Published in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Fall 1998, 10:3
Despite the significant benefits to white women from affirmative action programs in education, employment, and contracting; and despite the likelihood that gender discrimination, like its racial counterpart, would intensify in the absence of these programs, white women have been noticeably absent from the front lines of affirmative action’s defense–even in the face of open assaults on such policies, like Proposition 209 in California. This paper will first demonstrate the degree to which affirmative action has benefitted white women in terms of education, and employment; then focus attention on continuing gender bias facing women in the United States–a reality that one might expect to heighten white women’s opposition to ending affirmative action; next, the paper will examine the backlash against affirmative action and demonstrate the degree to which white women have been largely silent in the face of this backlash; and finally, the paper will discuss various theories to explain this silence and complicity — with particular attention to the vote in California — and what, if anything, can be done to mobilize white women to defend affirmative action.
In We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action, Georgetown law professors Charles Lawrence and Mari Matsuda argue: “If all women supported affirmative action, no politician would dare oppose it. The political power of women united, combined with men of color and progressive white men, would render any challenge to affirmative action futile. The current backlash against affirmative action is made possible, in part, by women’s ambivalence” (Lawrence and Matsuda 1997, 152). Although such a statement is substantively true, as will be seen, the reality is more complex; after all, for decades, women of color have consistently expressed high levels of support for affirmative action (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Zia 1992). In essence, the “women’s ambivalence,” toward affirmative action, about which Lawrence and Matsuda are so justifiably concerned, is white women’s ambivalence.
Despite the benefits that have accrued to all — and particularly white — women as a result of affirmative action, there has been an alarming silence on the part of most white women even as reactionary forces have begun to chip away at these civil rights gains. In California, white women actually joined with white men in November 1996, to cast the decisive votes for Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in state hiring, contracting, and college admissions. Despite attempts to target those white women with campaign ads and a voter education drive highlighting the gender-based benefits of affirmative action, white women largely ignored the overtures made by opponents of 209, voting in favor of the initiative by 58-42% (Chavez 1998, 239).
The important question is why? Why would white women increasingly come to view affirmative action in largely the same negative terms as the “angry white men” about whom the media has made such an issue in recent years? Are white women thinking and voting more like white men on this issue because they identify their interests as being largely tied to those of white men — perhaps their husbands, or sons — and as such, are afraid affirmative action might restrict opportunities for loved ones and family members (Ladowsky 1995)? Is their ambivalence due to a false sense of efficacy and opportunity? Since white women have made some impressive gains over the past 30 years, do they now feel affirmative action is no longer needed (Burkett 1998)? Are white women essentially identifying more with their perceived racial interest, than gender or individual interest, and thus responding predictably to the “racialization” of affirmative action in mainstream discourse? In other words, are white women hostile to affirmative action largely because of their own racial biases and desire to maintain racial privileges (Frankenberg 1993)? Or, was the failure to convince a majority of white women to vote against 209 simply a failure of resource mobilization? Not enough money? Not enough time? In other words, the message was right, the strategy sound — to target white women and emphasize the gender aspect of affirmative action — but the “good guys” were simply outgunned and outspent? (1)
Tracking the Benefits of Affirmative Action
The reluctance of white women to stand up for affirmative action, a subject to which we will return, seems particularly surprising, given the measurable dividends such policies have paid over three decades. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a substantial step towards equity for women and people of color,(2) it became obvious after the Act’s passage that passive non-discrimination would be insufficient to alter the nation’s opportunity structure. The development of affirmative action, and its essential rationale, was summarized in the 1995 Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs, prepared by the President’s staff, with the help of various government agencies. According to the Review:
Even after passage of the civil rights laws…judicial and legislative victories were not enough to overcome long-entrenched discrimination…Formal litigation-related strategies [were] often dependent upon clear “smoking gun” evidence of overt bias or bigotry, whereas prejudice can take on myriad subtle, yet effective forms. Thus, private and public institutions alike too often seemed impervious to the winds of change, remaining all-white or all-male long after court decisions or statutes formally ended discrimination. As a result, both the courts and Republican and Democratic administrations turned to race-and gender-conscious remedies…developed after experimentation had shown that other means too often failed to correct the problems. (Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs 1995)
President Johnson’s initial Executive Order mandating that “affirmative action” be taken to remedy and prevent racial discrimination by government contractors was expanded to include women in 1968. By the early 1970s, any company meeting a particular threshold for number of employees and amount of business with the federal government was subject to affirmative action requirements. In cases where a “manifest imbalance” existed between the number of available, qualified women or people of color in a given location, and the number of such persons actually hired by entities in those locations, the federal government was empowered to intervene, requiring that goals and timetables for more equitable representation be set, and that good faith efforts for meeting these goals be made. Educational institutions were added to the list of covered parties beginning in 1972.
