White Privilege Continues to Reign in Admissions: The Debate about Affirmative Action

by Katie Shine

© Urban Institute

Affirmative Action. Frequently contested in public debates, it is often seriously misunderstood. Although the policy offers concrete benefits for marginalized minorities in the U.S., our nation’s deep entanglement with race and racism has made it difficult for affirmative action to battle its constant bedfellow: white privilege.  After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of federal guidelines, affirmative action was developed to ameliorate the effects of educational segregation. Surprisingly, the charge was led by a former advocate for segregation, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The mandate of “nondiscrimination under a ‘race-blind Constitution’” was a fortunate byproduct of the tireless efforts of activists during the civil rights movement in the 1960s after years of Jim Crow segregation.1Hugh Davis Graham, “The Origins of Affirmative Action”, (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523, 1992), 50. Affirmative action attempted to correct the systemic racism that has always pervaded America. Today, affirmative action is most often debated when discussing admission to elite universities, especially the stubbornly low admission rates and retention rates of non-white students. Affirmative action critics and proponents however both need to remember the historical manifestations for white privilege and how its weight still silently controls which Amerians have the best chances to succeed in higher education.

I will start my discussion with the themes that most affect the affirmative action debate: the achievement gap; and white privilege. Next, I will explore the negative aspects of ‘color blindness’ as a solution to the racial achievement gap in college admissions; and historians’ arguments that the history of American racism has led to the gap. I will then transition to the importance of understanding affirmative action as a history, including the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court case involving Allan Bakke. Finally, I will conclude with a contemporary look at the challenges that admissions offices face, a personal account on class and racial discrimination during one man’s path to earning degrees from elite universities, and my final thoughts on this debate and its (lack of) mention of the lingering specter of white privilege. 

Affirmative action addresses two themes: the academic achievement gap; and the privilege of “whiteness”. Who has historically had the best chances for success in American society? In a 1965 public debate between the politically conservative scholar, William F. Buckley Jr., and the renowned African-American author, James Baldwin, Buckley argued that black Americans needed to “aspire” to the conditions of whiteness…however unattainable”.2Thomas Meaney, “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”, (The New York Times, 2019). He implied that African-Americans must rise up, despite impossible socio-economic obstacles and a history of mistreatment, to the standard of “whiteness”. His statement also exonerated white Americans as the gatekeepers for whiteness. To be “white” often implied than an individual could possess increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Baldwin repudiated Buckley’s ideas and countered that it is imperative that white Americans recognize their own role in propping up racism for the past three centuries. Whiteness is an inherent privilege.3Meany. It is a privilege that is still visible in higher education. The introduction of affirmative action was an attempt to reorient the American past and create a more prosperous future for those that had been discriminated against.4David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness (Basic Books, 2006) , 8. 

However, affirmative action has left something to be desired. The racial gap in higher education has a complicated, historically contingent set of causes including: disparities in family income; the lack of a college-going culture in some communities; and the harmful stereotype of the diminished academic potential of non-white youths. Race remains integrated into our norms. The average non-white American college applicant faces steep obstacles when creating an ideal college application. As Noel Ignatiev and Cheryl Harris, have noted, “whiteness”, the factor that privileges one race over another, is a form of power. The advantages of “whiteness” were immediately visible to recently arrived Irish immigrants in the 19th century who saw the benefit of presenting themselves as “white” to assimilate into “white” culture in the U.S. This is unfortunately “something in the atmosphere of America” that Irish immigrants to America, with no previous understanding of whiteness as a social status, wryly noted.5Roediger, 31. Whiteness as a privilege implies that one “has a master…and has to beg for the privilege”.6Roediger, 79. Buckley heralded this aspect of “begging” in his sparring with Baldwin when he stated that whiteness is not a privilege “attainable” for all.7Meaney. White privilege has benefited a large portion of white Americans in their ability to apply to college, pursue careers, and own a home. Erasing America’s racial past by declaring affirmative action as the new beginning to a “colorblind” America is naive at best, and destructive at worse. Although minority representation in higher education has increased since affirmative action’s debut in the 1960s, there is still work to be done. By having college campuses that are less racially diverse than the actual representation of our nation, our educational leaders decrease the chances that white Americans will recognize their white privilege and that both white and non-white Americans will communicate and engage more meaningfully and regularly.8Ignatiev, 5.  

Colorblind policies are ineffectual because they negate race as a factor of consideration in admissions. Instead, racially conscious admissions policies offer a way to recognize the different experiences, stigmas, and obstacles that many non-white Americans face. One of these obstacles is the racial inequality in the caliber of American public schools.9Ignatiev, 57-62. Racial inequality in a student’s college preparation starts well before senior year. An average American student’s kindergarten to 12th grade education, tied with his or her socioeconomic background, is the most important indicator if he or she will be able to afford and attend college.10Ignatiev, 149. The college admissions process’ emphasis on standardized test scores and the paucity of financial aid decreases the chance that the average low-income, non-white student will even apply.11Ignatiev, 149-150. Universities also face steep challenges such as reviewing thousands of applications with a short-staffed admissions team; balancing tuition revenue and meeting enrollment targets; and battling their institution’s reputation as too homogenous or expensive for students to consider applying to.  

