White Women and Affirmative Action, By: Nicole Cozzi

There once was a tale where if one worked really hard, college and a well-paying job would be in the future.  Like many fairy tales the American Dream has been debunked. The ugly truth is the fight to have access and to graduate from a higher education institution has always been fought on an uneven playing field.  Education in the United States of America was sculpted to cater to its first students, White, wealthy men (Thelin, 2011).  To increase access and success in higher education, it is not as simple as fixing the leaky pipeline if the whole plumbing system is wrong.

After the Civil War, former slaves struggled to grasp any sense of freedom due to the deliberate and violent policies from their White neighbors. With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), educators could discriminate and bar individuals from educational opportunities under the pretense of the separate but equal framework.  It took another 50 years before segregation within educational agencies were deemed unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (Wolfe & Dilworth, 2015).  According to Anderson (2016), discrimination within education remained as White individuals united to craft policies to reduce funds to public schools in favor a private ones. In fact, only 1.63% of African Americans were attending desegregated school a decade after Brown (Anderson, 2016).

Connecting to the intersection of class, several of studies have discovered a gap in wealth as White families have accumulated more wealth than families of color (Shapiro, Meschede & Osoro, 2014).  The wealth gap was created as a result of deliberate and discriminatory policies.  As students of color are disproportionately more likely to come from families with less education and low socioeconomic status, they are less likely to be academically prepared. Thus, the disparity of quality schools continues today (Anderson, 2016).   

To increase diversity in the educational pipeline, affirmative action policies were created. With an executive order from President Kennedy paired with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, higher education was obligated to develop affirmative action programs (Hall, 2015).  According to Hall (2015), while race was a central point of affirmative action, sex was also incorporated.  White women like myself have benefited greatly from affirmative action. “The facts and statistics demonstrate that one of the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action in the last 40 years, especially in higher education, is White women” (Hall, 2015, p.7).  For instance, women with full-time professional and administrative jobs have almost tripled between 1960 and 1990 (Newman, 1997). Tying back to wealth disparity, despite the positive role of affirmative action in the lives of all women, White women have more economic capital than women of color (Wise, 1998).

Despite these advances, White women have been opponents to affirmative action in higher education.  The opposition has framed affirmative action in stark racial terms and ignored how White women have benefited meanwhile emphasizing the plight of an individual and ignores systemic and historic oppression (Wise, 1998). Over the years, race-conscious admissions practices have created a great deal of controversy as many feel admission policies discriminate against White students. For example, law cases have banned the use of quotas or a separate review.  College must walk a fine line between enrolling a “critical mass” and not having a precise goal (Kane & Ryan, 2013). All in all, courts rule that race cannot be the defining feature. The battle ground? The Supreme Court. White women have brought all but one of the past five cases to the Supreme Court (Hall, 2015).

Affirmative action initiatives have helped to create a more diverse student population. For example, the percentage of African Americans with a college degree has climbed from 4% to 6% in the past decade. Yet, there is much for work to be done.  According to Anderson (2016), in 2004, fifty years after Brown, not a single African American earned a PhD in astronomy or astrophysics. Furthermore, African-Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S population but only 3% of selective institutions (Anderson, 2016).

Recently the Trump administration, not surprisingly, announced the withdrawal of Obama-era guidelines on the use of race in college admissions.  While the withdrawal does not have any legal ramifications, it has colleges concerned. To remain silent in the development and execution of discriminatory policies and procedure is to perpetuate systems of oppression.  The fight to increase higher education accessibility, is more than one person, one test score or one college. Education is a right, not a privilege.

Oppression is a common enemy as all of society suffers from the loss of access and advancement.  Instead of falling prey to feelings of anger or guilt, energies must be focused on recognizing one’s privilege while also working collaboratively to end oppression.   Through the lens of intersectionality, individuals must find courage to question their privilege, engage in difficult dialogue and take collaborative action.



Nicole Cozzi (she/her/hers) is currently serving as a Student Success Professional at Metropolitan State University of Denver while earning her Doctorate of Education with an emphasis in Executive Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver.  As a student affairs practitioner, she has worked in the areas of recruitment, orientation, civic engagement, interfaith and student organization management.  Nicole is from central Pennsylvania where she received her BA in Communication Media from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.  She later went on to earn her MS in Higher Education Administration from Florida International University.  Nicole is passionate about interfaith initiatives and social justice issues.



Anderson, C. (2016). White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Hall, P. D. (2015). White fragility and affirmative action. The Journal of Race & Policy, 12(2), 7.

Kane, T. J., & Ryan, J. E. (2013, August 2). Why ‘Fisher’ Means More Work for Colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 59(44). Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A338211234/AONE?u=auraria_main&sid=AONE&xid=a5c7e349

Newman, M. (1997). Sex, race, and affirmative action: An uneasy alliance. Public Productivity and Management Review 20 (3): 295-307.

Shapiro, T., Meschede, T., & Osoro, S. (2014). The widening racial wealth gap: Why wealth is not color blind. In The Assets Perspective (pp. 99-122). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Thelin, J. R. (2011). A history of American higher education (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

Wise, T. (1998). Is sisterhood conditional? White women and the rollback of affirmative action. NWSA Journal, 10(3), 1-26. doi:10.2979/NWS.1998.10.3.1

Wolfe, B. L., & Dilworth, P. P. (2015). Transitioning normalcy: Organizational culture, African American administrators, and diversity leadership in higher education. Review of Educational Research, 85(4), 667-697. doi:10.3102/0034654314565667


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