Written by Nicole Dimetman on 11/24/2020

Affirmative Action Statistics and Facts After 50 Years

Affirmative action, as a concept, has been around for more than 50 years. It was born when President John F. Kennedy required federally funded projects to take “affirmative action” to eliminate racial bias in hiring.

Since then, America’s affirmative action policies have crystallized into laws, executive orders, and court rulings that receive both praise and criticism. These are meant to promote racial diversity in the workplace, public schools, and college admissions practices.

This overview of affirmative action statistics, facts, and history traces the evolution of the groundbreaking equal opportunity policies in the United States. 

The Affirmative Action Story, Told by Statistics

The results of — and reactions to — affirmative action have been mixed. After so many years of societal conflict around the issue, it’s natural to wonder: Has affirmative action been effective? The verdict rendered by statistics and history seems to be: “Mostly.”  

Overall, the movement has reduced enrollment gaps between white and minority students in secondary and higher education. It’s also furthered diversity in workplaces across the country. 

Affirmative Action in Employment 

To understand both the support and opposition, polls, and surveys over the past four decades have measured public attitudes toward affirmative action. 

Some focused on diversity and equality programs in the workplace and in general. Others focused specifically on race-conscious admissions to colleges and universities.

Effectiveness in Hiring and the Workplace

The workplace is often considered a main frontline in the battle of affirmative action. And, largely, advocates for equality seem to be winning, if slowly and in small increments. A 2012 study suggested that “government policy has contributed to increasing diversity at U.S. workplaces” between 1973 and 2003. 

The study found that female and minority representation increased more, on average, with federal contractors who were subject to equality regulations. 

Black and Native American workers were the “primary beneficiaries” of the policies. However, Hispanic/Latino and Asian American employment did not increase by a statistically discernible amount.1 

A 2013 study by the same author examined the effects on employment after anti-discrimination laws were repealed in four states: California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington. It concluded that these actions led to “a significant decrease in workplace diversity” compared with states that retained such provisions.

It found that without affirmative action laws in place: participation in state and local government jobs:

  • 7% decrease in participation in state and local government jobs among Hispanic men

  • 4% decrease in participation in state and local government jobs among Black women

  • 37% decrease in participation in state and local government jobs among Asian women

Meanwhile, white males saw a 4.7% increase in employment after the ban was instituted.2  

Public Opinion: Affirmative Action in Employment

Numerous polls, surveys, and studies have shown that, in general, public views on these programs have grown generally more favorable over time. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 58% said they favored affirmative action for people of color and other minorities.3 This percentage was up from 47% in 2001, 49% in 2003, and 50% in 2005.4  

report by the American Enterprise Institute in 2016 found three polls by the Pew Research Center showed even more positive results. A full 64% of respondents favored “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education” in 2003. That number rose to 67% in 2005 and 70% in 2007.

Support among Black respondents has tended to outpace overall acceptance. Polls taken from 1987 to 2015 consistently showed Black respondents in favor by 16-24 percentage points over white respondents:

  • 1987 Harris survey:  Blacks 83% favorable, whites 67% favorable

  • 2000 Gallup survey:  Blacks 79% favorable, whites 55% favorable

  • 2015 Gallup survey:  Blacks 77% favorable, whites 53% favorable5 

Ideology played a far bigger role in attitudes among white respondents than Black respondents in a 2005 Gallup poll. Among Blacks, opposition barely shifted at all among liberals, moderates, and conservatives, varying just two percentage points, between 19% and 21%.

It was a different story for whites, however. Just 35% of liberals opposed affirmative action, compared with 43% of moderates and 60% of conservatives. (Figures for all three white groups outpaced those for Black respondents.)6 

Public Opinion: “affirmative action” vs. “preferential treatment”

Wording and presentation have been shown to strongly affect people’s responses to the concept, as well. Attitudes toward the phrase “affirmative action” were far more favorable than those expressed for the phrase “preferential treatment.” 

The AEI report also collected info from 15 polls taken by Pew from 1987 to 2012. Between 62% and 72% of respondents completely or mostly disagreed that “every possible effort” should be made “to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment.”

