Stop Saying Affirmative Action Disadvantages White Students

Originally published on Change from Within and cross-posted here with their permission.

I notice that whenever I do question and answer sessions with young people (high school and college students), the same questions come up every time.

First, a White Man usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).

Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? Because from what I understand, White people (particularly White Men) are actually now at a disadvantage in college admissions because of Affirmative Action, and it’s not fair that I will have less of a chance of getting into college because of what happened in the past!”

Ask any White person how they feel about Affirmative Action, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear that it is “racist against White people” and that it is “unfair” or “reverse discrimination” and that they oppose it.

Further, most White folks will tell you that they are, in fact, actually less likely to get a job or a position in a school than a Person of Color because of Affirmative Action policies.

This is not true.

Not only are White people not being discriminated against actively, White people are still benefitting regularly from a system that was built from its inception by White people for White people.

You see, White folks will often tell me, “White people make up 72% of the American population, but they only make up 62% of those admitted and enrolled in degree-granting institutions.” And the tricky part of that statement is that it is not false, not in the slightest.

It is, however, wildly misleading.

The Demographics of Success

Demographics are tricky. In the United States today, there are A LOT of older White people.  Simultaneously, though, there are also A LOT of younger People of Color.

Thus, while the percentage of the American public that are White hovers around 70%, the percentage of traditionally college-aged folks is much lower: 59.7%. The critics are right, though, that 62.3% of those enrolled in degree-conferring institutions are White.

Race % of Pop. 15-24 % of Enrolled
White 59.7% 62.3%
Hispanic 18.3% 12.5%
Black 15.6% 14.3%
Asian 3.5% 6.5%
Indigenous 1.5% 1.0%
Source for Population Demographic data, 2009.
Source for College Enrollment data, 2009.

White folks are still disproportionately likely to go to college despite formal Affirmative Action programs that attempt to recruit students of color.

Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students are disproportionately less likely to go to college, and the only other group with college-going rates that exceed their percentage of the population are Asian students.

But even that is misleading because to understand Asian success in the United States is also to understand racism. After all, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar policies that even continue today, for most of U.S. history, it was virtually impossible for someone of Asian descent to legally immigrate to the United States unless they had an advanced degree.

Thus, there is a disproportionate number of folks of Asian descent whose parents are college educated, but when you break down the data by socioeconomic status and ethnicity, low-income Asians are, again, disproportionately less likely to go to college.

Predicting Success: Where Did Your Parents Go to College?

Which brings me to the factors that actually act as predictors of success for students as they look to attend college.

Two of the primary predictors of success for educational attainment and occupational earnings are, quite simply, your parent’s education and level of wealth.

If your parents went to college, you are more likely to go to college. So what does that say for communities who, until the 1960s, were denied access to all but a few colleges and universities?

If your grandparents didn’t even have the option of going to college, and your parents’ success in education was most easily predicted by your grandparents’ success, did your parents go to college? And if your parents didn’t go to college, are you as likely to go?

This is one of the many ways that the system of racial oppression continues to be reinvented.

Sure, we no longer live in a country where it’s legal to bar, say, Black folks from attending your college, but when the system values the skills and knowledge most easily acquired through a parent who went to college, the end result is the same when Black folks have been historically denied access to education.

Thus, whether it’s because of the policy of legacy admissions, whereby students are accepted because their parents went to the college (which, at the University of Michigan held almost as much sway as race, income level, and athletic scholarship combined until it was made illegal), or because of the skills and know-how that come from having a parent who went to college, the end result is that People of Color are actually at a distinct disadvantage when they apply to college.

Standardized Tests: Not So Fair After All

One of the reasons that standardized tests are weighed so heavily in college admissions (upwards of 1/4 of the application at selective institutions) is that they are supposed to be, in fact, standardized, meaning that everyone who takes them should be on the same playing field, and it is meant to measure “objective” knowledge that is supposed to be available to everyone in our education system.

The problem is that this is a farce.

Despite the for-profit test-making companies crying foul, multiple studies have found that tests like the SAT and ACT are, in fact, culturally biased in favor of White folks.

One of the more comprehensive studies, for instance, found that the SAT uses language that disadvantages students of Color and advantages White students.

Essentially, on simpler verbal questions (ones that, in many ways, should be the “gimme” questions of the test), the SAT’s writers used White vernacular that was easy for White students to understand and difficult for students of Color to understand.

For example, White students are far more likely to live in suburban areas where there are “subdivisions.” However, a student who has only ever lived in cities (as is far more likely for students of Color) may never have heard that term and instead would refer to the same concept as a “block” or “ward” or “parish.” The language, then, is far more accessible for White students than students of Color.

