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Quotas represent one method available to policymakers as a structural remedy for political or economic inequality. Put most succinctly, quotas have traditionally emerged from pragmatic discussions regarding the implementation of legislation or constitutional mandates to pursue equality among citizens. While citizens across nations have traditionally endorsed the political value of equality, there have been long-standing debates at the local, national, and international levels about the role of government in establishing or protecting citizens equality.

Contemporary debates about quotas emerge most frequently in the context of affirmative action policies. Affirmative action policies are premised on the belief that government must not simply protect citizens from invidious discrimination but must also take affirmative steps, as U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson stated in his 1965 Executive Order 11246, to ensure that citizens have equal opportunity to obtain jobs in a labor market with a history of pervasive discrimination. Quotas have emerged around the world as one method to pursue and achieve equality in two ways: equality of opportunity to compete for jobs, education, or political power; and equality of outcomethe successful acquisition of such jobs, education, or political power.

One common use of quotas has enhanced the political power of women in legislatures around the world. Many parliamentary democracies have implemented quotas of women to stand for election, including Germany, France, Belgium, Bolivia, Rwanda, and Palestine. Such quotas have produced greater female representation in parliaments and changes in public policy and legislation that have an impact upon womens well-being. These quotas, while controversial at the time of implementation, seem relatively stable and unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The use of quotas in other sectors of government policy continues to be much more controversial as they attempt to enhance equality among various lines of difference in political society. Nigeria, at the time of its independence in 1979, attempted to counteract the ethnic inequality that was a legacy of colonialism by instituting policies of ethnic balancing, many including hard numerical quotas for admissions into higher education and civil-service hiring. Yet ethnic tensions over access to wealth and ethnoreligious differences continue regularly to erupt into violence. Similarly, India included some forms of affirmative action at the time of its independence from Britain in 1947, yet political and economic inequality remains widespread in the worlds largest democracy. The reservation system, as Indias quota system is known, sets numerical percentages as targets for the inclusion of lower-caste minorities. Despite its constitutional legitimacy, implementation remains uneven. For this and other reasons, some target quotas go unfulfilled each year. When framed as a policy of racial or ethnic incorporation, quotas remain subject to legal challenge and outright invalidation, as occurred in the United States.

The U.S. policy of affirmative action emerged out of the modern civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century and has moved away from hiring goals as quotas into a still-controversial system of preferential boosts to women and minority candidates for federal contracts, jobs, and college admission. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon together were responsible for affirmative actions evolution into a system of quotas. Kennedy first established a Presidential Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, chaired by thenvice president Johnson, which focused on a comprehensive remedy to racial inequality by focusing on both protecting black and other minority citizens from discrimination and taking positive steps to encourage greater access to fair employment and education. These two policy arenaseducation and employmentbecame primary battlegrounds for the implementation of affirmative action in the United States.

Initially the executive orders of Johnson (1965, 1968) and Nixon (1970, 1971) focused on two aspects of affirmative action implementation: time and scope. As well, both presidents administrations started with oversight of corporations that were federal contractors, and then sought further expansion of the policy in the private sector. Goals and timetables emerged as methods of enforcing compliance with both the letter and spirit of antidiscrimination laws. Hiring goals were set in cases where there was significant underutilization of certain racial groups in an industrial sector such as construction, and admissions goals were set in the domain of higher education. In the implementation of programs to achieve such goals, quotas were set as targets so that employers and educational institutions could demonstrate that they were taking the aforementioned affirmative steps.

These quotas were almost immediately challenged in court by white majority individuals who considered such programs a direct threat to their access to employment and higher education opportunities. The Supreme Court has spent a significant amount of time over the past forty years attempting to regulate the constitutionality of programs designed to implement the protection and promotion of equality. The court first contended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a federal agency charged with the oversight of public and private employers policies to prevent discrimination. In Griggs v. Duke Power (1971), the Court developed the theory of disparate impact, allowing the definition of discrimination to expand to situations where malicious intent was not necessarily a factor. Enforced corrective action such as hiring goals were permissible in situations where a definitive mismatch existed between the availability of minority workers and their presence in a particular occupation. Later, in United Steelworkers of America v. Weber (1979), the Supreme Court allowed voluntary agreements, including quotas reserving half of all craft training positions for African Americans until the percentage of African American workers in the sector matched the percentage in the local labor force. This decision is consistent with the underlying assumption that affirmative action in general is a time-bound policy; such policies will be obsolete once equality is achieved.

The Court also had a major impact on the scope of affirmative action programs. In 1978 the Court strictly limited the use of quotas as a tool of affirmative action programs in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a white applicant to the University of California at Davis medical school, successfully sued to remove the hard quota of reserving sixteen seats in each incoming first-year class for racial minorities. While the Court refused to allow this kind of quota, it continued to allow the use of race in a more vague way, as a plus, in admissions decisions. Quotas were also restricted in terms of the types of actions employers could take to pursue them. In two cases Firefighters v. Stotts (1984) and Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986)the Court refused to allow employers to take jobs away from whites via layoffs in order to increase the number of minority hires.

