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Affirmative Action

This timeline addresses U.S. Supreme Court cases related to affirmative action.

1961JFK Calls For Government ‘Affirmative Action’

President John F. Kennedy signs Executive Order 10925, which directs all branches of the federal government to study and make recommendations concerning fairness in their employment practices. It also orders that all government contracts forbid private employers from discriminating and 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.” The order creates the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which has the authority to impose penalties for violations of the order.

1964Johnson Signs Civil Rights Act Of 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after 534 hours of congressional debate and consideration of 500 amendments. The law prohibits discrimination in a variety of settings, including public accommodations (such as hotels and train stations), education and government services. Title VII of the law prohibits private employers, labor unions, and employment agencies from discriminating in employment (from hiring to wages to layoffs) on the basis of race, sex, color, religion and national origin. The act creates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce the employment provisions of the statute.

Passed by Congress in 1962 and ratified on Jan. 23, 1964, the 24th Amendment outlaws the use of a poll tax in federal elections. Previously, poll taxes are imposed on voters in both state and federal elections to prevent low-income Americans, particularly African Americans, from exercising their right to vote. The amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.”

1965Johnson Outlines Affirmative Action Approach To Civil Rights

In a graduation speech at historically black Howard University, President Lyndon B. Johnson says that laws prohibiting discrimination are not enough and that more pro-active measures are necessary:
“You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair … . This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity, not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”

1965Federal Contractors Ordered To Ensure Equality In Hiring

President Lyndon Johnson signs Executive Order 11246, requiring private employers with federal government contracts to “take affirmative action” to ensure racial equality in all aspects of hiring and employment. The order will be amended two years later to cover gender equality as well.

1967Civil Rights Protections Extended To Women

President Lyndon Johnson issues Executive Order 11375, which expands affirmative action policies of 1965 to cover discrimination based on sex. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women, as well as minorities, have the same employment and educational opportunities as men.

1969Nixon Targets Fair Hiring In Construction

President Richard Nixon oversees the so-called Philadelphia Order, laying out the most aggressive program to date to ensure fair hiring practices in the construction trades. Philadelphia is selected as the test case for the program, which includes specific goals and timetables for increasing the number of minority employees, because its construction unions are known to be particularly hostile to the hiring of minorities.

1978University’s Minority Quotas Struck Down

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional for the University of California, a public university, to impose a quota for minority applicants, meaning that a certain number of admission slots were reserved for minorities. At the same time, the Court says it is constitutional for the university to consider race or ethnicity as one of many factors in deciding whom to admit.

1979Voluntary Affirmative Action Programs By Employers Approved

In United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a voluntary affirmative action plan negotiated by a labor union and a private employer, reserving 50 percent of slots in a training program for black employees, does not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court finds that the program is legal because it does not “unnecessarily trammel the interests of white employees,” does not “create an absolute bar to the advancement of white employees,” is temporary, and is designed to remedy past racial imbalances in the steel industry.

1980Affirmative Action Requirement In Public Works Projects Upheld

In Fullilove v. Klutznick, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a 1977 federal law requiring that at least 10 percent of the federal funds received by local and state grantees for public works projects be awarded to minority-owned businesses. The Court bases its ruling on the fact that the program was intended by Congress to remedy past discrimination, and allows grantees to be exempt if they can show that they made efforts to comply but were unsuccessful.

1986Affirmative Action Through Preferential Layoffs Ruled Unconstitutional

In Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a school board policy of promoting racial diversity in its workforce by laying off white employees before minority employees. The Court says programs that deprive white employees of their jobs entirely are too unfair to be justified by the goal of a diverse workforce.

1987Affirmative Action Under Title VII Expanded

In Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a public employer’s affirmative action policy of hiring and promoting minorities and women complies with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court says that because women and minorities are significantly underrepresented, the policy is allowed.

