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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?

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


Question:

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.