Affirmative action is the policy of favoring certain groups of people over others. In the US, this is generally implemented by basis of race.

How is this not the exact definition of institutionalized racism?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a loaded question only here for arguing.
    – user1530
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 3:42
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    @Falcon From your comments here and under some of the answers, I get the feeling you already have a strong opinion on this. If that's the case, then I'd strongly advice you to assemble your thoughts in a proper answer (answering your own question is perfectly fine). Comments serve a very specific purpose, and since this question has generated a lot of them, a cleanup is imminent.
    – yannis
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 10:45
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    Words: "favoring certain" -- AA isn't a favor, it's the nation's own acknowledged debt or moral obligation to itself, for its general improvement from prior and ongoing errors and misdeeds. Victims & survivors are not interest groups -- a survivor approaches a norm from below, an interest group has all that and competes for still more.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 17:40
  • Voting to close. The question is loaded. AA isn't favouring certain groups over others, that's a definition used only by opponents of it.
    – user
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 8:59
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    @user While I personally don't see it a favouring certain groups, google's definition is "action favouring those who tend to suffer from discrimination" so I find it hard to criticise a person based only on using those terms. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 11:22

10 Answers 10


Racism is more inclined to be harmful to members of a particular race for the specific purpose of harming members of that race. Additionally (and this is the important part), racism requires a belief that 'others' are somehow less than you and 'your kind'.

Affirmative Action, as the name implies, has a completely different goal: to take action to boost members of a specific minority (sometimes at the expense of those in the majority).

You can make the argument (as many have) that affirmative action constitutes reverse discrimination, but without a clear belief that members of a specific race are inferior you cannot claim that affirmative action is racism as that belief is the core underpinning of what actually constitutes racism.

In this sense, racism can be said to cause discrimination (more specifically racial discrimination). But you don't have to be racist to discriminate, and not all racists actually do discriminate. Being racist is adhering to a passive belief system whereas discrimination requires an action to be taken.


I think @Dave Kaye got it right in the comments, and 'boost' is probably not the best word to use to describe affirmative action. It forces institutions that adhere to it to also consider the role of minority races. From the Education Trust's 2015 "Funding Gaps" report on state funding on schools:

Nationally, districts serving the most students of color receive about $2,000, or 15 percent, less per student than districts serving the fewest students of color.

This is from 2015. Obviously the effects of slavery and segregation have not just up and gone away just because people want them to. Does giving a white student an extra $2,000/year funding on average who does marginally better than a similar black student on some metric give him the right to attend Harvard? Or should the admissions board also consider that the actual make-up of their student body is just as an important of a consideration?

When it comes down to it, who gets in is up to the board and if Harvard chooses that they want to apply Affirmative Action to ensure that their student body is diverse, then that is not systematically discriminating against all members of a single group and therefore, by definition, it is not racism.

Which, by the way, is what the question asked.

Update #2

I have no doubt that this not only accurately reflects me, but those who have disagreed with me in the comments. Nevertheless, I will attempt once more to assuade those who disagree that Affirmative Action in the abstract is most definitely not racism. Note that the rest of this answer is going to mostly cover case law in the United States, and as such is really only applicable there. Also a side-note before I proceed- I am not a constitutional law professor, but I do feel that I could be relied on to play one on TV.

Had the question asked, "Is Affirmative Action discriminatory?" I think some of the commenters would be correct to answer Yes, in some cases it definitely can be with the caveat being that it depends on how it is applied. In the US, one of the earlier standards many point to is Bakke v University of California (1976) which found that a student applying for medical school was unduly discriminated against on the basis of race. However, when argued in California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk wrote for the majority opinion:

We also observe preliminarily that although it is clear that the special admission program classifies applicants by race, this fact alone does not render it unconstitutional. Classification by race has been upheld in a number of cases in which the purpose of the classification was to benefit rather than to disable minority groups.

