Women and Affirmative Action

Why Affirmative Action is Important for Women

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What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination between applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.  Applicants may be seeking admission to an educational program or looking for professional employment.”  Although affirmative action was created to combat discrimination, it is often accused of promoting preferential treatment.


Why is affirmative action controversial?

Myths abound about affirmative action: the idea that while affirmative action may have been necessary 30 or 40 years ago, but we have a pretty level playing field now. Still, although serious progress has been made, women still earn only 77 cents on the dollar. Plus, Blacks continue to have twice the unemployment rate and infant mortality rate of Whites. And even though opponents to affirmative action might claim that they simply reflect public opinion, 70% of Americans are in favor of affirmative action programs.  

Affirmative action clearly has an image issue, as is oftentimes synonymous with “quotas” which are actually  illegal. However, when Americans are given the proper definition of affirmative action they are generally in favor of it.

Nevertheless, despite these reasons for affirmative action’s existence it has been steadily attacked since the 1970s.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the ban on affirmative action in Michigan and in response Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered a powerful dissent in opposition to the ruling stating, “In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable.

As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.” Indeed, this is the greatest issue with affirmative action—not that it exists, but that so often we are offended at the discussion of preferential treatment and loathe to recognize the deeply entrenched inequities that are the consequences of centuries of discrimination.

Although the opposition towards affirmative action is adamant about claiming fairness, dismissing affirmative action before institution inequities are fully addressed is a recipe for disaster and proof that our post-racial society is far from ready to deal with the legacies of racism and sexism. As Koritha Mitchell writes, “The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold Michigan's voter-approved ban on affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities reinforces an ugly reality: that most Americans support affirmative action only when it is for whites and no one else. Nearly every time American rhetoric privileges states' rights, it leaves marginalized groups open to even bolder discrimination than they already encounter.

Michigan is simply reminding us that the South has never been the only place where Americans believe that whites are the only ones who should enjoy equal protection.”


What is affirmative action’s connection to women?

As both the defeat of the Paycheck Fairness Act and the existence of Equal Pay Day reveals, women are still at a great disadvantage when it comes to pay. Contrary to popular believe, however, affirmative action has been a boon to women, particularly white women. Sally Kohn writes, “While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action in the subsequent years, data and studies suggest women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately. According to one study, in 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action.”

Affirmative action has the potential to ameliorate the conditions of marginalized peoples, especially if we are paying attention to the intersections of race, class, and gender. It is important to note, however, that discriminatory practices are still legal for particular classes of people. For example, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against trans people in many states. The fact of the matter is that affirmative action does not take things far enough, especially when we consider how the wide range of discriminatory practices that still occur.

The erosion of affirmative action hurts the progress of justice, especially for women of color. If affirmative action is completely eroded, many women will face an even more difficult landscape in the public sphere.