That such straightforward requirements have worked to the benefit of women — particularly white women — is hardly disputable. Thanks in large measure to affirmative action and civil rights protections that opened up previously restricted opportunities to women of all colors, from 1972-1993:
– The percentage of women architects increased from 3% to nearly 19% of the total;
– The percentage of women doctors more than doubled from 10% to 22% of all doctors;
– The percentage of women lawyers grew from 4% to 23% of the national total;
– The percentage of female engineers went from less than 1% to nearly 9%;
– The percentage of female chemists grew from 10% to 30% of all chemists; and,
– The percentage of female college faculty went from 28% to 42% of all faculty. (Moseley-Braun 1995, 8)
Furthermore, since only 1983, the percentage of women business managers and professionals grew from 41% of all such persons, to 48%, while the number of female police officers more than doubled, from 6% to 13% (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census 1995, Table 649). According to a 1995 study, there are at least six million women — the overwhelming majority of them white — who simply wouldn’t have the jobs they have today, but for the inroads made by affirmative action (Cose 1997, 171).
The gender benefits of affirmative action have extended beyond economically privileged women, expanding opportunity for working-class women as well: The 1985 Perkins Act, which requires states to set aside 10.5% of federal vocational-education funds for girls and women — such as displaced homemakers and single-mothers — has helped these women find new jobs to support themselves and their families. In Florida, thanks to this program, more than 70% of women receiving voc-ed funds found new jobs, at pay levels averaging twice their prior salaries (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education 1995).
Often, the setting of fairly rigid goals and timetables has been necessary before significant gains for women have come about. For example, in 1979, women represented only 4% of entry-level officers in the San Francisco Police Department. By 1985, after the Department of Justice forced the SFPD to adopt an aggressive affirmative action plan, the number of women in entry-level positions increased to 14.5% of the total (Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs 1995). Thanks in part to affirmative action in higher education, the number of women receiving Ph.D.’s grew from 14.4% of all Ph.D.’s in 1971, to 37% by 1991–many of these in fields like science and engineering, which were for so long effectively the exclusive domain of men (National Research Council 1993, 11).
There is also little doubt that affirmative action has promoted the proliferation of women-owned businesses, by expanding the work opportunities for women that then often led to entrepreneurship, and by increasing the ability of such businesses to receive government contracts, capital, and small business loans. Prior to the passage of civil rights and other protective laws, women faced often insurmountable obstacles to starting their own businesses. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, discrimination against women in lending was ubiquitous: single women were often considered unworthy of credit; married women often had difficulty establishing credit since their financial records were in their husbands’ names; and sources of income like alimony and child support were regularly excluded from consideration when women applied for bank loans (Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs 1995).
Since the early 1970s, however, the percentage of U.S. businesses owned by women — again, the vast majority of them white — has exploded from only 5% of all businesses to more than 37% (Taylor 1997, 2). There are now eight million women-owned businesses in the United States, with nearly $3 trillion in combined sales, employing approximately 18.5 million employees. One in four workers employed by companies in this country now work for women-owned firms (National Association of Women Business Owners 1998). That the strength of such companies — not to mention their ability to compete fairly against their white male counterparts — is of vital importance to the economic health of the nation, is made plain by these and similar figures.
Although the gains to American women from affirmative action have extended in varying degrees to women of all colors, white women find themselves today in significantly better economic shape than women of color. In 1993, for example, the median income for white women was 16% higher than for black women, and the median white family income was 45% higher than that for black families (Bennett 1995). In states like Washington — currently facing a voter initiative similar to Proposition 209 — affirmative action has apparently aided white women more than people of color, be they male or female. According to state data, white women hold 35% of top administrative jobs in Washington, compared to 5.8% for women of color; furthermore, white women receive about 5% of state government contracts, which, although it is a paltry percentage of the total, is still larger than the 4% received by all people of color combined (Washington State Commission on African American Affairs 1995).