The issue at hand in Bakke was that the admissions requirements for minorities had been lowered and dramatically (this is the logical fallacy that most who are against AA make; that all Affirmative Action programs do this). The California court found that, had the university's special admissions program not been in place, Bakke would not have been admitted anyway. He had a 3.51 GPA, yet some of the applicants admitted through the university's special admissions program had GPAs as low as 2.11. When Bakke made it before the Supreme Court, it ruled that simple quota systems to maintain diversity were unconstitutional but only in the context of public universities and other government institutions. Later the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial quotas for private employers in United Steelworkers v Weber (1979). According to Justice Lewis Powell, who delivered what can only loosely be called the "majority" opinion in Bakke, Affirmative Action programs should be regarded under a burden of "strict scrutiny", writing:

By hitching the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause to these transitory considerations, we would be holding, as a constitutional principle, that judicial scrutiny of classifications touching on racial and ethnic background may vary with the ebb and flow of political forces. Disparate constitutional tolerance of such classifications well may serve to exacerbate racial and ethnic antagonisms, rather than alleviate them. Also, the mutability of a constitutional principle, based upon shifting political and social judgments, undermines the chances for consistent application of the Constitution from one generation to the next, a critical feature of its coherent interpretation. In expounding the Constitution, the Court's role is to discern principles sufficiently absolute to give them roots throughout the community and continuity over significant periods of time, and to lift them above the level of the pragmatic political judgments of a particular time and place.

I say loosely above because his opinion was one of six. Almost no one on the court agreed completely with anyone else.

Another case brought up is Hopwood v. Texas (1996), with US District Judge Sam Sparks ruling (from Wikipedia):

It was "regrettable that affirmative action programs are still needed in our society", they were still "a necessity" until society could overcome its legacy of institutional racism.

Further, NYU Law Review states (emphasis mine):

Indeed, the district court explicitly declined the plaintiffs' invitation to declare race conscious affirmative action programs unconstitutional per se. Nevertheless, the district court struck down the bifurcated admissions process used by the Law School on the ground that it was not narrowly tailored to remedy the effects of past discrimination because it "fail[ed] to afford each individual applicant a comparison with the entire pool of applicants, not just those of the applicant's own race.'

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed this decision, with Circuit Judge Jerry Smith writing for the majority:

The University of Texas School of Law may not use race as a factor in deciding which applicants to admit in order to achieve a diverse student body, to combat the perceived effects of a hostile environment at the law school, to alleviate the law school's poor reputation in the minority community, or to eliminate any present effects of past discrimination by actors other than the law school

The University appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and was denied a hearing on the basis of certiorari, rather than any actual merit. The reasoning being that the University itself was no longer defending it's admissions process and instead was only seeking the court to reaffirm the use of race-based selection criteria. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained that the Court deals with judgements only and does not rule on opinions.

The next case, and the one that upheld the standard to use as it had been applied in Bakke in order to determine if any given Affirmative Action program constitutes discrimination is Grutter v Bolinger (2003). This case was heard by the United States Supreme Court and was again a student who was denied admission, this time to University of Michigan Law School. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority (emphasis mine):

The Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.

Enrolling a "critical mass" of minority students simply to assure some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its race or ethnic origin would be patently unconstitutional. But the Law School defines its critical mass concept by reference to the substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce, including cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of racial stereotypes. The Law School's claim is further bolstered by numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession.

With all of this evidence, and how divided the early decisions have been in U.S. Courts, the answer to the question, "Does Affirmative Action discriminate on the basis of race" is undoubtedly it depends, and it depends completely on how it is instituted and applied. But many of the courts' decisions have upheld the notion that the state does in fact have a compelling interest in promoting diversity and selection criteria that can include consideration of an individual's race, which is not unconstitutional.

But that wasn't the question asked.

The loaded quesiton above, as worded, I still fully believe deserves a strong and emphatic No. Affirmative Action does not equal Racism. If you want to disagree with the answer to a question that asks specifically about definitions and challenge a standard and accepted definition of racism without providing one that refutes the notion that racism is a belief, then that simply makes your argument specious at best.

