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This article is part of In Session: The Teen Vogue Lesson Plan. Find the full lesson plan here.
What do you think of when you hear the term “affirmative action”?
When I ask students this question, the answers I get most often include “racial equality,” “racial justice,” “racial discrimination,” “racial preference,” or “quotas.” Rarely do people mention gender. So many are surprised to discover that white women have benefited more of affirmative action programs and policies than any other demographic group.
It’s no accident that affirmative action conversations tend to focus on race rather than gender. Instead, it is a predictable result of a campaign by well-funded and organized opponents of race-based civil rights programs in response to legal changes that resulted from the Civil rights movement of the 1960s.
When it became clear that these legal changes were imminent, wealthy white conservatives (with famous last names like Coors, DeVos, Scaife, and Hunt) mobilized massive resources to reverse the gains of civil rights initiatives, in general, and affirmative action, in particular. part of his strategy included a national public media campaign designed to create white opposition to affirmative action policies by associating the term “affirmative action” with quotas or racial preferences that they said favored people of color and discriminated against whites.
But in fact, few realize that the term affirmative action originated as a benign phrase used by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to indicate that the government needed to take decisive action, or act affirmatively, to end discrimination based on race and gender. Eventually, a multitude of policies and practices designed to remedy systematic racist and sexist discrimination came to be referred to under the generic term affirmative action.
Affirmative action came to mean policies as diverse as plans to recruit or advertise jobs in communities of color, and programs designed for employers to identify and correct the underrepresentation of women in particular jobs.
But right-wing opponents of affirmative action focused national attention on affirmative action based on race, rather than on gender. And they successfully cultivated a wide white opposition to the central ideas of affirmative action. So it should come as no surprise that white women, who may not even realize how they have benefited from affirmative action policies, are also some of the fiercest opponents of affirmative action.
It can be difficult to measure the extent to which different groups have benefited from affirmative action precisely because it is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of policies and programs. But there is clear structural indicators which reveal that white women have benefited from these policies more than any other group.
For example, when we look at the progress made in higher education to create more racially inclusive and representative campuses, we see that progress has been quite slow. Statistics reveal that Latinos and African-Americans are still underrepresented today in college admission and graduation rates, especially at four-year universities.