1989Court Overturns City Set-Aside Program

In Richmond v. J.A. Croson, the U.S. Supreme Court rejects a set-aside program in Richmond, Va., finding that it violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Thirty percent of each city construction contract must go toward services provided by minority-owned businesses. The Court finds that Richmond failed to show a compelling governmental interest for the plan. Further, the Court holds, the plan is not narrowly tailored to remedy the effects of past discrimination; it entitles minorities nationwide to preference over city citizens solely based on race.

1991Civil Rights Act Of 1964 Amended

The amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (as well as to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act) expand the remedies that are available to employees who win their discrimination lawsuits. The amendments also increase the categories of employees who are protected by the laws.

1995Standards Tightened For Federal Affirmative Action Programs

Following up on a 1989 decision in Richmond v. J.A. Croson, the U.S. Supreme Court in Adarand Constructors v. Pena extends its careful review of federal affirmative action programs. The ruling says racial classifications “must serve a compelling interest and must be narrowly tailored to further that interest.” This decision overturns the 1980 Fullilove v. Klutznick ruling, which upheld a law requiring that 10 percent of federal funds used in local public works projects be used for services or supplies from minority-owned business.

1995White House Issues Affirmative Action Guidelines

After the U.S. Supreme Court decides Adarand Constructors v. Pena, President Bill Clinton issues a White House memorandum calling for the elimination of any program that “(a) creates a quota; (b) creates preferences for unqualified individuals; (c) creates reverse discrimination; or (d) continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”

Clinton says in a speech that although Adarand set stricter guidelines for affirmative action programs, it “actually reaffirmed the need for affirmative action and reaffirmed the continuing existence of systematic discrimination in the United States.”

1996University Of Texas’ Affirmative Action Program Rejected

In Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, which has lower thresholds for grades and LSAT scores for minority applicants than for white applicants, is unconstitutional. The court rejects the idea that a diverse student body is a “compelling” interest. The U.S. Supreme Court does not accept an appeal of the decision, leaving open the question of whether diversity is still reason enough to justify affirmative action programs.

1996Calif. Ends All State-Sanctioned Affirmative Action

California voters approve ending all public affirmative action policies Proposition 209 prohibits preferences in public employment, public contracting and public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court later will decline to hear an appeal of a ruling that the ban is constitutional.

1998Washington Ends All State-Sanctioned Affirmative Action

Following California’s lead, Washington state voters pass an initiative that effectively bans all public affirmative action policies. The measure said that the state “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in education, employment or contracting.

1999Florida Ends Affirmative Action In Public Education

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs the “One Florida” initiative, ending racial and sex preferences for admission to state universities and for awarding state contracts. The initiative also guarantees that public school students in the top 20 percent of their classes will be admitted to state universities and will be given preference for receiving need-based financial aid from the state.

2003Court Rules On School’s Affirmative Action Policies

The U.S. Supreme Court issues two rulings in challenges to affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court says the law school’s admissions policy is constitutional because it considers the race of applicants, among other factors, to try to achieve racial diversity in its student body. The Court says diversity is a compelling interest, in part because students need to be prepared for life in a diverse world.

In Gratz v. Bollinger, though, the Court rejects the affirmative action program for undergraduate admissions because it awards 20 points to minority applicants out of 100 needed for admission, automatically giving them an advantage over white applicants. Although diversity is a compelling interest, the Court says the automatic point system is like a quota system, which is prohibited,and not narrowly tailored as required by the Constitution.

2005Schools For Native Hawaiians Lose Ruling

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the admissions policy of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii violates the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The schools, which are funded by the legacy of a 19th-century Hawaiian princess, require prospective students to prove that at least one ancestor lived in Hawaii in 1778, when British explorers arrived. The schools say their admissions policy is part of an affirmative action program directed at compensating native Hawaiians for hardships and at revitalizing Hawaiian culture. A three-judge panel rules, 2-1, that the policy violates the law by completely barring all other applicants to the schools. The schools plan to appeal.