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"Affirmative action" means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection -- selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity -- affirmative action generates intense controversy.
The development, defense, and contestation of preferential affirmative action has proceeded in two streams. One has been legal and administrative, as courts, legislatures, and executive departments of government have applied laws and rules requiring affirmative action. The other has been public debate, where the practice of preferential treatment has spawned a vast literature, pro and con. Often enough, the two streams have failed to make adequate contact, with the public quarrels not always very securely anchored in any existing legal basis or practice.
The ebb and flow of public controversy over affirmative action can be pictured as two spikes on a line, the first spike representing a period of passionate debate that began around 1972 and tapered off after 1980, and the second indicating a resurgence of debate in the 1990s. The first spike encompassed controversy about gender and racial preferences alike. This is because
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