The cream on top of this study, though, was that on more difficult verbal questions that did not use White vernacular, many students of Color actually out performed White students, but not by enough to overcome the distinct advantage given to White students on the simpler questions.

In essence, if the tests talks like all the people around you talk, you’re going to do better.

Now, does this mean that the writers of the SAT are a bunch of card-carrying members of the KKK? No! My guess would be that the test was simply written by White folks, so the White vernacular didn’t sound particularly exclusive to them.

The end result, though, couldn’t be more White supremacist if the KKK had written the test themselves: students of Color are clearly disadvantaged on the so-called “standardized” tests that weigh so heavily in college admissions.

‘Fair’ Assumes an Equal Playing Field

What it all comes down to is a question of fairness.

White folks will tell me time and time again that Affirmative Action is “unfair” because it discriminates against White people. What the term “fair” assumes here, though, is that we live in a society where there’s an equal playing field for all students, regardless of race or wealth.

Unfortunately, we just don’t live in that society.

The students who ask me about Affirmative Action almost always start with, “If two students are applying for college and all of their qualifications are equal . . .”  I always want to stop them right there and ask what that means.

What does it mean when “all qualifications are equal?” Because in the system in which we live, there’s no such thing.

I mean, let’s talk educational spending, for instance. No matter how you slice it, when you get down into the data about education spending, there is a tremendous disparity between the amount of money spent on White pupils and on pupils of Color.

This is because we still use the draconian system of property tax to fund our schools.

As is pretty common knowledge, People of Color are disproportionately poor for a wealth of reasons (including but not limited to their disadvantage in access to higher education), and in poor communities, schools are funded terribly compared to in wealthier communities.

The way I used to describe it to folks when I taught in a lower-income area of Chicago is like this: In Winnetka (a wealthy, mostly White Chicago suburb), your school might be drawing a 10% property tax on multiple million dollar homes; on the West side of Chicago, your school might be drawing a 10% property tax on empty lots and dilapidated buildings.

And whether or not we like to admit it, money buys a better education.

When your school has money, you can hire more teachers and have smaller class sizes (which are directly tied to higher achievement), you can offer greater enrichment and tutoring programs, you can offer more courses in foreign languages or art and music (learning which stimulate brain activity), you can offer more access to technology, and so on.

The benefits are almost endless.

On the other hand, when your schools don’t have much money, your kids are kinda screwed.

And it’s not just in the classroom that extra money means more opportunity.  Families with more wealth are able to afford their children more opportunities (tutors, cello lessons, sports camps, and so on) that not only look great on a resume and college application but that support and enhance cognitive development.

Those kinds of opportunities are the exact things that give students with such privileges the edge in competitive college entrance environments.

Now, do some students of Color have access to these kinds of opportunities? Absolutely!

Are some White students denied these opportunities? Undoubtedly (which is why Affirmative Action programs often take into account family income for White students).

The reality, though, is that students of Color are disproportionately denied access to these resources because of a simple thing called trans-generational wealth accumulation.

You see, though some gains have been made in the earning power of some People of Color, what matters more than income is wealth.

Income refers to the amount of money someone might make in their work from week to week or year to year.

Wealth, on the other hand, refers to the accumulated assets that a person or family has. Essentially wealth is everything a person owns, minus their debt.

And by that measure, there’s some pretty stark inequality.

If you’re anything like me, those numbers are a bit shocking in their simple disparity. So how is that the case?

Well, consider that wealth tends to be passed down from generation to generation. Parents help their kids with buying property or with getting an education, and the wealth that is passed down grows for the next generation.

And when it comes to trans-generational wealth accumulation, White people have a pretty long head start.

The Real Affirmative Action

The point is that whenever we talk about how people of Color of low-income folks are receiving an unfair advantage with Affirmative Action programs, we are having the wrong conversation.

The conversation we should be having is about the real Affirmative Action programs that give White folks a leg up in overt and subtle ways.

I don’t have to worry if I get a spot in college because of the advantage I had on the SAT or because of the lessons my college-educated parents taught that people will say that I only got in because of the color of my skin.

And post-college, I can rely on the fact that my name sounds White, which is going to increase my chances of being hired over a Black person by 50%.

We don’t have that conversation because it’s not in the best interest of those who are in control.

Think about it.

White folks are in the top positions in most colleges and are the heads of most large corporations.

White people want their kids to have access to the best jobs and educational opportunities just like every parent, so we’re sure as hell not going to give up the game and admit the ways that we benefit from informal, unstated Affirmative Action programs every single day.

That’s the real Affirmative Action that we should be discussing.

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Jamie Utt is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. He is the Founder and Director of Education at CivilSchools, a comprehensive bullying prevention program, a diversity and inclusion consultant, and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog. He blogs weekly at Change from Within. Learn more about his work at his website here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamie. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.