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    This answer is very popular but is based on false premise and full of logical fallacies.
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:39
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    Some: (1) Racism and discrimination in South Africa was by a minority against the majority. So should promoting whites in South Africa be considered affirmative action since they are the minority?
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:39
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    "is more inclined to be deleterious to members of a specific race for the specific purpose of harming members of that race" - that is 100% in the eye of the beholder. If you think that being excluded from college merely based on race isn't "harm", you are making up meaning of the word "harm". If you insist that racism is ONLY when harm to the race is the purpose, them much of what people like you call "racism" isn't racism as it's driven my "good intensions", not harm (as a random example, much racism is driven by well-intentioned BS that Kipling called "white man's burden")
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:44
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    @watcher - now you're word playing. Majority has very very specific meaning. And "power" is a nebulous thing. Poor white people don't have power. Treating them like a generic "white" because someone else "white" "has power" is the very definition of racism
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:49
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    @Mehrdad Yes. And it's an important distinction in the context of your comment. I.e., racial discrimination is an action; racism is a belief.
    – Rusty
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:34

What's the difference between affirmative action and racism?

  • Racism is the belief that humans are naturally divided into "races" and that some "races" are inherently superior to others.
  • Affirmative action is a "set of actions designed to eliminate existing and continuing discrimination, to remedy lingering effects of past discrimination, and to create systems and procedures to prevent future discrimination."

Some definitions from Black's Law Dictionary, 10th Ed.:

affirmative action (1961)

  1. The practice of selecting people for jobs, college spots, and other important posts in part because some of their characteristics are consistent with those of a group that has historically been treated unfairly by reason of race, sex, etc.; specif., a preference or decision-making advantage given to members of a racial minority that has historically been subjected to systemic discrimination.

  2. An action or set of actions intended to eliminate existing and continuing discrimination, to redress lingering effects of past discrimination, and to create systems and procedures to prevent future discrimination, all by taking into account individual membership in a minority group so as to achieve minority representation in a larger group. — Also termed (BrE) positive discrimination. See reverse discrimination under DISCRIMINATION (3).

“Broadly defined, ‘affirmative action’ encompasses any measure that allocates goods — such as admission into selective universities or professional schools, jobs, promotions, public contracts, business loans, and rights to buy, sell, or use land and other natural resources — through a process that takes into account individual membership in designated groups, for the purpose of increasing the proportion of membership in designated groups, for the purpose of increasing the proportion of numbers of those groups in the relevant labor force, entrepreneurial class, or student population, where they are currently underrepresented as a result of past oppression by state authorities and/or present societal discrimination.”

  • Daniel Sabbagh, “Affirmative Action,” in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law 1124, 1124 (Michel Rosenfeld & András Sajó eds., 2012).

discrimination n. (1866)

  1. The intellectual faculty of noting differences and similarities.
  2. The effect of a law or established practice that confers privileges on a certain class or that denies privileges to a certain class because of race, age, sex, nationality, religion, or disability. • Federal law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits employment discrimination based on any one of those characteristics. Other federal statutes, supplemented by court decisions, prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, credit extension, public education, and access to public facilities. State laws provide further protections against discrimination.

  3. Differential treatment; esp., a failure to treat all persons equally when no reasonable distinction can be found between those favored and those not favored.

“The dictionary sense of ‘discrimination’ is neutral while the current political use of the term is frequently non-neutral, pejorative. With both a neutral and a non-neutral use of the word having currency, the opportunity for confusion in arguments about racial discrimination is enormously multiplied. For some, it may be enough that a practice is called discriminatory for them to judge it wrong. Others may be mystified that the first group condemns the practice without further argument or inquiry. Many may be led to the false sense that they have actually made a moral argument by showing that the practice discriminates (distinguishes in favor of or against). The temptation is to move from ‘X distinguishes in favor of or against’ to ‘X discriminates’ to ‘X is wrong’ without being aware of the equivocation involved.

  • Robert K. Fullinwider, The Reverse Discrimination Controversy 11–12 (1980).

It should be obvious that racism and affirmative action are very different concepts.

Affirmative action is positive action intended to counter the known side effect of racism; discrimination based on race.