The benefits of affirmative action to women extend throughout society. Higher wages for women — due in large part to affirmative action raising, albeit not eliminating, the glass-ceiling — are of substantial benefit to millions of families. More than 80% of married first-time home-buyers must rely on both spouses’ income to make their mortgage payments, according to a 1995 survey by Chicago Title and Trust Insurers (Lawrence and Matsuda 1997, 159-60). Even the cause of public health has been advanced thanks to affirmative action for women. Since the number of women entering medicine has expanded, research on women’s health concerns has progressed dramatically, helping to lessen the historic imbalance whereby most medical research was conducted on male subjects, often to the detriment of scientific knowledge generally and women’s health in particular (Bergmann 1996, 107).
Ongoing Gender Bias in The United States
In addition to the measurable good that affirmative action has done for women’s social and economic position, one might expect awareness of ongoing gender discrimination to mitigate against women’s ambivalence toward the elimination of affirmative action. The progress symbolized by affirmative action has, after all, been incomplete and uneven. Discrimination against women has hardly been uprooted and reminds us that much is left to be done.
The 1995 Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission noted that only 3-5% of senior management are women — almost all of these white — due, not to a lack of qualifications, aptitude, or ambition, but thanks to “fear, rampant stereotyping and prejudice,” on the part of male personnel directors and middle-managers (Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission 1995). According to the report, women are regularly characterized as “not wanting to work,” “not as committed to their careers as men,” “not tough enough,” “less flexible with their hours,” “less relocatable,” “too emotional,” “not aggressive enough,” or, paradoxically, “too aggressive” (148). As an indication of how this glass ceiling plays out in practice, consider the following:
– Women are 30-40% of associate attorneys in private firms, but only 11% of law partners.
– Women are 50% of entry level accountants, but less than 20% of accounting firm partners.
– Women are 48% of journalists, but hold only 6% of top editorial jobs.
– Women are 42% of college professors, but only 11% of professors with tenure.
– Women are 72% of elementary school teachers, but only 29% of school principals. (Lawrence and Matsuda 1997, 250)
One of the biggest barriers to the professional advancement of women is the subtle bias that often creeps into otherwise “objective” evaluations of one’s qualifications. Studies demonstrate that men typically evaluate the resumes, scholarly articles, and other indicators of merit differently, and less favorably, when they know them to be those of women (Heilman and Stopeck 1985, 202; Sturm and Guinier 1996). When evaluating men and women competing for positions, men tend to assign the most importance to whichever indicator of merit will work to the benefit of a man in a given competition — say, seniority — even though when faced with a different set of competitors, the same merit indicator that previously had been deemed paramount may be downplayed if a woman in the instant case would seem to benefit from its elevated significance (Clayton and Crosby 1992, 73-78).
Even when women avoid hiring discrimination, pay disparities remain a problem. Women who work full-time, year-round, earn nearly 30% less than their male counterparts; and even after controlling for mitigating factors like educational attainment, seniority, experience, and age, full-time, year-round women workers still earn only 85% as much as similarly-situated men (Blau and Ferber 1992, 129).(3) Women with master’s degrees earn, on average, the same as men with associate’s degrees (Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs 1995), and even in female-dominated professions, disparities in earnings persist, with male nurses, for example, earning 10% more on average than female nurses, and male bookkeepers earning 16% more on average than female bookkeepers (Lawrence and Matsuda 1997, 251).
There appear to be considerable barriers to the advancement of women, even for those who are “career-oriented,” and for whom work patterns largely mirror those of their male counterparts.(4) For example, women who receive their MBAs from Stanford earn only about 73% as much as their male classmates, and are one-eighth as likely to be corporate CEOs a decade after graduation (Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission 1995, 13-14). Similarly, a study of law school graduates at the University of Michigan found that after fifteen years of legal practice, female graduates were earning, on average, only 61% of their male counterparts. Even after controlling for grade differences, hours of work, family responsibility differentials, labor market experience, and the type of law career into which one entered, men still had a thirteen percentage-point earnings advantage (Wood, Corcoran, and Courant 1993).
