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Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Measuring the benefits of affirmative action

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on October 27, 2022)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a landmark case on affirmative action in late October. This case has the potential of ending race-conscious college admissions and affirmative action in general. Over the years, I have talked with many people who ask the question of why race consciousness should be included in any aspect of our lives, let alone the college admissions process. So, let me attempt to answer that question in the late October case – the case that is being brought to the high court by Students for Fair Admissions.

This organization consists of over 20,000 students and parents, the majority of whom are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who allege they have been denied acceptance into selective universities due to their race. Those who want to do away with affirmative action policies have also stated that these policies are only for people of color, specifically Black folks. While it is true that Black folks played a significant role in marching, protesting, and applying pressure to lawmakers to pass the 1964 civil rights bill, it is also true that the populations that have largely benefited from affirmative action are not solely Black, Brown, or Indigenous people. Let's explore.

Photo of people at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.
March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is a detailed piece of legislation that impacts everyone in our nation. This legislation consists of 11 titles. These titles sought to address everything from preventing voting barriers for Black folks, other racial minorities, and poor whites in the South, to prohibiting sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities via Title IX. Title VII (equal employment opportunity) was also instrumental in preventing discrimination based on pregnancy, age or disability. Before the passage of this legislation and other affirmative action policies, women were often denied entry into professional schools. Personally, I am very thankful that the civil rights act made it possible for some of the women in my life, such as my optometrist, my medical doctor, and my child's pediatrician, to be doing the work that they do. If we all took the time to fully interrogate affirmative action, we would not just see these anecdotal examples, but we would also recognize the quantifiable data that shows its impact.

Chart from US Census Bureau that shows women in the labor force over time, 1955 to 2005

In a 1995 report, the U.S. Department of Labor found that "6 million women overall had advances at their job that would not have been possible without affirmative action." The California Senate Government Committee found that "the percentage of women physicians tripled between 1970 and 2002, from 7.6 percent to 25.2 percent." Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun found that during the first two decades of affirmative action, the number of women in professions such as architects, doctors, lawyers, engineers, chemists, and college professors, all increased between 50% to 533%. The vast majority of these increases were dominated by white women. This should be no surprise to anyone who is aware that the 2019 median wealth for white families was $184,000, but only $38,000 for Latinx families and $23,000 for Black families.

When we look at these numbers and think about the rhetoric from leaders who say, "we should not talk about systemic racism as it only divides us," we should think very critically/carefully about this simple yet dangerous claim. To ignore the racial heritage and historical context of how certain groups of people were not able to build wealth in the country that they fought, bled, and in some cases died for means that you can't have an informed debate about the current state of the wealth gap as it persists today.

Photo of Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield, Vice Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity
Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield, Vice Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity

Furthermore, through years of research, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield, Vice Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis found that "affirmative action policies put into place in the wake of the civil rights movement have disproportionately benefited white women, and this is certainly true in today's workplaces. This is not to say that white women face an easy road, particularly in professions that are disproportionately dominated by men. But race and racism create specific, unique challenges for women of color that are too easily ignored with broad platitudes that seek to advance women's representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit."

I agree. To be clear, neither of us are implying that white women should not be in positions of power. What I am saying is if affirmative action is eliminated, it will not just hurt people of color. It will hurt women, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ folks, and anyone else who seeks to have "fairness in opportunity." While the passage of affirmative action policies has been helpful to some more than others, the 1995 Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs found that "even after passage of the civil rights laws...judicial and legislative victories were not enough to overcome long-entrenched discrimination." This shows me that if we instead decide to expand civil rights for all, we could help many disenfranchised peoples do more than just survive.

Lastly, for those who believe that affirmative action is just a handout for those who are not qualified for the job, I implore you to think about whom you are envisioning as the freeloaders. Is it the women who were given opportunities to work in professional industries? Is it people with disabilities? Is it poor white voters in the south who were discriminated against? Or, are you thinking of someone else? Ask yourself, do you envision a society that allows all groups who have historically been disenfranchised to be given opportunities to achieve their dreams, or do you want to live in a society that dangles the American dream carrot while simultaneously dismantling the policies that have allowed so very many of us to achieve their dreams?


Understanding the 1964 Civil Rights Act



Moseley-Braun, Carol. 1995. "Affirmative Action and the Glass Ceiling." The Black Scholar 25(3):7-15.

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