Affirmative Action Is Great For White Women. So Why Do They Hate It?

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the program benefits the women who fought against it most of all.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

On Thursday, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld affirmative action in higher education admissions, protecting a landmark victory of the Civil Rights movement against yet another assault.

The face of Fisher v. Texas, Abigail Fisher, is a young, educated and white woman who sought to undo affirmative action in the erroneous belief that the system limited her chances because of her race.

But if the court had dismantled affirmative action across the nation, Fisher, and many other white women like her, would have been sorely disappointed. The fact is that white women are disproportionately likely to benefit from affirmative action policies. You’d never know that from listening to Fisher -- or her demographic.

Data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study -- an annual large-scale academic survey that aims to track political attitudes -- show that 66 percent of young white people between 17 and 34 describe themselves as “somewhat opposed” or “strongly opposed” to affirmative action policies in employment and admissions. Among young white women, 67 percent are against affirmative action. Among young women of color -- the study polls black, Hispanic and Asian American women -- only 29 percent oppose it either strongly or somewhat.

Affirmative action, when it was introduced by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, originally required entities that receive federal funding to take tangible steps “to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1967, Lyndon Johnson added sex to that list.

And yet, just as most people think of Title IX as being about athletics funding (there’s a lot more to it than that), the general perception of affirmative action is that it’s “just” about race.

But affirmative action has been quite beneficial to women, and disproportionately beneficial to white women. Women are now more likely to graduate with bachelor’s degrees and attend graduate school than men are and outnumber men on many college campuses. In 1970, just 7.6 percent of physicians in America were women; in 2002, that number had risen to 25.2 percent. But -- and this is a big but -- those benefits are more likely to accrue to white women than they are to women of color, and that imbalance has very real effects on employment and earnings later in life. In other words: affirmative action works, and it works way better for white women than it does for all the other women in America.

But white women have made a practice of publicly objecting to affirmative action policies. As researcher Jessie McDaniel notes, since the landmark 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the court ruled that race may be factored into university admissions, “the people suing universities for discrimination in the academic admissions process have been white women: Abigail Fisher; Barbara Grutter (Grutter v. Bollinger); Jennifer Gratz (Gratz v. Bollinger) and Cheryl Hopwood (Hopwood v. Texas).” Those landmark cases challenged university affirmative action programs in Michigan and Texas, respectively.

And those women are far from alone in believing that a system that’s designed to help them and has helped lots of women like them has actually robbed them of something that’s rightfully theirs -- and should be dismantled as a consequence. In fact, they’re more likely than white men in their age group to object.

It's likely most of them don't understand how affirmative action helps them, said Jesse Rhodes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who recently analyzed some of the CCES data for Al Jazeera.

“For most polling,” Rhodes said, “understanding of policies is pretty limited. Citizens have a hard time connecting their experience to policies unless they're regularly receiving pretty clear signaling from government about the benefits of those policies.” Younger citizens tend to be the least knowledgeable, Rhodes noted, simply by virtue of having less experience and less time to collect information. Guided only by the popular perception of affirmative action that it only (or mostly) benefits people of color, it’s possible that young white women see no benefit from the diversity it brings to classrooms and workplaces and view it as an obstacle to their own chances of gaining access to those spaces.

But even if young white women are aware of how affirmative action could likely benefit them -- and how likely it is that they, in fact, have already benefitted from it -- it’s possible these millennials view efforts to remedy the effects of racism as unnecessary, just as they view efforts to remedy the effects of sexism.

Rhodes and his co-author at Al Jazeera, Sean McElwee, write that the data suggest young white Americans, “rather than seeing racism as a persistent problem still in need of remedy... are inclined to believe America is a colorblind society and that little remains to be done to remedy past racial injustices.”

Similarly, the success of affirmative action for white women might have contributed to their sense that they, and people like them, no longer need formalized programs to ensure that they’re fairly considered for admission and employment. Sure, affirmative action helps fix sex discrimination, but that’s not really a Thing anymore, right?

All this depends, however, on young white women knowing that affirmative action benefits them, and disproportionately so. Rhodes noted that the question used to collect the data is one that primes race over sex: “Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and admissions in order to correct for past discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action?” Had the question mentioned sex instead of race, responses from young white women might have been different.

Faced with the data we have, however, we’re left to assume that their answers are informed, at best, by a mistaken belief that racism is over and policies against it are a relic of a bygone era and, at worst, by racial prejudice.

These findings contradict the conventional wisdom that young people are considerably more racially progressive than their parents and grandparents, Rhodes and McElwee note. And, Rhodes suggested, the lack of movement in white attitudes about affirmative action is likely connected to the increasing necessity of a college degree in the contemporary workforce and the growing competitiveness of the workforce “that make the chances of having a stable middle class more precarious than it used to be."

"I do think that shapes how they understand the admissions process,” Rhodes said.

But so, too, does persistent racism, it seems, as well as a lack of understanding about what affirmative action policies actually do.

White women benefit enormously from affirmative action. By opposing it, they’re advocating for making life harder not only for racial and ethnic minorities -- but also for themselves.

This story has been updated to reflect the Supreme Court's decision in Fisher v. Texas.

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