That phrase also garnered around three-quarters of negative responses in various polls during the 1990s. People were asked whether “qualified blacks should receive preference over equally qualified whites” to redress past discrimination.7 

Overall, this resistance could indicate a negative attitude toward racial preferences, compensating for past discrimination, or both.

Affirmative Action in Education 

Implementing equality measures into the realm of education has been even more heavily contested than in the workplace. Statistics show there is still far to go in public schools. Colleges seem to be making incremental headway despite many lawsuits challenging affirmative action measures.

Effectiveness in School Integration

In the 1970s, some white families evaded school integration and busing mandates by moving to suburban neighborhoods in different school districts. This accelerated the so-called “white flight” already in progress as many urban populations became more racially diverse. 

Court rulings in the 1990s eased court-ordered busing. And the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that race couldn’t be used as an overt factor in public school enrollment.

A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that ending court-mandated busing had a positive effect on integrating public schools. In 1968, before busing programs began, 64% of Black students attended schools where 90% or more of the student body were students of color.

By 1988, that figure had been cut in half, falling to 32%, but began to rise slowly after that. By 2016, it had reached 40%, suggesting that some resegregation was occurring. As the report stated that “segregation for Black students is rising in all parts of the U.S.”8 

A 2019 report by EdBuild found 53% of students across the country were enrolled in districts that were either more than 75% white or more than 75% nonwhite.9 

Public Opinion: School Busing

Among equal opportunity initiatives, busing has long been a flashpoint. Massive protests followed a 1974 district court order in Boston that mandated busing. Buses carrying Black children to school were hit with bottles, bricks, and eggs. Police in combat gear and the National Guard were called upon to restore order.

A Gallup survey condensing 15 years of polls found that in 1974, 18% of respondents favored busing, compared with 72% who were opposed. On the overall topic of school integration, 43% of Black respondents felt it improved the quality of education for Black students. Only 23% of white respondents agreed.10 

Effectiveness in Higher Education

Integration efforts in higher education had already been met with early resistance in the South, notably on college campuses. In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. His intention was to bar two Black students from enrolling. He only stepped aside when President Kennedy called in the Alabama National Guard.

The political stunt set the stage for Wallace’s maverick run for president in 1968. He claimed five states in the Deep South and 46 electors. This made him the last third-party presidential candidate to win any electoral votes. It also underscored the hold that segregation had on the South.11 

Fast-forward to this millennium: When it comes to higher education, the proportion of Black and Hispanic students is still smaller in elite colleges and universities. In the 2015-16 school year, Black high school students constituted 16% of high school graduates nationwide. But they made up less than 5% of students enrolled at public selective colleges.

White students comprised 52% of high school graduates. But they made up 63% of all students enrolled at state flagship schools the next fall.

The figures were even starker in Mississippi. Half (50%) of the state’s high school graduates were Black, compared with just 12.9% of University of Mississippi undergrads.12 This reflects the continued effects of racial segregation in the South. 

An important note: These figures did not indicate a failure of the program to achieve its goals — on the contrary. Another study found 23% fewer students of color were admitted to highly selective colleges after affirmative action was banned.13 

There’s still much work to be done. A UC Berkeley analysis concluded in 2006 that “under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future.” 

And further, “...it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action.”14 

Public Opinion: College Admissions

However, broader public support seems to be moving upward for race-conscious admissions programs in colleges, universities, and graduate schools. A report covering three surveys by Pew showed this improving trendline with regard to college admissions, as follows:

  • 2003:  60% favorable, 30% unfavorable

  • 2014:  63% favorable, 30% unfavorable

  • 2017:  71% favorable, 22% unfavorable15  

Again, much depends on the way the questions are posed. A 2017 Gallup survey asked if respondents approved of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision supporting university affirmative action measures in Fisher v. University of Texas (detailed below). 

The question began with: “The Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that confirms that colleges can consider the race or ethnicity of students when making decisions on who to admit to the college.”

