Affirmative action is a very broad term that can include any measure, especially in workplace or educational contexts, designed to provide opportunities to individuals within some category historically denied those opportunities. In 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which used the phrase "affirmative action" in this sense for the first time and declared it the policy of the U.S. government.
Opponents of various sorts of affirmative action programs have offered a variety of arguments, many of them based upon negative consequences they contend that the programs have. For example, whenever subcontracting opportunities are limited any requirement that deliberately includes someone must -- perhaps less deliberately -- exclude someone else. The person or persons excluded from these opportunities will surely plead that they have become the innocent victims of the program sponsors' sense of social justice.
Adarand vs. Pena, 1995
The case of Adarand vs. Pena dramatically illustrates the arguments over affirmative action. The U.S. government gave the contractors on highway projects a financial incentive to hire subcontractors controlled by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals," and used race-based presumptions to identify such individuals. This policy resulted in the failure of a bid by Adarand to work on a highway construction project in Colorado, subcontracting to produce the guardrails.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the Supreme Court, said that the "unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minority groups in this country is an unfortunate reality," and both states and the federal government have a compelling interest in responding to that persistence. But she also wrote that any particular program designed to do this has to show that it is "narrowly tailored" for its purposes, and the high court sent the case back to the courts below for further litigation on whether this had been done.
Critics often contend that the negative effects of such racial preferences go far beyond the losses to the competitors of its beneficiaries, such as Adarand. They say for example that even the beneficiaries are in an important sense hurt, because a stigma is attached to their achievements, a stigma akin to that which attaches to the notion of a teacher's pet in a classroom of high-spirited children.
Critics also argue that affirmative action deepens rather than heals divisions of race or national origin, thus dividing or "balkanizing" society. Nicolas Capaldi, for example, endorses this critique in his contribution to the book "Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Unfair Preference," 1996, in response to the pro-affirmative-action arguments of his co-author, Albert G. Mosley. Capaldi writes: "The ideal of America is that of a community of free and responsible individuals. Affirmative action supplants that with the concept of group membership and group entitlement."