Yesterday, the Justice Department announced that it will investigate affirmative action at universities, and possibly sue colleges over their affirmative action policies. The news broke after the New York Times obtained an internal Justice Department memo, and quickly drew outrage from critics.
The Times reports that the memo was an advertisement for DOJ lawyers who would be interested in working on the project. Specifically, the Department intends to look into “intentional race-based discrimination,” which has been interpreted to mean that Sessions intends to accuse universities of discriminating against white applicants. Ironically, reports show that white students — specifically, white women — are the ones who benefit from affirmative action the most.
Affirmative action, a set of policies designed to correct persistent discrimination against minorities in employment practices and university admissions, was first introduced at the top level of government by President Kennedy in 1961. President Johnson implemented affirmative action in 1965.
Research has shown that the intervention of affirmative action policies have played a significant role in advancing professional opportunities for Black people, Native people, Latinos, and women between the early 1970’s and the early 2000’s. A 2012 report out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action between 1973 and 2003 were Black and Native people.
Though women were not explicitly included in affirmative action programs until later in the 1960s, women have substantially benefited from affirmative action. Research on employment and college graduation rates since affirmative action policies went into effect show major growth in the number of women who hold undergraduate and advanced degrees, managerial positions, and business ownership, especially among white women.
Despite the fact that white women have made significant strides in society at least partly because of affirmative action policies, there persists a myth that affirmative action somehow discriminates against white people. This idea is not new or in any way unique to the Trump administration.
Abigail Fisher, a white, graduating high school senior who was denied admission to the University of Texas, made waves in 2016 when her lawsuit against the school for racial discrimination went viral. Fisher claimed that she didn’t get into the school because she’s white, but the Supreme Court determined that UT committed no legal wrongs when it rejected Fisher’s application.
At the time of Fisher’s Supreme Court hearing, many media outlets reported on public opinion data that reflects paradoxical views on affirmative action. And, while white women have made significant sides in society with the assistance of affirmative action policies, this demographic tends to oppose affirmative action. According to a 2014 study, 70 percent of white women somewhat or strongly opposed affirmative action.
Race has been shown to be a key motivating factor for those who tend to disapprove of affirmative action. According to a 2016 report from the American Enterprise Institute, “In surveys that ask about affirmative action for different groups, support is consistently higher for affirmative action programs for women than for affirmative action programs for minorities.” This compounds the confusion, given that not all women are white, and thus some of the women who benefit will also be people of color.
Fisher, Sessions, and many others who oppose affirmative action also contend that by leveling the playing field between white men and minority groups, white people (especially men) will lose out on opportunities. But Understanding Prejudice, a nonprofit organization that offers educational resources about prejudice in society, notes that “government statistics do not support this myth.” Understanding Prejudice gives employment stats as an example: “Even if every unemployed Black worker in the United States were to displace a white worker, only two percent of whites would be affected.”
But even in the presence of misguided hand-wringing on the part of those who oppose affirmative action, AEI found in 2016 that “most people say affirmative action has not affected them personally.” While affirmative action is by no means the perfect solution to the long-term educational and professional disenfranchisement of women and racial minorities — or women who also happen to be part of racial minority groups — the policies have driven significant progress. No one knows yet if Sessions will be successful in his anti-affirmative action pursuit, but it’s clear the facts aren’t on his side.
What do you think of Sessions’ plan to investigate and maybe even sue universities over affirmative action practices? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo.
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