Affirmative action is the policy resulting from the belief that where members of certain groups are under-represented in particular occupations or places of employment in relation their proportion of the general population, then that is the result of conscious or unconscious discrimination against them. The remedial policy apportions people to such positions irrespective of normal qualifications and abilities, which are thereby regarded as inadequate. Another feature of reverse discrimination is that it selects people for merits or employment on the basis of their membership in oppressed groups, even if a member of a more privileged group is better qualified. While seen by most as a temporary measure, this practice fuels the discrimination it seeks to undo. In some cases highly qualified individuals are deprived of employment in favour of those of lesser skills.
Countries with preferential policies have varied enormously in cultural, political, economic and other ways. The groups receiving preferences have likewise varied greatly, from locally or nationally dominant groups in some countries to the poorest and most abject groups in others. The same patterns are however evident. Fraudulent claims of belonging to the preferred group have been widespread and have taken many forms.
Preferential programmes, even when explicitly defined as temporary, have tended both to persist and to expand in scope. Within the groups designated as recipients of preferential treatment, the benefits have tended to go disproportionately to those already more fortunate. Group polarization has tended to increase in the wake of preferential programmes, with non-preferred groups reacting adversely (including political backlash, mob violence, and civil war).