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65%) said they did not approve of the Fisher decision. Just 31% said they did. In the same poll, 70% said college admissions should be based solely on merit. Just 26% said that race and ethnicity should be taken into consideration to promote diversity.

The 2017 poll also asked respondents to rank nine considerations used in university admissions. They were to decide whether each should be a “major factor,” a “minor factor,” or “not a factor at all.” 

High school grades led the list of major factors at 73%. Next came standardized test scores (SAT scores, etc.) at 55%, and the type of courses students had taken at 50%.  

When it came to race or ethnicity, 9% said it should be a major factor, and 27% a minor factor. Fully 63% said it shouldn’t be a factor at all.16 

Historical Developments in Affirmative Action

Like many societal shifts toward equality in America, affirmative action began with interests in preserving domestic security and commerce. The related governmental measures have taken time to gain a foothold and effect real change. 

Executive Orders Affecting Workplace Equality 

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. This instructed defense contractors to “provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”17 

The primary purpose of Roosevelt’s order wasn’t to provide equal opportunity or equal protection. As with other wartime measures, Roosevelt’s order was meant to bring “all hands on deck.” It was another method of utilizing all available resources to fight the Axis powers during World War II.  

In 1953, President Eisenhower created a Government Contract Committee. It prohibited discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin in federal hiring.

Under Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925, government contractors were mandated to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”18 

Kennedy’s order expanded those equal protection and equal opportunity provisions to include federal contractors. This move was reaffirmed by President Lyndon Johnson in Executive Order 11246 a few years later. 

Johnson’s order mandated that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”19 A 1969 order by President Nixon added disability and age to the criteria for groups protected under the program. 

It was Johnson’s 1965 order, however, that introduced the term “affirmative action” into common parlance. Its use would continue to rise through the 1970s, peaking in 1980. 

Legislative History in the Workplace

The phrase “affirmative action” first was used in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act). It was not specifically meant in the context of using race in hiring practices, though. Instead, it required employers practicing biased labor laws “to take such affirmative action including reinstatement of employees with or without back pay.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the act in 1937.

But it was the groundbreaking Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that codified equal protection. It prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This prohibition extended to private employers, regardless of whether or not they were government contractors.

The Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the authority to enforce violations on its own. Before that time, it could only refer them to the Justice Department.

Judicial Origins of School Integration

The touchstone case for expelling racial discrimination in America’s schools was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 reversed a longstanding ruling by the court in Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1896 ruling authorized “separate but equal” education services for Black students and white students.

The Brown decision began an era of integrated enrollment for Black and other minority students on primary and high school campuses.

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that to comply with the Brown ruling, all school boards had to create a plan to end segregation. This was the case of Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. Three years later, the court began to mandate student busing to achieve this goal.

Busing policies transported Black students and minority students from their local neighborhoods to mostly white, middle-class schools. Students from those schools were moved to schools in largely low-income African American areas.

These policies were considered a form of affirmative action because of the way in which they sought to rectify historical racial discrimination. They were often used along with efforts to eliminate “redlining” policies of housing segregation. These excluded minority residents from more affluent neighborhoods.

Court Cases in Higher Education

Did some schools go too far in implementing these equal opportunity policies? 

Some white students denied admission to universities argue that the schools created a form of reverse discrimination. They argued that in seeking to level the playing field, schools had tilted it in the opposite direction. 

These students have pushed back in court against admissions decisions they say have granted preferential treatment to minority students.

University of California, 1978

The first and most well known of these was Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. Allan Bakke sought admission to the University of California Medical School at Davis but was rejected. 

UC had set aside 16 of its 100 admission slots for “qualified minorities.” This prompted Bakke, a white student, to claim reverse discrimination. He claimed the University of California had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court upheld the use of race as permissible where it was one of several admission criteria. However, it struck down the use of racial quotas and ordered the UC med school to admit Bakke.20 It was a decision that allowed both sides to claim some defeat and some victory.

University of Michigan, 2003 

In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court ruled against Barbara Grutter. She had filed suit against the University of Michigan. The university’s law school denied her admission despite her 3.8 undergraduate GPA and 161 LSAT score.

