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May 23 2012

Affirmative action in education for white people

Whenever the subject of affirmative action in education comes up, it is always assumed that this is used to give preference to under-represented minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) in admissions to colleges.

But in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Zimmerman points out that white people are the beneficiaries of affirmative action too, though it is not called that.

According to the Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade, Asian-Americans need SAT scores about 140 points higher than white students—all other things being equal—to get into elite colleges. Everyone knows that black and Hispanic students get a leg up in the college-admissions sweepstakes, but how many people realize that white students, too, benefit from affirmative action when going head-to-head with Asians?

That just doesn’t make any sense. African-Americans and Hispanics have suffered discrimination across our history; whites haven’t. But if we make whites compete on a level playing field with Asians, the argument goes, our colleges will become, well, “too” Asian.

That’s exactly what American university leaders said about Jews in the early 20th century, of course, which is why elite institutions used quotas. Fortunately, those quotas started to come down in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as did similar limits on Jewish faculty members.

When it comes to any social statistic that is disaggregated by ethnicity, there is an implicit tendency in the US to view the statistics for whites as the norm and the desirable state and to view those of other groups in comparison to them. If the other groups do better, they are labeled over-achievers. If they do worse, they are under-achievers.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    And further complicating the whole mess of admissions is preferences for athletics, legacies, and involvement in more than just academics…all of which can be minority impacting as well.

  2. 2
    ollie

    There is also affirmative action at some universities ….for men!!! Reason: if the ratio of men falls too low at a school, the smarter women won’t go.

    This is embarrassing to me, to say the least.

  3. 3
    smrnda

    Ollie – I’ve heard that universities have to accept mediocre men since the decline in male academic performance would mean that gender-blind admissions would result in majority female student bodies.

    I think a lot of the ‘legacy’ deals and other such is just a way for white people to capitalize on having been privileged for so long – it’s quite likely that you have white applicants to elite universities whose families have attended the schools for a few generations. Plus, given how financial aid and state funding for schools is making education less affordable, schools are probably going to see more dumb rich kids overall.

    I kind of wonder about stats on “Asians” though since “Asian” covers a pretty wide range of ethnic groups.

  4. 4
    iknklast

    Of course, what a lot of people don’t know is that affirmative action is used in a lot of ways. While a government entity, for instance, does not absolutely have to hire a minority over a white male (there are hundreds of ways out of that!), there is very often no way to pass up a disabled veteran, even if that veteran is less qualified than the other applicants. You have to be able to prove that they do not meet the minimum qualifications.

    On the other hand, minorities (and women, who are actually a majority) merely have points added to their score, and still have to meet the minimum qualifications for a job.

    If you want to know how I know this, I spent several years working for Human Resources in a government agency, and one part of my job was to do some of the affirmative action studies. These were interesting in themselves; we merely counted the number of minorities working for us, and came to the conclusion that they were overrepresented in our agency. My boss, out of curiosity, had me go back and do a comparison by job title and salary. What do you know? The top jobs were 99.9% held by white males, while most of the white women were in lower paid clerical jobs and the black women were folding sheets and emptying bedpans at state schools.

    Meanwhile, at the schools, I discovered that, while there may be more women than men in the schools, the subtle discriminations against them continue. And many white students tend to dismiss all non-white students as lesser beings who were given a free ticket. This sets up a situation that makes it more difficult for the non-white, non-male students to succeed.

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