Who is affirmative action really benefitting?

Although most people are under the impression that affirmative action is mainly for black people or is solely for people of color, many studies have shown that white women actually benefit from affirmative action just as much or maybe even more.

As Sally Kohn explains in her Time Magazine article, “Affirmative Action Helps White Women More Than Others,” there are many studies which provide ample evidence to support this. According to Kohn,

“In 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action…Even in the private sector, the advancements of white women eclipse those of people of color. After IBM established its own affirmative-action program, the numbers of women in management positions more than tripled in less than 10 years. Data from subsequent years show that the number of executives of color at IBM also grew, but not nearly at the same rate.”

This data actually makes a lot of sense seeing as the phrase “affirmative action” was initially used by Kennedy in his 1961 Executive Order mandating that all federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” However, in 1967, President Johnson amended this order to include gender in this list of qualities so that affirmative action would benefit women as well. This is due to the fact that they too are at a disadvantage and face obstacles in our male-dominated society, especially taking into account that women were once considered property as well.

All of this is very ironic considering the fact that white women are currently some of the biggest adversaries of affirmative action. In the past few years, there have been countless cases in which white women have sued colleges and universities based off of their flawed perceptions of affirmative action. Many see it only as nothing more than a system put in place to unfairly benefit black people and put white people at an unfair disadvantage. This is evident in the case of Abigail Fisher, a white girl who is suing the University of Texas after she didn’t get accepted, claiming that undeserving applicants of color unfairly stole her spot at the school as a result of affirmative action. It is people like her who put affirmative action in danger, as she takes her case to the supreme court, where Justice Scalia has already expressed his disliking for affirmative action. 

Why is it that so many white women are not only reluctant to stand up for affirmative action but are actively fighting against it? Perhaps it is because they are not aware of how much they benefit from it, or perhaps are not ready to accept these facts. Either way, if all women were in support of affirmative action, it would be much easier to prevent against its elimination.


2 thoughts on “Who is affirmative action really benefitting?

  1. The question of who benefits from action is a complicated one and certainly is worth considering. I agree with you that white women have been major recipients of affirmative action historically. My mother certainly benefited from affirmative action. However, I think modern affirmative action at the collegiate level might function differently. While I know affirmative action continues to benefit white women in the professional world, college admissions functions differently

    Now, the people most hurt by affirmative action in college admissions are women and Asians. White men are getting help, which seems ironic. Well over half of applicants to selective colleges, like Amherst, are women. Despite that fact, most selective schools strictly maintain a 50/50 gender ratio. The average SAT score for an Amherst woman is higher than that of an Amherst man. So, being a man generally helps students gain admission to elite schools. Women are put at a disadvantage.
    Another fascinating reality of modern collegiate affirmative action is that Asian students face much higher standards to gain admission to an elite school, despite being non-white (for more info: http://www.newsweek.com/harvard-too-jewish-has-become-too-asian-342335). White students actually have an easier time than Asian students, as do Hispanic and Black applicants.

    The Fisher case is obviously nonsense because Fisher was clearly unqualified for admission. But her claim that she has to meet a higher standard as a white woman is true. Of course, I still support affirmative action for a whole host of reasons, most important of which is that students of color do face discrimination that results in smarter and better students potentially having lower test scores or grades. Fisher didn’t deserve admissions, but she does have a point that affirmative action in college does work against her. Of course, I’d rather face some discrimination in college admissions than years of systematic racism and prejudice, but that’s just me.


  2. I find it really interesting, as a white woman, to think about affirmative action in these terms. So often affirmative action is discusses as increasing the number of people of color within a given institution and not as increasing the number of women. Ultimately, I do believe that there is a general lack of knowledge about the effects of affirmative action for women, but I also think that white women could be holding onto their “whiteness” as we discussed of working class white men in “The Wages of Whiteness” by Roediger. Perhaps, white women are scared to admit the benefits they receive from affirmative action because they are do not want to lose their wage of whiteness.


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