In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action on April 22, a 6-2 majority upheld an initiative passed by Michigan voters to ban the use of race, gender and other such categories in government decisions, especially in school admissions. This initiative barred universities in Michigan from taking race into account in admissions decisions.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, delivered an impassioned dissent, calling on all of us to speak candidly about race and to be honest with ourselves about the effects of centuries of racial discrimination.
Unfortunately, like so much of the discourse on affirmative action, the majority decision in the case did the opposite. It was grounded in faulty logic, misleadingly framing the issue at hand as a question of whether minorities should receive preferences.
If we as a nation want to make progress on racial equality, we need to change the way we think about affirmative action. The real issue this country must wrestle with today is not whether minorities should get preferences when it comes to accessing education or jobs, but whether members of the majority should stop getting preferences. As Sotomayor explained in her dissent, whites were overrepresented in college admissions relative to their proportion in the population until colleges began adopting race-sensitive admissions policies. It was only after the introduction of these policies that the student bodies at our nation’s colleges have begun to resemble the demographics of our country—and there’s still a long way to go.
My research and studies from scholars in a variety of disciplines also show that whites continue to be overrepresented in the best jobs and continue to benefit from special preferences in employment. This research demonstrates both that racial disparities are very much still with us—and that whites enjoy privileges and advantages others often can’t access.
In “The American Non-Dilemma,” I interviewed whites about their job histories and found that 99 percent of the people I interviewed got 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes by getting an inside edge with help from people they knew.
They got information other people didn’t have, benefited from contacts’ influence or were given an opportunity directly from someone who looked out for their interests.
Although the interviewees claimed that employers should hire the “best people,” whom they defined as those with the highest test scores, they themselves got jobs without meeting this criterion. Furthermore, I learned that many test scores include a subjective component. As one of the interviewees told me, “If you like the guy, you give him a higher score.”
In other cases, I learned of some interviewees who were given copies of the tests or at least were given a great deal of information about what would be on the tests so they could score better. But most didn’t take tests, and yet they got the jobs they sought.
In previous research, I examined large companies across the country and found when performance and qualifications are equal, U.S.-born white men get more opportunities to perform on the job as well as higher performance evaluations.
Minorities are much less likely to have this kind of inside edge because whites continue to be overrepresented in the best jobs and, thus, are more likely to have the power to make decisions about who gets hired. Whites also get an inside edge in the college admissions process. White students disproportionately come from high-income families and attend high-quality schools.
They are also more likely to be able to afford expensive test prep programs and extracurricular activities that enhance their applications. In addition, they are more likely to benefit from legacy admissions or have other admissions connections.
We need to stop thinking about affirmative action as a new special preference for minorities. In reality, it is an effort to alleviate the ongoing harm that minorities experience because of the preferences given to the white majority.
Absent race-sensitive admissions policies, white students have been and will continue to be overrepresented in college admissions and will continue to enjoy an edge in access to college preparation resources. And absent better workplace policies and practices, whites will continue to enjoy advantages over others in the job market. We can do better.•