Dispelling Myths: White Woman are not the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action

Don’t believe everything that Jesse Jackson tells you.

There is a common myth that Affirmative Action benefits white women that has been perpetrated by many advocates of racial preferences including Jesse Jackson.

The logic goes that the standards of living, wages, and number of white women in positions of power has grown significantly since the advent of affirmative action in 1960’s, and therefore white women are the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Many studies and articles have made this claim. These studies largely ignore the effects of other factors and trends, such as economic convergence, changing social norms, and antidiscrimination laws, on the economic status of white woman.

Without going into great detail, its safe to say that there has been a large increase in the number and enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in the United States since the 1960’s. At the same time, social norms have also changed, encouraging woman to enter the workforce and seek higher education in fields such as architecture and medicine that were once largely restricted to men. These factors are separate from affirmative action and their economic impact is enormous but difficult to measure.

At the University of Chicago, were learned about another economic phenomena called convergence that may also help to improve the economic status of white woman. In the absence of legal, social, and economic pressures, the economic well being of two similar groups of people will converge. The classic example of economic convergence is the United Kingdom and Ireland. For centuries, Ireland was an exploited colony of the United Kingdom, with much lower standards of living. Heard of the Irish Potato Famine? It was caused by British mismanagement of the Irish economy. This all changed with the end of colonialism in the early 20th century and the independence of Ireland. Irish standards of living rapidly increased until they actually surpassed those of the United Kingdom. Of course, the European Union would love to claim credit for the “Celtic Tiger” of Ireland’s economic success, but the probable cause is actually simple economic convergence.

So how are Ireland and the UK relevant for white women and affirmative action? For centuries, white women were oppressed and discouraged from pursing education and employment opportunities based on social norms and law. However, white woman and men both have the same parents and the same economic starting point. As social, legal, and economic pressures against woman in the workforce and in higher education disappear, woman and men experience rapid economic convergence.

This leads to all the studies that claim that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action are white woman. These studies are correct is saying that the standards of living, education, and wages of woman have increased dramatically since the 1960’s. However, they suffer from attribution bias. The authors are unable to separate the impact of changing laws, social norms, economic convergence, and affirmative action on the economic status of white woman. Since many of the authors of these studies are left-leaning affirmative action supporters, they have a tendency to attribute ALL of the positive changes in the status of woman to affirmative action.

Let’s be clear. Ending affirmative action does not mean abolishing antidiscrimination laws, preserving outdated social norms, and reversing economic convergence. Affirmative action opponents simply say that race and gender should not be used as factors in assessing the qualifications of candidates. The long term impact of this change is difficult to measure.

It’s not really valid to attribute the enormous improvement in the economic well being of white woman over the last 5 decades purely to affirmative action.