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    Very simple and clear. Nice answer to a silly question. :)
    – user1530
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 15:01
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    Does affirmative action not discriminate toward certain races? Many people seem to have this awful habit of forgetting that there are more than just two races in the world. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 6:01
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    "Affirmative action is positive action intended to counter the known side effect of racism; discrimination based on race." Except that it treats people of different races differently. It is discrimination and it hurts anyone who is not part of the chosen race. Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 17:27
  • the last sentence is paradoxical. racism is a belief (which I will grant, can have effects when acted on) However, saying that having specific rules for one race to BENEFIT them isnt discrimination based on race is plainly incorrect. Affirmative action, based on race, IS racial discrimination. No ifs ands or buts about it. It matches the definition precisely Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 0:20
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    @DanielGoldman the fact that it's intended to counter the negative effects of other discrimination is extremely relevant. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 1:13

If you don't mind, I replace the "racism" with "favoritism" to generalize: Someone has a specific trait or belongs to a specific group and is viewed therefore in a positive or negative light. People normally act on their beliefs, it takes conscious effort to combat own prejudices and therefore discrimination (negative) or aid (positive) occurs.

Affirmative Action can be justified on the ground that prejudices can be only replaced by personal contact and working on the same goal. You can tell one thousand times that people are equal, but your deep affections cannot be influenced by rational approach. If you google for experiments, you see that your "rational and fair" judgement causes selective perception (you see only the good/bad stuff). If people are homogenous, it is extremely difficult for outgroup people to enter the group. For example: Black people should not fight, black people are inferior in perseverance, black people should not dive, black people cannot be trusted as voters because they are too uneducated.

So once you have paved the way by forcing an ingroup to consider outsiders, you have made enormous progress to fight favoritism. It is much easier now for people to show that they have qualities.

Now you can ask: Fine, but what if this has been achieved and you have a stable part of outsiders, what then ? Or what do you do if the targeted group simply do not want to join the group (This is not fictional. In Europe and Scandinavia the math courses have achieved gender equality, but despite years of effort engineering remains male dominated and caretaking remains female dominated.) ?

Well, then affirmative action should in fact end because then it would be concealed favoritism and unfair. Affirmative action simply should be a tool to ease integration and prejudices, not a permanent condition.

  • "Affirmative action simply should be a tool to ease integration and prejudices, not a permanent condition." At least the US it seems to be not only temporary but is used already for quite some time. Maybe not enough of it? Or maybe it must be permanent? Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 16:14

The question was: "Affirmative action is the policy of favoring certain groups of people over others. In the US, this is generally implemented by basis of race. How is this not the exact definition of institutionalized racism?"

The question is, intentionally or not, leading and designed to confuse the reader. "Affirmative action" is not a policy of favouring certain groups of people over others. It is a policy of counteracting existing discrimination by giving groups that are traditionally victims of discrimination a bit of help.

And how is this not the exact definition of institutionalized racism? Let's look at the definition. The definition “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin” was given in the analysis of a murder case where police officers did their best to avoid finding the murderers of a young black man.

Affirmative action is the absolute opposite of institutionalised racism. It is designed to counteract institutionalised racism.

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    "...is not a policy of favouring certain groups of people over others. It is a policy of counteracting existing discrimination by giving groups that are traditionally victims of discrimination a bit of help..." I'm absolutely for affirmative action, but I have some problems seeing how "giving a bit of help" is not semantically the same as "favoring a certain group of people". I know the goal is justice and in total they might not really be favored effectively just a bit less discriminated but the means to reach different ends seem to be a bit similar here. Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 16:12
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    Saying that having specific rules for one race to BENEFIT them isnt discrimination based on race is plainly incorrect. Affirmative action, based on race, IS racial discrimination. No ifs ands or buts about it. It matches the definition precisely. Having codified laws that differ based on skin color is the actual definition of institutionalized racism. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 0:23

So I was told to put my thoughts into an answer. Here goes.

First, I should define the definition of racism I'm using.
"Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, on the basis of race." This mirrors the definition of sexism used in most dictionaries, and is the definition most commonly used in practice. Also note that the UN doesn't define "racism" (but it does have one for racial discrimination).