The court ruled that the school’s use of race as a factor in university admissions programs was lawful. Its inclusion would serve a “compelling interest” in furthering the educational benefits derived from a diverse student body.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”21 

University of Texas, 2013

In 2013, the Supreme Court also voted to uphold a University of Texas admissions program. The school’s process admitted in-state applicants in the top 10% of their classes. It used race as a factor in all other admissions policies.

Abigail Fisher, an unsuccessful applicant to the University of Texas at Austin, had sued, claiming the policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment. But the court ruled 7-1 in favor of the university in Fisher v. University of Texas.

The case was revisited in 2016, with the court again siding with the state university. But the court affirmed its “continuing obligation” to periodically reassess the program’s effectiveness and constitutionality.  In this way, it could “ensure that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interests.”22 

Harvard University, 2020

Most court cases challenging admissions decisions that include demographics have focused on the effects on white students. But a trial in 2020 focused on how such policies affect Asian Americans.

Students for Fair Admissions, headed by an activist instrumental in raising the Fisher case, filed suit against Harvard University. SFFA argued that the school used a subjective “personal rating” for admissions rankings. It considered “courage,” “likeability,” and other traits that favored Black and Hispanic applicants over Asian Americans.23 

In an October 2020 decision, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard. Burroughs ruled that, while the college’s admissions process was “not perfect”: 

  • She found no evidence of “racial animus”;

  • It did not violate the Constitution; and

  • She could find no evidence that any admissions decision was “negatively affected by Asian American identity.”

As of November 2020, the case was under appeal, with the Trump administration backing the SFFA’s position.

Recent Political Developments in Affirmative Action

Although it has faded from the high-visibility headlines it garnered in the 1970s and 1980s, affirmative action is still controversial.

In a 2020 debate between Democratic presidential candidates, Kamala Harris criticized rival Joe Biden’s previous opposition to busing. She invoked her background as “a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools” who was “bused to school every day.” 

It was widely hailed as one of the debate’s best lines. Biden ended up winning the nomination — and chose Harris as his running mate.

In the 2003 University of Michigan case, Sandra Day O’Connor qualified her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger. She said she didn’t see affirmative action as a permanent solution. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”24 

Seventeen years later, her prediction seems perhaps overly optimistic. 

In July 2018, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was reversing equal opportunity policies instituted under President Obama. At that time, the Trump administration rescinded an instruction that defined campus diversity as a “compelling interest.”

The Trump administration also backed an appeal of the judge’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University. The second Bush administration had, similarly, discouraged equal rights measures.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a National Interest Exemption memorandum. This granted employers a waiver from some legal requirements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This waiver included exemptions from diversity and equality requirements for government contractors. 

Past, Present, and Potential Future of Affirmative Action 

Affirmative action has evolved over the years from a simple goal — improving diversity and opportunity — into an intricate series of policies and programs.

Some of these policies and programs have been more controversial than others. But on the whole, polls show that they’ve become increasingly accepted over time. More importantly, statistics indicate that they’ve proven effective at achieving greater diversity and inclusion, even if only in part.

It remains to be seen whether affirmative action can level the playing field in the United States, as Justice O’Connor foresaw. Will there be a point at which we can say “mission accomplished”? Or will the struggle for equal opportunity persist into an uncertain future? 

The answers to these questions await further studies and statistics. In the meantime, we must keep monitoring the situation and working to improve in our quest for civil rights, diversity, and equality.  


1 Fidan Ana Kurtulus, “The Impact of Affirmative Action on the Employment of Minorities and Women Over Three Decades: 1973-2003,” University of Massachusetts Amherst and Harvard Law School, June 26, 2012.

2 Fidan Ana Kurtulus, "The Impact of Eliminating Affirmative Action on Minority and Female Employment: A Natural Experiment Approach Using State-Level Affirmative Action Laws and EEO-4 Data." Working paper, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Harvard Law School, October 30, 2013.