Although there has been some narrowing of wage differentials among younger men and women in recent years, this has been more the result of declining male wages — due largely to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs since 1973 — and far less the result of substantial wage gains for women. Young male high school graduates in 1993 earned about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as young male dropouts had earned twenty years earlier, and young men with four-year college degrees in 1993 were earning only slightly more than their high school counterparts in 1973 (Sum, Fogg, and Taggart 1996, 84).
It is estimated that the costs of gender discrimination, in terms of opportunities denied and abilities undercompensated, come to around $5,000 annually for the average white woman, significantly affecting not only the well-being of those individuals on the receiving end of such discrimination, but also the well-being of many millions of families, and the nation as a whole (Bergmann 1996, 41).
Even with affirmative action in place for more than two decades, women are only now beginning to make inroads into federal and state contracting in areas like construction and professional services, indicating how difficult breaking into the “old-boy’s network” so vital to procuring these contracts can be. Although women own 37% of American businesses, they receive only 2% of federal contracts (Belsky and Berger 1995), and it is apparent that in the absence of formal requirements that such companies receive consideration, the situation would be worse (Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs 1995). Even before the passage of Proposition 209, California Governor Pete Wilson had issued an executive order eliminating affirmative action for contracting with state agencies. The result? Women-owned firms that had previously received thirty or more calls weekly asking them to submit subcontracting bids for various services, now receive nearly none. When female contractors have inquired about the falloff in bid requests, many of the male contractors have indicated their unwillingness to work with women-owned firms since they “don’t have to anymore” (Stop Prop 209, “State Contractors,” press release 1996). This state of affairs will likely worsen, given that Wilson has now ordered an end even to the collection of data regarding how many women and people of color receive contracts from state government, making it harder if not impossible to track subtle or even overt bias in contracting (Rojas 1998, A21).
Backlash Against Affirmative Action: “Racialization” and White Women’s Ambivalence
It is with the above-mentioned facts in mind that the growing anti-affirmative action movement has sought to remove women as women from the affirmative action picture, and instead emphasize the racial benefits to people of color and supposed white racial victims of these policies. Hoping to create in white men and women a shared sense of victimization at the hands of people of color, conservatives have made sure to ignore whatever gains have come to women through affirmative action and have sought to “racialize” the debate and its attendant imagery. As many as twenty-six states are now considering following California by eliminating race-and gender-based affirmative action, and in every case, the focus has been squarely on the supposed unfairness of “racial preferences”– the ideologically-loaded term that has replaced the more benign-sounding (and popular) “affirmative action,” in the parlance of right-wing attacks.
As the political manipulation of the affirmative action issue by far-right figures took hold in the early 1990s, it was clear the attacks would be exclusively race-based. In Louisiana, where white supremacist David Duke received between 50-60% of the white vote in his bids to become a U.S. Senator and the state’s governor — with no major differences between white men and women — affirmative action was presented as a racial zero-sum game, with whites the aggrieved victims.(5) In North Carolina, when Jesse Helms found himself trailing in polls to challenger Harvey Gantt — the African American former mayor of Charlotte — in his 1990 bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate, he began airing a television commercial emphasizing the harm to whites from “having to hire a minority because of a quota” (Feagin and Vera 1995, 113). After successfully pressuring the University of California Board of Regents to abolish affirmative action in 1995, Pete Wilson announced that the vote “was the beginning of the end of racial preferences” (Wise 1995, 15), neglecting to mention that gender-based affirmative action at the schools had also been eliminated and would remain in the crosshairs of Proposition 209 a year later.