A lot of answers I received from this were along the lines of justifying affirmative action instead of showing that it's not racism. I can't accept those as a valid answer; no matter how good your reasons are, and even if I agree with them, it doesn't show that it's not racism for the same reason man stealing food for his starving children is still stealing. I'm not looking for arguments that affirmative action is good, I'm looking for arguments that it's not racism.

The attempt to define racism as requiring "belief that one race is superior" is a better attempt, and if we operate under that definition, affirmative action wouldn't necessarily be considered racism (There's still arguments that you're assuming minorities are inferior and need the extra boost, but I won't go into that). This doesn't really match common usage so I can only assume you're getting this definition from a dictionary. Oxford seems to be the most prominent dictionary that defines it this way.

However, I'm extremely skeptical of that definition. The requirement seems ridiculously arbitrary. The first things I thought was that it doesn't match common usage (there's a lot of things generally considered racism that wouldn't fall under that, and good luck getting anyone outside the far left to accept that racial discrimination doesn't imply racism), and there exists many dictionaries that don't define it this way.

Even worse, while there exists dictionaries that define it by requiring a belief that a race is superior, I can't find any that define it that way for its offshoots. For example, Oxford defines sexism as "Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex." Merriam defines it as "prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women ". Sexism, ageism, ableism, antisemitism, none of the other isms are defined with this requirement. This oddity led one of the people here to claim (in a different question) that this is institutionalized sexism despite lack of intent or belief of superiority while simultaneously claiming that an institution that literally discriminates based on race isn't institutionalized racism.

So, good try, but I don't see enough reasons to accept that definition over the one most commonly used.

Also going a little off-topic: I get the impression that a lot of people are actively trying to avoid having affirmative action fall under the definition of racism because of the negative connotations associated with it. Defining it as "racial discrimination" instead of "racism" doesn't help with that, considering that the two words have the same negative connotations.

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    This isn't an answer to your own question. You asked what the difference is, and here you are stating there is no difference. This is just a rant. If you're skeptical of the Oxford dictionary, I'd suggest taking this to English.se
    – user1530
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 22:22
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    Should be clear: My answer is that there is no difference.
    – falcon
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 22:28
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    If you use the definition "Institutionalized racism is affecting a member of a certain race negatively" then yes, affirmative action is institutionalized racism. If you add intent and/or belief in superiority/inferiority to the definition, then no, it is not racism. Because the last one is associated with "racism" your question sets you up to burn your fingers as you already remarked and skimming over the discussion I think it was the wrong move because the people are confused because they expected a predictable pattern. I think you should have added this beforehand. Commented May 16, 2015 at 0:39
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    Something more of line "Equal treatment and affirmative action - how they are reconcilable ?".... Commented May 16, 2015 at 0:42
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    If I had known at the time that some dictionaries defined racism with that specific requirement, a requirement that isn't present in similar words like sexism, I would have asked "How is it not racial discrimination" instead.
    – falcon
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 0:51

YES OR NO, it depends really...

Ultimately, as shown by Jeff Lambert's exhaustive accepted answer, it depends on how you define the word "racism".

According to Brittanica:

racism, also called racialism, the belief that humans may be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races”; that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural and behavioral features; and that some races are innately superior to others. The term is also applied to political, economic, or legal institutions and systems that engage in or perpetuate discrimination on the basis of race or otherwise reinforce racial inequalities in wealth and income, education, health care, civil rights, and other areas. Such institutional, structural, or systemic racism became a particular focus of scholarly investigation in the 1980s with the emergence of critical race theory, an offshoot of the critical legal studies movement. Since the late 20th century the notion of biological race has been recognized as a cultural invention, entirely without scientific basis.

Mirriam-Webster has a different take:

a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race also : behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief : racial discrimination or prejudice
2a: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another
2b: a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles

Google from Oxford Languages:


  1. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.


1: a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.

2: Also called institutional racism, structural racism, systemic racism. a policy, system of government, etc., that is associated with or originated in such a doctrine, and that favors members of the dominant racial or ethnic group, or has a neutral effect on their life experiences, while discriminating against or harming members of other groups, ultimately serving to preserve the social status, economic advantage, or political power of the dominant group.

3: an individual action or behavior based upon or fostering such a doctrine; racial discrimination.

