When underrepresented minorities are actively sought or preferred, the stated reason is usually that this is necessary to compensate for historical advantages and racism/sexism which groups such as males or those of European descent are claimed to possess, and institutional racism[?]. Some claim that racial preferences have in-effect caused a reverse discrimination against a historically-dominant group (white males in Europe and North America), and liken such preferences to apartheid.
In the US, the most common form of affirmative action centres around access to education, in particular entrance to university and other forms of tertiary instruction. Typically, individuals will have the difficulty of their entrance and/or exam requirements or numerical-maximum/minimum number of student-entries set in relation to what group(s) they belong to, such as their race, ethnicity, native language[?], class, geographic origin or gender. Individuals can also be awarded scholarships and have fees paid on the basis of the hitherto-listed criteria.
In the United States, affirmative action programs at universities usually benefit only black African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. Asian Americans, although a racial minority, do not benefit at most colleges because their makeup in the student body exceeds their makeup in the general US population. Whites do not benefit in universities where their makeup in the student body is less than their makeup in the general US population because they are not racial minorities.
In the US, the Equal protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates that no governmental entity burden a person or deny them benefits because they are members of a racial minority. (see Constitutional Law, Nowak and Rotunda) The Oxford Desk dictionary defines racial minority as a smaller number of persons within a political party or structure.
In the beginning, racial classifications that only discriminated against racial minorities were inherently suspect and subject to strict scrutiny. These classifications would only upheld if necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest. Later the US Supreme Court decided that racial classifications that benefited underrepresented minorites were to only be upheld if necessary and promoted a compelling governmental purpose. (See Richmond v. JA Croson Co.)
Another more abstract form of affirmative action is in consultations, whereby institutions such as schools or health-care facilities are declared to be ethnocentric[?] around the majority culture, and therefore consultation with other ethnic groups, especially indigenous groups, are specified as a remedy. This can cause accusations of double-standards, as often in practice all ethnic groups receive consultation on institutional workings bar representatives of the majority group. Proponants discount this as being irrelevant, as they claim consultation with the majority group is pointless, as the institution's management is centric around them anyway.
In those countries outside the US which have laws on racial equality, such as the United Kingdom, affirmative action would be illegal because of a requirement to treat all races equally.
In those countries, the focus tends to be on ensuring equal opportunity and, for example, advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force.