrow Wilson supported and implemented segregation in the federal workforce, and his administration dismissed hundreds of black federal workers. The president claimed that nothing could be done to improve the status of blacks, he refused to denounce lynchings, and he claimed that the appointment of black officials was a “social blunder of the worst kind.”16


Affirmative action arose, just as the definition by Philip Rubio17 said, as a result to the various protests by the blacks against the injustices that were meted against them. From the beginning of American political history, the unequal status of African Americans and women has been explicitly written into the highest law of the land, and for almost two centuries, each group has fought to rewrite that law while seeking social, political, and economic equality18. The concept of affirmative action originally comes from the centuries-old English legal concept of equity, or the administration of justice according to what was fair in a particular situation, as opposed to rigidly following legal rules, which may have a harsh result19. Thus, in an effort to combat discrimination against African Americans in the 1960s, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced an entirely new concept. The president recognized that merely prohibiting discrimination was not enough to compensate for the effects of centuries of segregation and legalized discrimination which had put African-Americans at a severe disadvantage. They had attended inferior schools, had been barred from good jobs, and had been shut out of the political process. President Johnson’s administration therefore proposed that “affirmative action” be taken to ensure that minorities received jobs, promotions, admission to universities, and other important opportunities20.

Today, affirmative action is a program for the less fortunate, minority tribes and women which are called affirmative action or by such other names as “positive discrimination” in Britain and in India, “standardization” in Sri Lanka, “reflecting the federal character of the country” in Nigeria, and “‘sons of the soil’ preferences” in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in some states in India. Group preferences and quotas have also existed in Israel, China, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, Canada, Pakistan, New Zealand and the Soviet Union and its successor states21.

Implementing the non-discrimination law was a slow process, but it began after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and Congress began to pass legislation, including the 1933 Unemployment Relief Act, which for the first time announced the principle of equal job opportunity in federal employment: “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed,” a clause that appeared in many New Deal programs. African Americans took note, especially when Roosevelt made a few cabinet appointments of men known to be sympathetic to civil rights. One of them was Harold L. Ickes who became the Interior secretary.

Ickes had been involved in race relations and, as a white man, had been president briefly of the Chicago chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of the Coloured People (NAACP). Moreover, Ickes appointed a black economist Robert C. Weaver, and a liberal white Georgian, Clark Foreman, as aides on Negro affairs. After assuming office the secretary desegregated the facilities at the Interior Department, prompting other agency heads to follow his lead.

More significant, however, were Ickes’ actions heading the Public Works Administration when he issued a remarkable order in September 1933, one that seems to be the first attempt to establish a form of equal opportunity, the order prohibited discrimination in Public Works Administration projects. Henceforth, Public Works Administration contracts would include a nondiscrimination clause. The following year, Weaver and Foreman, Ickes’ aides on Negro affairs, devised a forerunner to affirmative action. Based on the 1930 census, contractors in cities with an “appreciable Negro population” were required to employ a fixed percentage of skilled black workers. Public housing was made the avenue for experimenting with developing techniques for assuring the employment of Negro labor on public financed projects. Contracts would have a clause stating that failure to pay black workers a percentage of the total payroll would be evidence of discrimination.22

Yet implementing nondiscrimination and proportional employment was difficult. Some contractors complied and hired blacks, since there were few jobs and the federal government controlled the money for a project. But more often the policy failed. The Public Works Administration was a temporary program, its enforcement was weak, and the their proportional employment goals were very low compared to the black population, moreover, racist employers, trade unions, and city and state officials often ignored the nondiscriminatory rules announced in Washington D.C. This was particularly true in the South. In many southern cities black carpenters were hired to conform to Public Works Administration’s regulations, only to be fired after the funding appeared. In other cities they were given temporary union memberships, good for one job only. In Miami, the Public Works Administration goal for one project, six percent for black skilled workers, was not filled because the city segregated black mechanics to “their part” of town, and the project was located in the white districts. This discrimination not only appeared with the Public Works Administration but with many New Deal programs, even though they banned discrimination23.

As earlier said, affirmative action is a policy that exist in other countries too, I’ll like to consider Affirmative action in three of these countries, namely, India, where it is referred to as Positive Discrimination, Malaysia, where it is referred to as ‘sons of the soil’ and Nigeria where it is called reflecting federal character.    AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN INDIA

Affirmative action or positive discrimination, as it is called in India, is an equal-rights amendment policies designed to help disadvantaged segments of its population. These provisions were originally set to expire in 20 years, but they have been extended again and again, and expanded.

Today, there are basically two kinds of preferential policies in India, policies for national minorities that are seen as less fortunate and policies for various local groups in their respective states. The minority policies were designed primarily to deal with the severe social disabilities and discrimination faced by India’s untouchables or others who might have similar disadvantages, and were put in the category of ‘‘other backward classes’’ was included in the constitutional exemption from equal treatment provisions., Historically, the untouchables were clearly an oppressed minority. Many people did not consider untouchables to be Hindus at all because they were not among the four varnas designated by the Hindu religion, but were literally outcastes in the sense of being outside and below those in the caste system, and secondly because some of their occupations involved making products from animals slaughtered in violation of Hindu tenets, in fact, they were not allowed into the temple and no one is allowed to have any relations whatsoever with them, thus, they were extremely poor. Tribal groups outside the social mainstream of the country were also included, as in some ways analogous to untouchables. This last mentioned category provided an opening through which numerous other groups could acquire preferential access to jobs and other benefits.