4: racial or ethnic prejudice or intolerance.

All the the accepted and defined definitions provide a concept which includes superiority in them.

My simple definition of racism: Any discrimination based on race/ethnicity.

I'm still inclined to believe affirmative action is racism and will always be. Simply put, in order to apply affirmative action you must first apply a qualitative assessment of eligibility.

Essentially, you have to assess if someone is "worthy" of the affirmative action, which, objectively, is a qualitative judgement call between two people based on their race/ethnicity. In the cases of affirmative action, its entire concept is to provide an assistance to eligible people, but not others.

How you want to call that assistance, be it a boost, help, advantage, preference, charity, or whatever wordsmithing you need to feel better for yourself, it is a provision of a positive thing to one but not another.

Both the qualification process and the benefit provided on affirmative action are entirely based on racial/ethnic properties of the people involved. A lot of logical fallacies are thrown into the mix to muddle the waters about it.

You can make the argument (as many have) that affirmative action constitutes reverse discrimination, but without a clear belief that members of a specific race are inferior you cannot claim that affirmative action is racism as that belief is the core underpinning of what actually constitutes racism.

You don't need to be racist to believe affirmative action is racist. Its in poor form to argue that that someone must believe in X to believe that Y is X.

If affirmative action operated without a very intentional discriminatory manner, I would think differently. However, affirmative action doesn't ask for diversity considering all else equal. It asks for specific groups to be examined, categorized, and judged based solely on racial characteristics in comparison with other groups to assess if it should be given something while the other group is given nothing.

All of the affirmative action purported goals can be achieved if different measures are taken. For example, removing personally identifiable information to make the hypothetical decision makers blind to applicant race/ethnicity. Or, rather, there are non-racist ways to fight racism that are more effective and avoid or negate race/ethnicity having any relevance.

Lastly, I'd like to argue that affirmative action actually promotes racism. It is a race-centric idea. It elevates the importance of race and encourages segregation of races. It actively encourages categorization and delineation between races.

The mere act of choosing a race eligible for affirmative action requires you to think about superiority and judging the difference between the two races, forcing you to participate in racism even if you are yourself not a racist.

If you truly believe there is no trait differences between the races in the above definitions of racism, then you cannot say one race deserves affirmative action over another as the race doesn't need it, which makes it unnecessary. That would make it unnecessary discrimination between races.

In essence, I view racism like I view homicide. In nearly every case its a bad thing. But in those rare exceptions its permissible. It should never be preferred, a goal, or celebrated.

In this regard, I find the racism of affirmative action permissible only in the cases where it negates standard racism.

  • Curious on what basis you exclude the element of superiority from your simple definition, after noting that each dictionary definition you found does include this element?
    – LShaver
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 22:18
  • @LShaver Basis of logic. Fundamentally, because racism has nothing to do with superiority. Adding the caveat of superiority is only necessary if you engage in racist behavior that requires justification. If the fundamental reason you have some sort of negative feeling towards someone is due to their race, then that feeling is racist in nature. There is no need for your race to be superior to another in any way for the race to be the reason and for you to be discriminating against someone because of race. Does non-racist race-based discrimination exist? Adding the superiority caveat says yes.
    – David S
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 23:12

Suppose I stole your money and the court ordered me to pay you back.

How is this not the definition of unjust taxation?

It might be a bit harder to see affirmative action as being similar because it is based on broad statistics rather than a pair of individual thief and victim, but it is still the same idea: in both cases, the difference is the government is trying to right a wrong by putting their fingers on the scales in the opposite direction. It is important to note that there was an underlying wrong they were trying to fix, if that didn't exist, the same behavior would probably be wrong, causing a problem or making one worse instead of better; it is a balancing act.

The thing to remember about racism by the way is that it can be present in a system even without any individual people being racist themselves. Laws, wealth, etc., build up over several generations and often aren't the result of any individual in the first place. These effects can help white people and hurt black people without anyone intending it to help or hurt - that's systematic racism and the statistics show it happens. So the government tries to push the statistics the other way hoping it balances out.