Assisting in the racialization process has been a steady shift in the presentation of affirmative action’s “victims” by the right; thus, while most, if not all of the early public victims were “angry white men” — Bakke, DeFunis, Weber, or the white men at the Ward’s Cove Packing Plant (6) — increasingly, conservative legal advocates have latched on to cases with white women in the forefront. The highest profile cases recently have been those of Cheryl Hopwood, at the University of Texas, who claimed she was denied admission to the Texas School of Law because of race-based affirmative action, and the case — recently settled while awaiting a Supreme Court ruling — of Sharon Taxman, a white public school teacher laid off in order to retain a black woman in the same department at a school in Piscataway, New Jersey.(7) In the case of Hopwood, and in a pending suit brought by the same lawyers against the University of Michigan, male plaintiffs were and are involved, but the “public face” of the suits has been that of a white woman, her dreams supposedly dashed by racial preferences (Marklein 1997, 4A). White women are also emerging, at least publicly, as the new victims of affirmative action in Washington State, where Katuria Smith is suing the University of Washington because its law school supposedly admitted “less qualified” people of color ahead of her; and in Boston, where a young white woman’s father brought suit against Boston Latin school — an academic magnet institution — because of affirmative action preventing her admission there. By shifting the public’s attention from angry white men to “aggrieved white women,” the opponents of affirmative action are no doubt hoping to cast the debate in stark racial terms, ignoring the degree to which white women have generally reaped benefits from these policies far beyond whatever individual victimization may or may not have occurred in a specific instance.(8)
Of course, it is not surprising that men opposed to affirmative action would prefer to focus on the racial rather than the gender component of the issue. However, the fact that white women have proven so willing to accept this version of reality, rather than the contrasting one offered earlier here, is testimony either to the amazing persuasive powers of conservative white male commentators, or to something else altogether, which cries out for explanation.
Consider that according to many commentators on the left, women are desperately concerned about gender inequities, and “rank their own inequality, at work and at home, among their most urgent concerns” (Faludi 1991, xv; also see Feminist Majority Foundation, “The Glass Ceiling” 1995). If such claims are to be taken seriously one must then wonder, how can such persons be both knowledgeable and concerned about their own oppression, and still so uninformed or unconcerned that they think nothing of passively accepting, or even actively supporting the elimination of affirmative action? How and why this process plays itself out will be discussed below, but first, it is necessary to document the attitudes of white women with regard to affirmative action and the degree to which they seem increasingly hesitant to endorse the concept.
Ultimately, white women’s views on affirmative action are hardly different from their male counterparts, particularly when the issue is framed as one of “preferences.” Since the preference framework is the likely one to which affirmative action proponents will be responding in coming years, it is white women’s attitudes on this issue that must concern us. According to national studies since 1986, white women are not substantially different from white men when it comes to their feelings on this issue. Opposition to “preferential hiring and promotion” has grown from 86% for white men and 79% for white women in 1986, to 90% for white men and 88% for white women in 1994. Similarly, opposition to admissions preferences in colleges stands at around 76% for white men and 70% for white women (Citrin 1996, 43).
Although only about a third of whites wish to eliminate all affirmative action programs when discussed without the preference framework, the differences between white men and white women, although present, are hardly massive. In effect, both are more or less equally hostile or supportive, although both are far less hostile and far more supportive, when preferences are not mentioned or are explained in context, so that voters know what they are voting for or against (Chavez 1998, 99). As mentioned previously, 58% of white women voted for Proposition 209, as opposed to 66% of white men. This is a gender gap, to be sure, but hardly the kind hoped for, expected, and needed to defeat the initiative.
White women’s ambivalence to affirmative action is evidenced even among many feminists. A 1992 survey of Ms. magazine readers found that while most supported affirmative action, high levels of concern were apparently absent, owing perhaps to the fact that only one in five white women thought they had benefitted from affirmative action, while over half said they had not; this, compared to the one-half of black women and Latinas who said they had personally benefitted from affirmative action, as opposed to only one-quarter who said they had not (Zia 1992, 21).
Apart from progressive women and women’s organizations, many groups claiming to represent women show no indication of understanding, or wanting to acknowledge the importance of affirmative action to the people they claim as constituents. For example, there is no mention at all in the recent materials of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), or the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), or the National Association of Female Executives (NAFE) as to the importance of affirmative action for opening up opportunities and making possible many of the individual successes that these organizations regularly trumpet in their publications and on their websites.
