Affirmative Action Struck Down: White Women Continue to Benefit Before and After
Affirmative action has been a cornerstone policy in the United States, meant to counteract historic systemic discrimination and offer opportunities for education and employment to historically marginalized communities. In the educational setting, affirmative action has been the attempt to remedy the results of prior discrimination and educational segregation and prevent discrimination in the future. It has long been an essential tool for social progress.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court made a significant ruling, holding that race-conscious admissions programs at institutions like Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This ruling effectively eliminates the ability of colleges and universities to use affirmative action to achieve a racially diverse student body, marking a substantial change in the landscape of higher education.
The loss of affirmative action further magnifies the institutional inequities faced by people of color, particularly Black and Latino students, who already grapple with systemic barriers in education. Despite significant strides in bridging racial achievement gaps, stark disparities persist in access to quality education, resulting from a myriad of factors like school funding, teacher quality, and socio-economic circumstances.
Data and research have validated time and time again that the legacy of legal and illegal racial discrimination in the United States has put most people of color at a disadvantaged starting point compared to their white counterparts. This is referred to as the “equity myth.” With affirmative action policies in place, these students had at least a fighting chance of accessing higher education and the myriad opportunities it affords, despite the odds stacked against them. Its revocation effectively turns the clock back on these hard-won gains.
On the flip side, this ruling disproportionately benefits white students, reinforcing the racial status quo in higher education. It further entrenches their privilege by dismissing the systemic advantages they've historically enjoyed. They stand to gain from a "colorblind" admissions process, which will likely uphold the disproportionate representation of white students in elite institutions.
However, the same population that has seen the most significant benefits from this policy - white women - has emerged as one of its most vocal opponents.
Many white Americans, including those who have reaped the benefits of affirmative action, have shown strong opposition to such policies. This seems contradictory, given that white women have been among the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. A 1995 report by the California Senate Government Organization Committee found that white women held a majority of managerial jobs compared with other racial and ethnic groups. A Department of Labor report from the same year found that 6 million women overall had job advances that would not have been possible without affirmative action.
White women have also been at the forefront of major Supreme Court affirmative action cases, challenging the policy and advocating for a merit-based system. A prime example is the case of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued the University of Texas Austin, arguing that her rejection from the university was due to less qualified students of color taking her spot. Even though other students, both white and of color, with lower scores than Fisher, were accepted, and even if Fisher had received a perfect personal achievement score, she would not have necessarily qualified under UT's admission rubric.
Despite such cases, the assumption that affirmative action undermines merit is deeply flawed. It's important to note that white women have greatly benefitted from this policy, and their advancement does not necessarily denote that they were more 'meritorious' candidates over those from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. For instance, a sociological study in 2009 revealed that white applicants were three times more likely to be admitted to selective schools than Asian applicants with the same academic record.
Moreover, a legacy connection gave an applicant a substantial advantage over a non-legacy applicant at elite universities, according to a 2011 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Given that college campuses have historically had predominantly white student bodies, the beneficiaries of legacy admissions practices are far more likely to be white applicants. This scenario negates the concept of a colorblind, meritocratic admissions process.
In the debate over affirmative action, it's essential to remember that it is not solely a 'black' policy. It is also a 'white' policy, which has offered significant benefits to white women. Their progress stands as a testament to affirmative action's success. The real paradox here is the vociferous opposition from white women towards a policy that has fostered their social mobility.
The controversy surrounding affirmative action reflects a broader issue of racial and gender disparity in our society. As we strive toward a more equitable future, engaging in open, honest dialogues about these policies, their implications, and the narratives around them is crucial. "It wasn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt that it helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb," said former first lady Michelle Obama.
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