“Equality of educational opportunity refers not to inherent capacities, but to the environmental influences that shape and condition the growth and development of the individual. The concept does not denote equality of intellectual and physical capacity of all men in all places. Instead, it rests on assumptions relating to the origins of inequalities. It assumes that social inequalities stand in the way of educational opportunity and, thus, constitutes barriers to general equality of opportunity. The key word, then, is opportunity, the opportunity to get an education of whatever amount and kind one’s capacity makes possible. It is opportunity that must be equalized.”

– Emanuel Hurwitz, Jr. and Charles A. Tesconi, Jr., Education for Whom? The Quest for Equal Educational Opportunity, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company) pg. 16.

The origins of affirmative action are intricately linked to discrimination in the United States. The following is a brief outline of this history.

1940s President Roosevelt signs an order making discrimination illegal in defense contracting.

1954 The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown vs. Board of Education that “separate but equal” facilities on the basis on race are unconstitutionally discriminatory.

1964 Congress passes the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion in employment and education.

1965 President Johnson signs an executive order requiring federal contractors to undertake affirmative action to increase the number of minorities they employ.

1969 Department of Labor hearings expose continued widespread racial discrimination in the construction industry. In response, President Nixon develops the concept of using “goals and timetables” to measure the progress of federal construction contractors in increasing the number of minorities on their payrolls.

1970 President Nixon ends the use of goals and timetables by all federal contractors.

1974 President Nixon declares that affirmative action programs should also include women.

1978 The US Supreme Court rules in Regents of California vs. Bakke that universities may take race into consideration as a factor in admissions when seeking to accomplish diversity in the student body. The court also rules that quotas cannot be used in voluntary affirmative action programs in admissions unless absolutely necessary.

1989 The US Supreme Court rules in City of Richmond vs. Croson that the standard to be used in evaluating affirmative action programs in contracting is one of “strict scrutiny.”

1990 Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodations.

1995 In June, the US Supreme Court rules in Adar and Constructors, Inc. vs. Pena that the strict judicial scrutiny standard articulated in the Croson case also applies to affirmative action programs mandated by Congress as well as those undertaken by government agencies.

1995 In July, the University of California Regents vote to remove consideration of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, color or national origin in admissions, contracting and hiring.

1995 In August, Governor Wilson files suit against many state agencies and commissions he oversees, against minority and women professionals, and against civil rights groups challenging affirmative action programs in the state of California.

Source: Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund