Are White Students Being Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

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!

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Talking True LGBTQ Equality

Often when I am presenting around the country, I bring up the issue of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) rights, and I get this response, “Jamie, I understand what you’re trying to say, but I don’t believe it is morally acceptable for someone to be Gay.”

Though I find this sentiment troubling and filled with heterosexism, I find it best not to respond to the question directly.  Instead, I say, “Well, I am not going to engage you on that point.  Instead, let me ask you a question.  Should someone, regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity, feel safe to walk the streets and feel secure in their job, in their livelihood?”

Every time I have asked this question, I get the same answer: an enthusiastic YES!

Therein lies the problem.  Our society treats Lesbian, Gy, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning folks as second-class citizens.  How can we even begin a conversation about marriage equality when LGBTQ people cannot walk down the street, apply for a job, or express themselves openly in their workplace without fear?

This morning I was reading the news, and I came across an article describing the findings of Harvard researcher Andras Tilcsik.  Tilcsik sent out the two counterfeit resumes to the same 1700 job openings around the country.  The only real difference between the resumes is that half identified the applicant as having been the treasurer in a Gay college campus organization.  Tilcsik found that those resumes that identified the candidate as Gay (or at minimum a Straight Ally) were 40% less likely to get a call back than the resumes that said nothing of Sexual Orientation.  Notably, there was also tremendous regional differences, with those employers in the Midwest and South much more likely to discriminate than those in, say, the North East.

I suppose I wasn’t at all surprised by the findings of the study, but it did catch my eye because it simply adds to the patchwork of discrimination against LGBTQ people in this country.

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Let Gay Men Donate Blood

To allow bigotry to contribute to a public health crisis leaves the realm of hurtful and enters the realm of absurdity, but that is exactly what is happening in the United States today.

Around the country, the American Red Cross is calling for donors to step up to donate blood in the face of severe blood reserve shortages in almost every state.  In the context of this reality, blood donation centers are encouraging anyone eligible under federal guidelines to step forward and donate.  But that meas that if you have had a tattoo in the least year or have visited a country where malaria is present in the last year, you’ve gotta wait a little.

Oh, and if you’re a man and have had sexual contact with a man since 1977, you can never donate blood.  Not once.  Never.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “WHAT!?  That can’t be right!  That is blatant homophobic discrimination!”  Well, while it may be blatant homophobic discrimination, it is also federal law.

What’s worse is that you don’t need to be actually gay.  Because of the law, screeners have turned away folks like Aaron Pace, a Straight Indiana man who was turned away from a donation center for appearing gay.

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, isn’t this just some sort of antiquated crap that just needs to be done away with?”  Well, while it is antiquated poo that needs to be disposed of, it was upheld by the Congressional Health and Human Services Committee last summer.

Those in Congress and around the country who support the ban on Gay men donating blood point to the fact that half of new HIV infections in 2005 were among Gay men, but they ignore the fact that the fastest growing rates of HIV are among young women, African American women, and Hispanic women.  Would the federal government consider banning African American women from donating?  No!  That’s absurd.  Such a policy would not even be considered, and if it were enacted, public outcry against the racism and sexism would be loud.

After all, blood banks are now required to screen all blood with advanced screening processes to ensure that it is safe for transmission to those who need it.  Thus, there is no need for supposed “lifestyle questions” that blatantly discriminate against Gay men.  So what explanation is there for discriminating?

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The Racialized Wealth Gap

For this week’s post, I wanted to highlight a study done by researchers at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy that was released recently.

The study found that the wealth disparity between White and Black households has more than quadrupled, regardless of whether a family (White or Black) is making a lot of money or a little bit of money.  To understand the study, it’s important to understand the difference between wealth and income.  Wealth refers to the total net assets to which a person has access (owning a house, a car, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc).  Income, on the other hand, is the amount of money that someone is making at any given time.

As such, the study found that the average White family has 18 times the wealth of the average Hispanic family and 20 times the wealth of the average Black family.  This has been a problem for a while (as in 1995, White families had 7x the wealth of Black or Hispanic families), but the current economic crisis has brought the wealth gap to historic inequality.

That kind of disparity was hard for me to understand until I saw it in dollar amounts.  The median white household today has a net wealth of approximately $113,000, while the median Hispanic family has a net wealth of $6,325 and the median Black family has a net wealth of $5,667.

Check out a great video from CBS News that highlights the problem.

Now the frustrating part of this study is that it should be a call to reform in the United States, a call for us to understand the root causes of this problem and look for just and equitable policies that can change this reality.

However, we list in a society that says that regardless of what racist or sexist policies exist, regardless of what weight history places on the current generation, or regardless of what sociological patterns exist, we live in a society of rugged individualists.  If your net worth is low, it must be your fault.  Thus, much of the commentary and commenting being done across the internet in response to this startling study has been placing blame on Black and Hispanic families for (among other things) not saving enough or for being too lazy (despite the fact that white and black families save at the same rates).

However, we do not live in isolation.  We are a product of our history, and when one group of people has a 600 year jump on wealth accumulation (or even a 10 year jump), that makes for some drastic inequality, for wealth (not income) is what is passed from generation to generation.

For those who doubt the concept of white privilege, this is yet another example of the ways in which we, as white people, have a leg up.  Our families have had, for the most part, significantly longer than families of color to accumulate wealth and invest our wealth in areas that are less liquid (in bonds as opposed to the housing market).  As such, we have easier access to the ever-more-expensive world of college education, and we have more stability and safety during times of economic upheaval.  Even our tax policy today is designed to benefit white folks, for our lowest tax rates are on investment or capital gains, which, according to this study, are primarily a tool of white wealth.

In this time of calls for economic reform, there is indeed a need for economic reform, reform that helps those who have been historically and are currently oppressed and discriminated against to accrue wealth in ways that will lead to a more just nation.