Who benefits the most? The answer may surprise you

People often associate affirmative action with efforts to end discrimination for people of color. But scholars say the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action policies are white women, from college campuses to the American workplace. 

White women today are more educated and make up a bigger slice of the workforce as a result of decades of affirmative action policies, scholars say. White women have also made inroads into corporate leadership that people of color and women of color have not. 

 The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action admissions policies used by Harvard College and the University of North Carolina to build diversity on their campuses. Legal observers say that decision will have huge consequences for higher education and could have significant ripple effects for corporate diversity programs.

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action refers to efforts to curb discrimination in education, employment and government contracting. 

Affirmative action was first used in 1935 in the Wagner Act, a federal law that gave workers the right to start and join unions. John F. Kennedy was the first president to use the term to mean advancing racial equality.

The term was originally meant to convey that the government should act affirmatively to end race and gender discrimination. But critics have equated affirmative action with racial quotas and preferences that they say give unfair advantages to people of color and discriminate against white people.

How have white women benefited from affirmative action?

Discussions about affirmative action tend to focus on race, but statistics show that it also has been an equalizer for white women in education and in the workplace.

A Labor Department report in 1995 found that since the 1960s, affirmative action had helped 5 million members of minority groups and 6 million women move up in the workplace.

“When we talk about institutions like higher education, we see that women in general are on par with men but we have severe underrepresentation of Black, indigenous and Latinx folks in colleges and universities and even greater disparities for women of color,” Texas A&M sociologist and lawyer Wendy Leo Moore told USA TODAY. “You can make the same analysis when we look at employment. Those are the kinds of things that indicate that on a structural level that white women have benefited.”

What does affirmative action data show?

In the last six decades, women have leapfrogged men in earning four-year degrees while Black and Latino students are still underrepresented in college admissions and graduation rates, especially in four-year colleges.

A similar trend has been seen in the workplace, according to a USA TODAY analysis of named executives at the nation’s 100 largest companies.

From 2020 to 2022, white women expanded their share of senior leadership jobs at twice the rate of women of color, though women remained outnumbered to 1. Despite marginal gains among men of color, white men still hold about two-thirds of the top jobs even though they account for just one-third of U.S. workers. 

Why do most white women oppose affirmative action?

If white women benefit from affirmative action, why do they oppose it?

Half of Americans do not approve of colleges and universities considering race in admissions, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. A majority of white adults disapprove of it, too. Some 70% of non-Hispanic white women somewhat or strongly oppose affirmative action, according to a 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

White women have also challenged affirmative action policies. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled against Abigail Fisher, a white student who said the University of Texas denied her admission because of her race. 

Moore says this opposition is the result of long-running anti-affirmative action campaigns from conservative groups that attack race-based affirmative action but not gender-based affirmative action.

“None of that same pressure is operating on the basis of gender,” she said. 

The result: Significant strides for white women, but not for women of color. “Because of the way we see women of color as their race before their gender, women of color haven’t benefited from it,” Moore said.

Supreme Court ruling and diversity:Supreme Court just reversed affirmative action. What that means for workplace diversity.

Contributing: Jayme Fraser

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