Does Affirmative Action for Blacks Harm Whites? Some Evidence from the Higher Education Arena

By Wilson, Hugh A. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Does Affirmative Action for Blacks Harm Whites? Some Evidence from the Higher Education Arena


Wilson, Hugh A., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Abstract

The resistance to affirmative action in education, while couched in moral terms of merit and individuality, very often implied group concerns, i.e. black gains resulted in white losses. In this study we analyzed undergraduate and graduate enrollment trends of various ethnic and racial groups between 1976-1994 to address the question: have black gains in higher education resulted in harm to whites? The study concluded that black gains in higher education did not come at the expense of whites. The substantial gains among Asians, Latinos, and nonresident aliens better explain the slower rate of white gains. There was also some very tentative evidence that the problem of white males in higher education may be a result of the upsurge of white women's access to higher education.

Introduction

In the two decades after World War II, the United States government, both explicitly and implicitly, intervened in the presumed market economy of the time to ensure educational advancement, job acquisition, and housing security for Americans. This three pronged strategy generally ensured the move of a substantial number of Americans, primarily white, into the middle class.

Federal support for educational advancement was secured through the 1944 G.I. Bill for returning veterans of WWII; the College Housing Loan Program of 1950 which subsidized the building of college dormitories; the Federal Student Loan Program of 1958; the National Defense Education Act of 1958 which subsidized science programs after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik; and substantially increased subsidies in 1960 for land grant colleges (Clowse, 1981; Russell, 1951; Babbidge and Rosenzweig, 1962; Drew, 1970; Longenecker, 1963; Pusey, 1963).

These bipartisan efforts in support of higher education subsidies benefited largely white Americans during the two decades after the close of World War II. Blacks, up until the late 1960's, were systematically excluded from America's white college campuses. During the year that the Supreme Court found segregated public education unconstitutional -- Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) -- blacks constituted only one percent of the entering freshmen classes of white universities. By the mid-1960's, this percentage had risen to 2% (JBHE, Winter 1993/94:7). The exclusion of black Americans from these federal efforts led President Lyndon B. Johnson and succeeding Democratic and Republican Presidents of the 1960's and 1970's, along with Democratic Congresses and the Supreme Court, to utilize legislative, administrative and judicial remedies to ensure black access to higher education (Kahlenberg, 1996; Graham, 1994; McWhirter, 1996).

The withdrawal of governmental support to ensure black access to higher education began in earnest with the ascent of the Reagan Administration. This strategy to halt all affirmative action programs(1) was directed by the Justice Department and the Administration's appointment of conservative federal judges who were sympathetic to the Administration's position (N.Y. Times, 4/3/85: A 16; N.Y. Times 1/6/85: 20; Newsday, 2/11/ 86: 15; Newsday, 8/2/85: 17).

The rationale offered by the Reagan administration, and the subsequent Bush Administration, for these efforts to overturn previous bipartisan policies, was that affirmative action constituted reverse discrimination, thus punishing whites who were not responsible for past, historic discriminatory policies; government could only be responsible for equal opportunity, not equal results, and hence individuals (as opposed to groups) must survive based on each person's individual capabilities; discrimination was an individually directed practice rather than group directed and therefore remedies should be individual and specific rather than group oriented and expansive (N.Y. Times 4/30/85: 1, A23; Newsday 5/20/86: 5; Newsday, 5/23/81: 5).

The resistance to affirmative action in education, while couched in moral terms of merit and individuality, very often came back to the core group concerns.

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