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Ask the White Guy: Affirmative Action Benefits Whites Too … More Than You Think

This Black woman says her white colleagues hold fewer degrees and receive higher salaries. Who really benefits from affirmative action?

Ask the White Guy, Luke Visconti, DiversityInc CEOQuestion:
As an educated black female, how is it that I have worked alongside several whites (both male and female) in Fortune 500 companies that are my peers in the management ranks that only have obtained high-school diplomas and their salary levels and oftentimes their titles are higher than mine and all the other minority managers. Yet I, and others that look like me, are considered products of affirmative action? What kind of ‘action’ would you label that? My résumé would never have made it out of the inbox had I not have obtained at least two degrees and a substantive amount of experience in my field. I have yet to work alongside someone of color in a management position that doesn’t have at least one degree, usually they have two or more.

Who really is the recipient of affirmative action here? Perhaps we should conduct a study to see who the people at the top are, and how they got there and what credentials are in place (and I’m not taking about the weekend executive degree programs). We may find that we need a new label for that type of action! We may be surprised to find out who has historically received the perks.

Answer:
You’re absolutely right. Practically every white person in this country disproportionately benefits from “affirmative action.”

President Obama was the recipient of affirmative action. Professor Ira Katznelson wrote When Affirmative Action Was White to document how 20th-century social programs (Social Security, the GI Bill, Great Society) benefited mostly white people and were purposefully subverted to be that way by Southern legislators under the old rubric of “states rights,” which is often the last refuge of bigots. My friend, the great attorney Weldon Latham, recently told me a story about white-shoe law-firm partners who would not qualify to be recruited into their own firms if the standards were equally applied.

As president of the Anti-Slavery Society, Benjamin Franklin wrote the most elegant proposal for affirmative action that I’ve ever read. It was one-half of a page (the best ideas are often not complicated). He understood that ending slavery was not enough … it was the obligation of our society to provide for and nurture people restored to freedom. We have not followed his advice and pay the price to this day.

Ultimately, affirmative-action programs are necessary to provide access for people who were prevented access by reasons of racism. They are a benefit to our entire society because increasing wealth for underrepresented groups increases wealth for all. Here’s a quick fact: Black households have one-tenth the wealth of white households in this country. If our society caught black households up it would be the equivalent of injecting the entire GDP of Japan into our economy. Who would benefit the most from this? White people. A rising tide lifts all boats, and there are more “white boats” in the bay.

Unfortunately, this does not help you. It is my personal observation that many of the Black women executives I know are laboring at least two levels below where they should be. I suggest you consider where you’re working. There are some companies that have much better management than most. The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity is a great place to start looking.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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8 Comments

  • The black woman who observes that she is more qualified than her white colleagues is probably on to something. My research with Kevin Stainback shows that after the civil rights act the hiring of more black men, black women, and white women tended to increase good job opportunities for white men. A higher proportion of white men got into skilled blue collar, professional and managerial jobs as a result. The same holds today in cities with large non-white labor forces.

  • I’m always concerned with discrimination charges that lack merit, because of the real and perceived damages to credible claims that they causes. Just because a woman/minority has the same title as someone else does not entitle them to the same pay. Several questions must be asked and that data provided. Are years of service the same, is performance the same are the primary two questions/piece of information that “must” be provided. Variances in theses two areas can get these charges thrown out almost immediately! (And create a lot of skepticism for future claims.) When these two are the same and differences in compensation exist there are legitimate grounds for a case. When there is not, the person is crying wolf!

    • Joe I agree with you. However, if both the white and the Black person are promoted at the same time to a similiar position or someone is promoted later and you have been doing that job an they are being paid a higher salary then there is a problem. Women of color are hit twice, they are a female and they are of color!!
      I have seen where most whites (not all) believes that claims of racism are non legitimate or as you put it, cring wolf!!

  • Joe Yates

    Fran, I partially agree with you! First I am a black middle age male professional who has worked in management from supervisory level to the president level for over a 30 years period. I agree with you on the basis of your example but as the, old folks use to say, “the devil is in the details”! I have reviewed several of these claims and have seen them “for the most part” fall apart when the details are reviewed! Example I’ve seen cases where a male with 10 years more of service and a female were promoted at roughly the same time to the same titled position and she felt that their starting pay in the new position should have been equalized! Bluntly stated, not in the real world! Not even in the public sector! But, she was miserable because she felt she was being discriminated against! We throw around the term “wage/salary inequity” so loosely that problems are assumed that don’t exist! Where they exist I champion stomping them out! Just make sure the details are reviewed before committing emotional energy!

  • LIBERTYSINCURSION

    Oh, how simple minded of me to think that laws designed in the actual writing itself to benefit minorities only actually benefits minorities only, who would’ve thought. Seriously though, I don’t buy it for a moment that these white people that she supposedly works with in a fortune 500 company barely made it out of high school with a diploma and are now given jobs that they don’t deserve. Here once again we have an African American women doing what they and their male counterparts have been doing for the last 40 years. Laying full claim and ownership to the benefits that come with what they see as the positive part of Affirmative Action, meaning the education, the job, the financial bonuses and all the other perks that come with it.

    And assigning the negative parts of Affirmative Action like discriminating against more qualified hard working and deserving people because of the color of their skin, or hiring and promoting a person beyond what they’ve earned because of the color of their skin to white people. This kind of, when things go right I did it, when things go wrong you did it behavior, sadly permeates the majority of black America.

    There is a name used to describe people who engage in this kind of behavior where they instinctively blame another race of people for all their problems, and that name is Racist. Well, at least if their white, and blaming another race for all their problems they’re known as a racist. When blacks do it they’re usually known as “the victim of racism” or, and this is my favorite a “Civil Rights Leader”. The Hypocrisy Is Sickening.

    • Luke Visconti

      How on earth do you know what behavior “permeates the majority of black America”? With your attitude, I’m sure you have to sneak up on any Black people who know you in order to get within earshot. And the ones who don’t know you are warned off by the belt-and-suspenders-with-Confederate-flag-ball-cap outfit. Take your AOL email address, get in your 19-year-old Ford Tempo, hit the local Cracker Barrel (you know, the one south of you in New Stanton) and leave us alone, please. (Bet you thought I couldn’t see you.) Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Wow you are pretty rude to the people who don’t agree with you.

        • Luke Visconti

          More than half of the posts we receive are from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. I see no reason to be polite to them and I screen out most of them—I keep the ones that will serve as a teachable moment. I’m also not tolerant of bigots, sexists and homophobes—or fools. I think I’m doing people a kindness by being blunt. Some of the stuff that gets posted would get people fired at a well-run company. Better they learn how foolish they are here. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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