Nationally, preferential policies were meant to raise the socioeconomic levels of the untouchables through ‘‘positive discrimination’’ in jobs, university admissions, representation in parliament, and other benefits designed to overcome historic patterns of discrimination and backwardness. Scholarships, special admittance into colleges and into work places; places were reserved for them in universities, medical and engineering schools, even secondary and primary education were free, seat in the national and state legislature are given to these untouchables just so they could make up for past discriminations against them24.      AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN MALAYSIA

While the two largest ethnic groups in old Malaysia are the Malays and the Chinese, there is also a small Indian minority and other indigenous peoples who, together with the Malays, make up the bumiputeras or ‘‘sons of the soil,’’ for whom special provisions are made by the government (this seems to be the opposite use of affirmative action since it is used to compensate those who were discriminated against). The Malays already enjoyed some preferential treatment under British colonial rule. Non-Malays faced strong restrictions against owning land in Malaya and the colonial government provided free education for Malays, while leaving others to educate their children however they could. Malays were also preferred for jobs in the colonial bureaucracy. Despite preferential treatment for Malays, however, the Chinese continued to outperform them. A higher percentage of Chinese children than Malay children received an education, even though the Chinese had to pay for their own private schooling.

Thus, when Malaysia got independence, they wanted to maintain the preferential treatment they were enjoying under the colonial rule but the Chinese cried for equal treatment. However, one way or the other, the Chinese left Malaysia and the Malays became the largest group in Malaysia, so the power issue no longer arise as they can easily rule over the other minor groups amongst them25.

Affirmative action in Malaysia is then such that instead of its been used to favour the minorities, it is used to favour the ‘sons of the soil’ over the ‘strangers’.    AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN NIGERIA

The country Nigeria is such that it has many diverse communities which differ in everything, from culture to religion, but all of these communities were brought together by the colonial rulers. This amalgamation had its effects on the country because the people that were brought together were not ready to leave their differences and come to live together, besides, this was the time when Islam has infiltrated the North and Christianity the East and South, thus, even till the present, leaves the majority of Northerners as Muslims while the East majorly consists of Christians.

Due to the infiltration of Islam into the North, they did not allow for Missionary schools to be built in the North (since it is built by Christian Missionaries), so, while the East and West were enjoying western education, they refused it, and by the time they made up their mind to allow western education, both the East and the West were already way ahead in obtaining western education, thus, were employed by the colonial masters for western jobs and government houses and many other infrastructures were constructed in the West and East.

Due to western education, the Ibos rose up in the social ladder above those who were initially their superiors, the northerners, but this change was not graciously accepted by the northerners, thus, when the nation became independent, the animosity grew. In fact, the northerners pushed against the timely independence of the nation from its colonial masters because they know that all the government affairs will be done where there are more educated people, and this, they didn’t want to accept. Due to this fear, southerners that were working in the Northern public service with the aim of replacing them with Northerners and several other activities which led to a coup. To avoid further coups, however, the nation integrated in its constitution the idea of federal character.

According to a provision of the 1999 constitution, ‘‘the composition of the Government of the Federation and any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs, shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few state or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that government or in any of its agencies.’’26 Even before this constitutional provision was written, special efforts were made to recruit northerners into the national government’s civilian branches and into its military services. Then to cater for the academic sector, it established a Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board to control admissions to the country’s universities, using ethnic quotas. The federal character principle has been extended to promotions, school admission, and even membership on the national soccer team27.

In 1999, a motion was moved to include in the gender in the Federal Character of Nigeria, and more specifically, 35% affirmative action to be given to women, minorities and disabled for their representation in governance. This was seen in effect in the way the President (President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan) gave 35% ministerial and ambassadorial positions to women28.


In conclusion, the goal of affirmative action can be divided into two, which are the immediate goals and the ultimate goals. The immediate goals include to reach out to the people who were discriminated against, to remedy discrimination, to end discrimination and to compensate for past discriminations. While its ultimate goal is to have a colour blind society, that is, a society in which race, colour or tribe does not make a difference, and also to have a gender free society29 in which women are not just regarded as ‘weaker vessels’30, but are given equal and free opportunity to exhibit their potential. Many proponents of affirmative action are of the view that the goal is no longer to remedy past discrimination per se, but to increase the diversity of America’s workforce, government, and universities because the victims of past discrimination are underrepresented31.

Whatever the case may be as for the goal of affirmative action, the issue is that, it stands to correct past wrongs that was perpetrated against victims of discrimination, either by giving them special preference or by creating a level playing field for all.

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