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    That's not racism. Commented May 14, 2015 at 18:32
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    Racism for a good reason is still racism. Oh, and it's not race that's the problem. It's class. The son of a black doctor will be more privileged than the sons of most white people. Funny how the wealthy people who teach you this never mention wealth.
    – falcon
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 7:55
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    Wealth and race are tied, pretty explicitly, in the United States. Prejudice based on skin color in the US has its roots in the African slave trade, which was all about wealth - accumulating a lot of it for the white slave owners while black people had a hard time getting anything at all. Add in the fact that property is inherited across generations and you can see how things from the past continue to affect people today. Commented May 15, 2015 at 15:57
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    @DA Careful with the assumption that a minority is automatically disadvantaged. Jewish people are only 2% of the population, but every tenth scientist is a Jew. The high proportion of Jewish students was the reason to include a specifically targeted Numerus clausus in some universities and I think we can agree that it is a striking example for discrimination. By the way, women are the majority in most western countries. Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:46
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    @Falcon it's a complex issue. If you're limiting yourself to simple 'facts' like that, you're missing the bigger issue. (Though if you wan to stick with math, note that 70+% of the population is white. Even simple math--which again, is oversimplifying the issue--would show that non-whites are represented much higher in poverty demographics than in the general population)
    – user1530
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 22:01

In order to answer this, a lot of context is necessary.

In the US, racism is an outgrowth of the conquest of the territory from (and wholesale slaughter of) the original inhabitants ("Indians"/"Native Americans"/"First Nations"), and the mass enslavement and importation of sub-Saharan Africans ("Blacks") to provide cut-rate labor, and the social structures and beliefs that were set up to justify and maintain these.

Even though there are no more "Indian wars", and slavery has ceased, the institutions and beliefs that were brought into being don't go away as quickly. There are still plenty of people who believe (because they were taught) that the kidnapping, forced labor, rape, and murder was the best possible thing to happen to the Africans -- whites were doing them a favor. This belief persists because it was instilled over generations in order to make white people not feel so bad about benefiting from slavery. Even the very racial categories of "white" and "black" were invented at this time, just so one group could be declared "superior" and another "inferior".

As such, discrimination against black people has a long history, and is backed up with the power of the state and tradition. Discrimination against white people has no such history nor power.

The original idea behind affirmative action was that it would help to compensate for societal biases -- not to favor one group over another, not to make up for past wrongs, but as a kind of correction for the distortion that still exists in a lot of people's minds and hearts, and also in a lot of institutions. It didn't end up working like that, but that's for another question.

  • 2
    This is all specific to your country, isn't it? Rather than being about the question asked. Commented May 14, 2015 at 18:33
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit The question says: "In the US, this is generally implemented by basis of race." So the question is especific to one country, I dont see why the answers cannot be as well.
    – yms
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 18:41
  • @yms: Only the statement "this is generally implemented by basis of race" is specific to one country. Not the question. Commented May 14, 2015 at 19:05
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    This answer doesn't show how it's not racism, but instead tries to justify it.
    – falcon
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 21:34

It obviously depends on the definition of racism. If we take Oxford dictionary's definition

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized. racism - Oxford dictionary

Also take the definition of affirmative action by Oxford dictionary

(in the context of the allocation of resources or employment) the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously

Because the definition of affirmative action requires that the policy "favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously" affirmative action can itself not be considered racism.

However affirmative action can have consequences with are racist. For example Harvard admission SAT scores depend on race.

In 2009, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford, in their book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, examined data on students applying to college in 1997 and calculated that Asian-Americans needed nearly perfect SAT scores of 1550 to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1410 and African Americans who got 1100.

After controlling for grades, test scores, family background (legacy status), and athletic status (whether or not the student was a recruited athlete), Espenshade and Radford found that whites were three times, Hispanics six times, and blacks more than 15 times as likely to be accepted at a US university as Asian Americans. Affirmative action in the United States

Conclusion: While affirmative action cannot be considered racism its consequences can lead to results which are racist.


Institutionalized racism came from racism in general: discrimination towards groups of people based on prejudices. Affirmative action was enacted--at least with the intent--of countering said racism.

The difference is intent and context.


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