Affirmative action may be defined as a public or private program in which people who control access to important social resources offer preferential access to those resources for particular groups that they think need special treatment. In this context, then—and subject to the refinements discussed below—the terms affirmative action and preferences may be used interchangeably. This discussion proceeds in five parts: (1) the different rationales for such programs and the idea of merit; (2) the programs' structural features, including some alternatives; (3) the vital distinction between affirmative action and nondiscrimination; (4) the main policy domains in which affirmative action programs operate; and (5) their current legal status.

Rationales and the Idea of Merit

Affirmative action's supporters advance many different rationales for the programs. These include restitution for ...

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