One common misconception on Affirmative Action is to equate it to a quotas system. As a matter of fact, quotas are explicitly prohibited by law in the US.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (1865) is often cited as the legal root for equal protection. The US has come a long way since then on its record of race-based systematic discrimination. Women had not been allowed to vote until 1920, and segregation continued in many southern states well into the second half of the 20th century. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 makes Chinese the only ethics group to be legally discriminated by the federal government in the history of the US.
Quotas system sets aside a specific fix amount of seats for a specific group of people by skin color, religion, country of origin, gender or sexual orientation, etc. Quotas System was designed as a tool of discrimination in early 1920s in the height of antisemitism, echoing the hate sentiment in Europe. Elite universities such as Harvard and Yale set quotas for Jewish applicants. Regardless of their dedication to education and hard working, Jewish students were capped to a fixed ratio for twenty years.
Throughout the US history, Quotas system has been use as an effective way of systematic discrimination against some ethics groups or practitioners of certain religion. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, quotas system was mistakenly used by activists in higher education to promote African American representation. In Regents of the University of California v. Baake (1978), the Supreme Court ruled specific quotas, such as the 16 out of 100 seats set aside for minorities by the University of California Davis School of Medicine, was unconstitutional.
The Affirmative Action was a policy introduced in the form of an Executive Order 10925 by President JFK in 1961. Affirmative Action is not a quotas system. Instead, it encourages government and employers to promote minority representation in a specific area.
In other words, the Affirmative Action allows a school to make additional effort to take racial into consideration into setting a goal of fair representation. For example, a university may set up a basketball team to 'attract' African American students, however, it is illegal to admit an unqualified African American student to displace an otherwise qualified white student. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Supreme Court ruled the admission procedure used by the University of Michigan was unconstitutional because it assigned a fix points to minority applicants.
In the domain of K-12 public education, the Supreme Court ruled in Parents v. Seattle (2007) that assigning students to schools partially based on their race was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court called the method extreme means of 'discriminating among individual students based on race by replying upon racial classifications in making school assignments'. Chief Justice Roberts authored the majority opinion, in which he likened Seattle School District's policy of assigning students based on their race classification to high schools to boost diversity to segregation. Roberts wrote:
Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again—even for very different reasons. . . . The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
In an Affirmative Action legal guidance issued jointly by the Department of Education and Department of Justice in 2011, it states, a school may adopt individual racial classifications based approach to achieve a diverse student body only after they can demonstrate a race-neutral approach would not be workable to achieve its compelling interests. In implementation, no student should be insulated based on his or her race from an assessment or comparison to other student applicants. In addition, a student should not be evaluated in a way that makes a student's race his or her defining feature.
Over decades, the Affirmative Action policy has helped minority to realize their dreams in education and at workplace. Recently, the quotas system, on the contrary, is advocated by white supremacists to discriminate against real minorities, such as Asian. The 2010 demographics composition in the US sees about 72.4% white, 16.4 Hispanic or Latino, 12.6% African American and 4.8% Asian (notice that the total is more than 100% because one can select multiple options). White supremacists employed quotas system to counter the effect of the Affirmative Action to suppress Asian who are considered working too hard. Although quotas system is still illegal in the US, the undercurrent is gaining popularity among many racists working in the government and education systems. If the Asian community does not put up a fight, it could be institutionalized in a short time riding a conservative drive in era of grass-root politics.