A little history, courtesy of Wikipedia.com (sorry, I don't have the time at present to obtain an academic piece from JSTOR). Note the text The Shape of the River; I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it might be a good text to consider in reference to the history of this issue as it relates to higher ed:
The terms "affirmative action" and "positive discrimination" originate in law, where it is common for lawyers to speak of "affirmative" or "positive" remedies that command the wrongdoer to do something. In contrast, "negative" remedies command the wrongdoer not to do something or to stop doing something.
In 1962, James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, held a meeting with then vice president Lyndon B. Johnson. Farmer proposed that a program that he called Compensatory Preferential Treatment should be put in place in order to advance the equality of the black race. In 1965, Johnson (then president) renamed Compensatory Preferential Treatment "affirmative action" in a famous speech at Howard University, which became the national justification for moving the country beyond nondiscrimination to a more vigorous effort to improve the status of black Americans:
"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others', and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."
It was a counter-argument to the previously prevailing notion of meritocracy. The skills that merit-based admission rewards are cultivated in children by parents with money. Affirmative action was to be a method by which minorities could eventually develop those skills in their own children.
During the Nixon administration, affirmative action was adopted as a federal mandate for companies with federal contracts and for labor unions whose workers were engaged in those projects. This "revised Philadelphia plan" was spearheaded by Labor Department official Arthur Fletcher.
In the 1960s and 1970s, affirmative action became overwhelmingly popular on campuses across America as mass student protests spurred schools to actively recruit minority applicants. National excitement died down in the late 1970s, and quickly turned to national controversy. Some theorize affirmative action has brought about vast improvement in the class stratification of minorities. From 1960 to 1995, according to data in The Shape of the River by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, the percentage of blacks aged 25–29 who had graduated from college rose from 5.4 to 15.4%, the percentage of blacks in law school grew from below 1 to 7.5%, and the percentage of blacks in medical school increased from 2.2 to 8.1%.