3 Rebeccca Rifkin, “Higher Support for Gender Affirmative Action Than Race,” Gallup, August 26, 2015, https://news.gallup.com/poll/184772/higher-support-gender-affirmative-action-race.aspx.

4 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Race, Ideology, and Support for Affirmative Action,” Gallup, August 23, 2005, https://news.gallup.com/poll/18091/Race-Ideology-Support-Affirmative-Action.aspx.

5 Karlyn Bowman and Eleanor O’Neil, “Public Opinion on Affirmative Action,” American Enterprise Institute, June 2016, https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Public-Opinion-on-Affirmative-Action_June-2016.pdf.

6 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Race, Ideology, and Support for Affirmative Action,” Gallup, August 23, 2005, https://news.gallup.com/poll/18091/Race-Ideology-Support-Affirmative-Action.aspx.

7 Karlyn Bowman and Eleanor O’Neil, “Public Opinion on Affirmative Action,” American Enterprise Institute, June 2016, https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Public-Opinion-on-Affirmative-Action_June-2016.pdf.

8 Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Ayscue, and Gary Orfield, “Harming our Common Future: America's Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown,” The Civil Rights Project, UCLA, Center for Education and Civil Rights, May 10, 2019, https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown/Brown-65-050919v4-final.pdf.

9 EdBuild, “$23 Billion,” https://edbuild.org/content/23-billion.

10 Stanley M. Elam, Ed., “The Phi Delta Kappa Gallup Polls of Attitudes Toward Education, 1969-1984: A Topical Summary,” Education Resources Information Center for Gallup, 1984, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED252573.pdf.

11  Leada Gore, “George Wallace 1968 presidential run: 'Most influential loser' in political history,” AL.com, July 25, 2019, https://www.al.com/news/erry-2018/08/937bc749e09952/george-wallace-1968-presidenti.html.

12 Mark Huelsman, “Social Exclusion: The State of State U for Black Students,” Dēmos.org, December 2018, https://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/SocialExclusion_StateOf.pdf.

13 Grant H. Blume Mark C. Long, “Changes in Levels of Affirmative Action in College Admissions in Response to Statewide Bans and Judicial Rulings,” pp. 228-252, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, University of Washington, June 2014.

14 Jesse Rothstein, Alan Krueger, and Sarah Turner, “Was Justice O’Connor Right? Race and Highly Selective College Admissions in 25 Years,” pp. 35-46, College Access: Opportunity or Privilege, Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro, eds, New York: The College Board, 2006.

15 “Growing share views affirmative action programs positively,” The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider, U.S. Politics and Policy, Pew Research Center, October 4, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/10/05/4-race-immigration-and-discrimination/4_6-8/.


16 Frank Newport, “Most in U.S. Oppose Colleges Considering Race in Admissions,” Gallup, July 8, 2016, https://news.gallup.com/poll/193508/oppose-colleges-considering-race-admissions.aspx

17  Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 8802—Reaffirming Policy of Full Participation in the Defense Program by All Persons, Regardless of Race, Creed, Color, or National Origin, and Directing Certain Action in Furtherance of Said Policy” Online, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209704. 

18 Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “John F. Kennedy, Executive Order 10925—Establishing the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity” Online, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/237176.

19 Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “Lyndon B. Johnson, Executive Order 11246—Equal Employment Opportunity,” Online, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/239230.

20 "Regents of the University of California v. Bakke," Oyez, accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1979/76-811.

21 "Grutter v. Bollinger," Oyez, accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2002/02-241.

22 "Fisher v. University of Texas." Oyez, accessed November 3, 2020, www.oyez.org/cases/2015/14-981.

23 “Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University,” American Council on Education, accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.acenet.edu/News-Room/Pages/Students-for-Fair-Admissions-Inc-v-Harvard-Diversity-in-Admissions-Case.aspx.

24 Jesse Rothstein, Alan Krueger, and Sarah Turner, “Was Justice O’Connor Right? Race and Highly Selective College Admissions in 25 Years,” pp. 35-46, College Access: Opportunity or Privilege, Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro, eds, New York: The College Board, 2006.

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