The Great Affirmative Action Lie

The Abigail Fishers and George Wills think that minorities have unfair advantages. Not by a long shot.

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Abigail Fisher and attorney Bert Rein (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Four decades after legalized discrimination was still codified in law, racial disparities persist at nearly every level of American society. From criminal justice to education, employment to housing, minorities in general and African Americans in particular continue to face an uphill battle toward social and economic equity.

Affirmative action policies -- originally designed to redress problems created by centuries of slavery and Jim Crow -- are being derided by some as racial discrimination against white people. The fundamental ideology is being challenged this week in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white woman claims she was disadvantaged in college admissions. A similar argument failed in 2003, but today's more conservative court may be more apt to side with the plaintiff, since the white-victim mentality has recently gained mainstream momentum -- both in education and politics.

George Will, the renowned conservative Washington Post columnist, echoed these sentiments when he claimed that President Obama's recent success in polls against his Republican challenger is solely due to his being black. Will argued that voters are reluctant to fire Obama -- suggesting that African Americans not only are living in a postracial era that requires no affirmative government policy but are also actually enjoying some kind of benefit by virtue of their blackness. Herein lies the cognitive dissonance of white privilege and the fundamental conundrum of trying to explain the need for affirmative policy to a white majority that sees nothing wrong with the status quo.

Welcome to the land of make-believe.

Abigail Noel Fisher, the white woman who claimed that the University of Texas policy discriminated against her on the basis of race, has since graduated from Louisiana State University. The facts of her original case reveal that she failed to meet the threshold of being in the top 10 percent of her graduating high school class -- which would have automatically guaranteed admission to UT. Instead Fisher competed in a general-applicant pool that, along with merit-based variables, considers race, athletics, community service and other factors.

According to UT, this method ensures a diverse class and enriches the educational experience. Fisher, however, concluded that being white somehow disadvantaged her and, as such, any policy that considered race was a violation of her constitutional equal-protection rights.

But Fisher needs a brief civics lessons.

Joan Walsh, in her new book, What's the Matter With White People?, posits that too many whites incorrectly believe that minorities have benefited from affirmative action at their expense. Walsh takes a historic view, showing that most white Americans enjoyed the benefits of the Great Society social welfare programs, in particular the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, FHA mortgage-lending guarantees and union jobs.

Together, these benefits created upward mobility for a strong middle class. They were social welfare programs -- amounting to affirmative action government policies for poor and low-income whites -- and often, almost explicitly, excluded African Americans and other people of color.

After the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, access to these programs expanded slowly for minorities. And in 1972, Title IX was passed to guarantee women equal access to higher education, but even that mostly assisted white women, since the gains of the civil rights era were embryonic, at best, and still being negotiated.