© The New York Times (2017)

Critics of affirmative action argue that the policy takes university seats away from qualified white Americans and subsequently offers them to less qualified minority students. Not only is this statement statistically false but it ignores the fact that white students’ ancestors have had “preferential treatment” in the realm of education, housing, legacy admissions, and wealth acquisition for decades.12Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 4-5. In an infamous veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, President Andrew Johnson rejected the call for equality for African-Americans based upon the idea that developing a means of opportunity for blacks was “infinitely beyond any that the Central Government have ever provided for the white race”.13Wise, 29. This claim reveals the general ignorance of white privilege that has resurfaced in the arguments of affirmative action critics as well. By not discussing white privilege, affirmative action proponents are missing a pivotal opportunity for how to defeat the arguments of their opponents and debunk their misleading statements tied to historical advantages for most white Americans.Some of these quesitonable arguments include: that whites lose out on college spots; that colleges decrease the quality of their student body by increasing the representation of non-whites; that non-white students lose “sef-esteem” by being admitted to rigorous universities; and most offensively, that non-whites, especially African-Americans, are not admitted into select unviersities due to a “cultural deficiency”.14Wise, 69-70.

Historians, such as Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action Was White, have recognized that racial discrimination towards non-whites is the primary reason for the racial educational achievement gap. The gap is interconnected to whiteness as a privilege as well as the disparity between white and non-white family incomes, access to equitable hiring practices, and opportunities for home ownership. Particularly after the Second World War, the racial inequality grew due in part to the uneven employment, financial, and educational application of the benefits of the GI Bill to non-white veterans.15Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, (W.W. Norton, 2005), 14-15. However, the debate often instead is unfortunately relegated to a handful of scattered Supreme Court Case decisions and the myths of the disadvantages conferred upon white college applicants from affirmative action.16Katznelson, 150-152. Affirmative action-related Supreme Court cases themselves are only one component and their complexities are often misunderstood. This has led to the unhelpful vague idea that employing colorblindness and introducing optimistic-sounding diversity initiatives are the best methods.

The 1978 Supreme Court Case of a white applicant, Allan Bakke, appealing his rejection to the University of California Medical School due to supposed racial discrimination, is often cited in the affirmative action fracas. Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke was noted as technically a victory for Allan Bakke who claimed that he was discriminated against in a post-affirmative action admissions tactic: the racial quota system. The decision was 5-4 in Bakke’s favor but the results also reveal something deeper about our nation’s public misconceptions about the unintended benefits of the policy.17Katznelson, 151-156. The court case was also a  victory for affirmative action: the idea that race should be a conscious factor of consideration for elite universities’ enrollment practices even if the racial quota system itself was inadvisable. Several of the justices’ statements imply that race consciousness was the appropriate approach to carry out affirmative action. University admissions offices have made attempts to increase the representation of low-income, minority students in recent years but they are hounded by a legitimate fear regarding creating enough annual tuition revenue. 

In September 2019, the New York Times focused on the admissions practices of an elite liberal arts, predominantly white institution, Trinity College, and its director, Angel Perez. Perez highlights the mismatch between enrollment managers’ intentions to increase the representation of minority students yet also admit enough affluent students to balance the budget. Perez notes he has to teach his colleagues “about the fact that you can’t have it all at some time. You’ve got to pick which goals you’re going to pursue”.18Paul Tough, “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”, (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). Perez’s view is one that is less publicized but shared among other racially conscious enrollment managers and affirmative action advocates. Low-income, minority students have been systematically disadvantaged by whiteness as a privilege in college admissions and enrollment.19Tough. However, Perez recognizes that admitting more low-income, minority students will lead to reduced tuition revenue, smaller budgets, and reduced services in order to offer more aid to these students. As more non-white college graduates have explained the difficult circumstances surrounding their journey to collegiate success, a clearer picture has emerged as to how race in America affects them daily.  Anthony Abraham Jack, Amherst College alumnus, and Harvard doctoral fellow, explained how growing up as a low-income, black male near Miami was a constant battle against the effects of racial inequality in his community. He explained that students with similar childhoods have had an immensely challenging college application process. How do they voice their interaction with violence, hunger, financial insecurity, or low-quality schools into their college essay while maintaining their pride? How do they take on rigorous AP courses and extracurricular activities if their school doesn’t even offer them? How do they defeat the stereotype of cultural deficiency? How do they battle their own inaccurate perceptions of their potential success?20Anthony Abraham Jack,“I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part” (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). 

In conclusion, the history of race and white privilege is essential for all policy advocates, scholars, higher education officials, and students to know. I admit that this is my own first intensive course on race in America as a graduate student. However, by recognizing my own white privilege, dissecting the impact of race upon America’s educational system and collegiate affirmative action programs, I can now see the historically influenced relationship between race, higher education and discrimination in my own country. The differing rates of university admission and campus representation between white and non-white Americans are the result of a protracted process of America’s history of privileging whiteness. This has unfortunately maintained a segregated America with a deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots. 


Graham, Hugh Davis. “The Origins of Affirmative Action: Civil Rights and the Regulatory State.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523 (1992): 50-62. 

Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. Routledge. 

Jack, Anthony Abraham. “I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part”.The New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2019

Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. W.W. Norton.

Meaney, Thomas. “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”. The New York Times, October 18, 2019.

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Roediger, David R. 2006. Working Toward Whiteness. Basic Books. 

Tough, Paul. “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”. The New York Times Magazine. September 10, 2019. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.