When first formulated in the United States, the policy of affirmative action served a necessary political purpose, as having faced institutional discrimination on the basis of the so-called "Jim Crow" legislation, African-Americans were just beginning to to claim their civil rights. Brown v Board of Education can be considered the foundation of the policy, ruling that racial segregation in the educational sector was illegal, and legislation introduced by Kennedy and Johnson forbade employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, colour or nationality. Similar legislation in India has reserved quotas in the public sector for the untouchable community, ensuring their proportional representation against active discrimination. The sporting arena is another crucial testing-ground for the policy, the "Rooney rule" obliging teams in the National Football League to interview African-American candidates for vacant managerial positions, and a variant of the same being promoted for English football, where only two out of 92 current managers are black.

Yet, the policy has been widely criticised in the educational sector, where it has been claimed that the policy of racial quotas has failed to eliminate class-based discrimination, and that while African-Americans have been positively favoured, a 1997 study by Princeton has highlighted underrepresentation of Asian-Americans. In relation to gender, quotas have been suggested in relation to candidate selection and parliamentary representation, but again questions surrounding the distortion of meritocracy have been raised, and whether underrepresentation of women is actively institutional or due to the paucity of women offering themselves for election and the calibre of existing representatives.