During this same period scholars have hotly debated both whether quotas are a just form of implementing affirmative action and chronicled the trajectory of marginalized groups who have been targeted by such programs. In elite levels of higher education, African Americans have been determined to benefit greatly from admissions policies that include affirmative action whether quotas or more loosely defined goals. On the other hand, though such policies have vastly contributed to the expansion of the black middle class, the persistently poor who have been left out of such benefits have become more economically insecure and isolated from the economic and political benefits of stable communities. As well, although little evidence suggests that affirmative action has produced reverse discrimination in the employment sector, the lack of structural investment in higher education over the past forty years and the emerging baby boomlet population have produced greater competition for a relatively stable number of college admissions slots in the United States, increasing public anxiety about affirmative action in general and political resistance to quotas of any kindSupreme Court sanctioned or not.

Most recently the Supreme Court has continued to uphold the idea that the time for race to be considered a factor in college admissions and employment continues, despite numerous restrictions on the scope. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Justice Sandra Day OConnor, author of the majority opinion, restated the idea of a time limit to policies such as the constitutionally permissible law school admissions process. It is clear from the docket of the Court, however, that the scope of such policies is ever changing, and given political resistance to quotas in college admissions, their eventual reinstatement is highly unlikely in the United States.

The experience of the United States with quotas varies from that of other countries in terms of scope, policy domain, and timetable. While other nations have successfully implemented quotas to ensure proportional representation of women in their lawmaking bodies, the winner-takes-all quality of the U.S. electoral context makes such quotas more difficult, though not impossible, to implement. On the other hand, compared to such countries as France and Great Britain, which have both struggled to address racial inequality through either colorblind means or race-conscious means such as quotas, the United States spent more time during the mid-twentieth century directly confronting the lack of minority incorporation through various pieces of state and federal legislation.

While it is clear that persistent inequality is a challenge for nearly every country in the world, the responses to such inequality through the policy remedy of quotas has had mixed results and varying levels of political will to enforce them. As well, the scholarly analysis of such policies has not settled on a conventional wisdom as to their efficacy in producing the goal to which almost all of the quota programs aspire: equality among all citizens.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Discrimination; Hierarchy; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Racial; Quota Systems; Stratification


Bowen, William, and Derek Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Deshpande, Ashwini. 2006. Affirmative Action in India and the United States. World Development Report on Equity and Development. Background Papers. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Katznelson, Ira. 2004. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America. New York: Norton.

Lieberman, Robert. 2005. Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Moses, Michele S. 2002. Embracing Race: Why We Need Race Conscious Education Policy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sowell, Thomas. 2004. Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Weisskopf, Thomas. 2004. Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.

Ange-Marie Hancock

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Quotas, a form of trade barrier, are limits on the quantity of a commodity that can be imported or exported. Import quotas limit the amount of particular foreign goods that can be brought or imported into the country. Import quotas protect domestic production of those goods and keep prices high. Export quotas limit the production of certain primary goods in short supply in the rest of the world. Restricting production limits the amount that can be exported and keeps prices high. Export quotas stabilize export earnings. A prime example of the use of export quotas are oil producing nations agreeing to limit oil production, thus keeping world prices high.

Import quotas specify the maximum amount of a foreign good that can be imported. They may be legislated or negotiated with the foreign country. Import quotas are generally more effective at reducing imports than are protective tariffs, another form of trade barrier which is a tax on imports. Tariffs only interfere with trade. If a foreign producer can lower his cost of production he could lower prices and increase imports into the country despite the tariff. Quotas either eliminate import of the product altogether or allow only so much in, after which consumers must buy the domestic product.

Major arguments for import quotas are: (1) protection of infant or emerging domestic industries allowing them to gain strength before having to compete against foreign firms; (2) protection of U.S. jobs against foreign firms; (3) stabilizing the balance of payments, the difference between money paid to and received from other nations; and (4) protection of national security by not allowing the United States to become too reliant on another country for a certain product, the supply of which could be cut off in time of war. On the other hand those opposed to trade barriers point out that a relatively small number of individuals, those domestically making the product, reap large benefits from quota restrictions while all individuals purchasing the item incur higher prices.

Goods for which the United States has enforced import quotas include sugar, meat, textiles, motorcycles, and color television sets. A classic example of restraints was applied to Japanese auto imports. In 1981 the United States negotiated with Japan to limit its auto imports to 7.7 percent below the 1980 level. The agreement saved approximately 44,000 U.S. auto industry jobs, but the price of U.S. cars rose by an average of $660.

See also: Trade

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