Throwback: Stop Saying Affirmative Action Disadvantages White Students

I’ve got a whole bunch of awesome irons in the fire at the moment, but that means that I don’t have as much time for writing new material (hence the number of guest posts recently).  However, I have been thinking a lot about affirmative action recently, and I thought it would make sense to repost an older article I had written.

I recently had a student come up to me after I gave a presentation at a conference, and he said something I often hear from young White people: “I agree with most of what you said, but you didn’t talk about the ways that White people are institutionally discriminated against.”  When I asked him to clarify what he meant, he said, “Well, like affirmative action, for instance. It is reverse racism!”


Considering how often this sentiment is expressed and considering the recent debate about what reparations can and should look like spurred by the amazing Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic entitled, “The Case for Reparations“, I figure it’s time to repost an article that I originally titled “Are White Students Being Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action” (though my friend Scott bemoaned the passive voice used in the title).


I notice that whenever I can 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.

Want to know if affirmative action really disadvantages White students? Read the rest of the post here.


11 thoughts on “Throwback: Stop Saying Affirmative Action Disadvantages White Students

  1. My alma mater (Augsburg College) was founded by Norwegian Lutherans and traditionally very white I went there from 2001-2007, towards the end of my schooling it became more diverse as the administration made that a focus. I am more in favor of policies based on financial need rather than race however I am not really opposed to the race-based ones.
    I also think in the realm of employment, there should be affirmative action policies in place for people with disabilities. In job listings, especially for government and nonprofit jobs I often see “Women, people of color and GLBT individuals are strongly encouraged to apply” but rarely is disability mentioned as a factor.

    • Appreciate the comment, and I would most definitely support disability-specific affirmative action as well. I would encourage you to read the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I link to above, as it does a good job of laying out the case for race-specific reparations (of which affirmative action could be a part).

  2. […] them). The original post doesn’t include the little cartoon strip that the re-post (where I first saw it) had, which I think gets the message across quite […]

  3. It’s ignorant to think that affirmative action does not disadvantage white students. I have experienced this firsthand. Racism isn’t just discrimination of whites against blacks; it’s discrimination against ANY race, and that includes whites.

    • No, it’s an empirical reality that affirmative action doesn’t disadvantage White students. Read the article.

      • Yes, because your article will inform me more than my own personal experience and the ADMITTANCE of admissions counselors (albeit former ones who can now freely spill about their experiences) that affirmative action is alive and well. Okay.

        I have several URM friends who would agree.

      • Why should race even be a question on college apps? If admissions are need-blind, they should be race-blind as well. If colleges need to report demographics, they can do so after admitting students.

  4. First of all, the point of research (much of which is highlighted in the article) is to zoom the lens out from personal experience to look at overall trends and to understand things outside of our own myopic viewpoint which (as is the case here) can at times be shielded by privilege. Your PERCEPTION is that you were discriminated against because of affirmative action. The data over years of research says that White students still are disproportionately ADVANTAGED in systems where AA is used.

    Second, relatively few schools are need-blind in their admission policies, but need-blind policies shouldn’t be compared to racial awareness, as the most fundamental structuring in our society is around race. The only way to address racial inequity in our society (as is made clear in the article you refuse to read but want to comment on) is to overtly address racial inequity.

    • I actually did read the article. I am a proponent of diversifying colleges, the workplace, etc but this should NOT be done at the expense of more qualified kids. One kid has a 1540 SAT, several AP classes, strong extracurriculars and leadership, trilingual, high GPA, fantastic recs and essays, and so on. The other has a low 1100s SAT score, no advanced classes, isn’t involved in anything, horrible recs b/c said student never participates and in fact sleeps during many classes. When student #2 gets in and student #1 does not, and the only differing factor is race, it is safe to say that race was a factor.

      I have heard this from several people who worked in admissions, and there are some institutions where this trend is especially prevalent. These people admitted that they were specifically looking for minorities to diversify their class, even if these people were barely qualified for admittance to an Ivy League school – no, strike that, not qualified at all. THAT is where diversification becomes an issue – when a student working his/her ass off does not get rewarded, and someone else who can’t be bothered to take advantage of resources granted to them, is rewarded based on race.

      It is not a “perception”; it was backed by many people, including the school itself, so this was not merely me *thinking* that it was race-based. I have seen this happen to several other people too, and whether or not this is part of a larger trend, the point remains that affirmative action is still being systematically used against qualified students. If this was the other way around, I’m sure you’d be up in arms about the racism and discrimination, but God forbid we use those terms if discussing a white student… Guess we will have to agree to disagree.

      • You’re creating a “straw man” – the situation you’re describing is not based in reality. “But someone told me and they work in admissions” is not empirical evidence. There have been countless studies on the subject, and none of them indicate that White students are being discriminated against in any systemic way in admissions. Quite to the contrary, White students receive countless forms of Affirmative Action in our society based on funding of schools, access to extra-curriculars, test prep programs, etc. that are systemically denied to students of Color throughout the United States. White students receive the bulk of scholarships in this country and are hugely disproportionately granted private and “merit-based” scholarships ( that make college accessible. What you’re saying is, “I refuse to acknowledge 30 years of research that all points in one direction on this subject because I have a perception that I was once discriminated against and because some people told me that they saw it happen.” That’s using an N of 1 to argue with a whole host of research. It’s like saying, “Climate change can’t be happening because it’s cold where I am standing at this moment.”

        If you are opposed to affirmative action, then you do not care about realizing equity in colleges and universities. Because your hyper-simplistic “merit based” arguments are thinly-veiled Affirmative Action for White students, which is why White students continue to be accepted and to graduate from colleges and universities at disproportionate rates.

    • Might I add, Jamie, that I agree that white students generally are more advantaged in the process itself (able to afford extensive tutoring, prep, etc.) HOWEVER, the two students mentioned in my example were given the same resources. Both attended a highly prestigious, college-preparatory high school that offered an extensive array of resources available to both students. One took advantage of them; the other was frankly too lazy to. Now, you tell me, why the lazy student should be rewarded??

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