NAWBO, for example, discusses female business gains as if they took place entirely in a meritocratic vacuum (National Association of Women Business Owners 1998), while NAWIC, which claims to “promote and support the advancement and employment of women in the construction industry,” says nothing about the importance of affirmative action in opening up such opportunities, nor do they seem concerned with the impact that affirmative action rollbacks might have on women in the industry (National Association of Women in Construction 1997), despite the fact that even with affirmative action and NAWIC’s efforts, women are less than 2% of construction workers in the United States (Feminist Majority Foundation, “Affirmative Action: Expanding Employment Opportunities for Women” 1996a). NAFE’s website and printed materials emphasize the importance of women knowing how to respond to job criticisms like “you’re an idiot,” from male superiors, and how to get a NAFE Gold Card “at low interest rates,” but make no mention of the importance of civil rights laws or affirmative action; nor do they show concern for the assaults on affirmative action that, if successful, would make the advancement of women as executives — ostensibly their mission — more difficult (National Association of Female Executives 1997). So long as groups such as these refuse to speak out publicly about the importance of affirmative action, it will be difficult to mobilize white women into a pro-affirmative action coalition, since most are not connected to feminist organizations, and may even be hostile to the overtures of such groups, thanks to the steady backlash against feminism in recent years.(9)
Furthermore, polls indicate that whatever differences do exist between white women and white men on this issue apparently have little to do with differences in perceived personal interest, either in maintaining or eliminating affirmative action. Few white women think themselves beneficiaries of affirmative action, and most are simply not open to the idea that they have been; few if any expect it to help them in the future; and most share the same concerns as white men regarding “reverse discrimination,” or the perceived hiring of unqualified minorities. The one factor that seems to explain virtually all the slightly greater support for affirmative action evinced by white women is their higher level of agreement with the notion that people of color still face substantial barriers and discrimination, and thus, it is simply too soon to abandon these programs (Garin and Molyneaux 1996). These facts are highly significant for supporters of affirmative action, as they indicate that in order to gain support for affirmative action, appealing directly to these women as women may be fruitless, while emphasizing the ongoing problem of racial discrimination may prove more effective.
Lessons From California: What Went Wrong and Why
The difficulty of building substantial support for affirmative action among white women was never more apparent than in California, where, despite constant repetition by anti-209 organizations of the gender-based benefits to be had or lost, there was virtually no change in white women’s feelings on the measure from May 1995 until the vote in November 1996 (Citrin 1996, 44-45). The primary opposition groups chose to focus on gender and to “de-racialize” the debate from 1995 on, prompted to do so in part by pollsters like Lou Harris, Democratic Party consultants like Celinda Lake, and even President Clinton (Chavez 1998, 153, 204). The opposition to 209 operated on the assumption they would need — and could receive — 60% of the white female vote; 70% of the black vote; 60% of the Latino/a vote; and only 25% of the white male vote. As it turned out, they substantially overestimated the degree to which they could sway white women — seeing as how only 42% voted to retain affirmative action — while underestimating the degree to which people of color and white men could be swayed: 74% of African Americans voted against 209; 76% of Latinos/as did so; as did 34% of white men (Chavez 1998, 136). Sixty-one percent of Asians also opposed 209, despite attempts by its backers to woo them with arguments that they were losing out in college admissions to less qualified blacks and Latinos/as (Chavez 1998, 236).
Once the opposition to 209 decided on a gender-based strategy to target white women, its every public move reflected this thrust. Early educational and media efforts focused on discussing Clause C of the Proposition, which, it was explained, would actually lower the current legal standard for evaluating gender discrimination claims, making certain types of gender discrimination legal, in areas where it had never been before (Feminist Majority Foundation, “Women’s Campaign to Defeat ‘CCRI’ Launched” 1995). Virtually all the public statements made by 209 opponents throughout 1996 attempted to focus attention on the potential consequences of Proposition 209 to women. When 209 opponents launched “Freedom Summer 1996,” bringing students from fifty-two college campuses across the nation to California to educate voters, their message was uniformly tailored to stress the harms to women and girls (Feminist Majority Foundation, “Freedom Summer” 1996). As the election drew near, and the campaign became a war of radio and television commercials, gender was once again the focus, with race and racism largely pushed to the side. No On 209 ran a series of gender-focused radio advertisements featuring prominent entertainers like Candace Bergen, Alfre Woodard, and Ellen DeGeneres (Chavez 1998, 230-232). The main opposition television spot, released in the final days of the campaign, showed a woman being stripped of a stethoscope, medical lab coat, hard hat, police cap, and then business suit — representing the gains to women because of affirmative action — while lecherous men chanted “take it off, take it all off” (Stop Prop 209, “Stop Prop 209 Releases TV Ad” press release 1996).
There were signs early on, however, that the gender strategy was having problems. Early focus groups showed that many white women were convinced affirmative action was preventing their husbands and sons from getting jobs (Chavez 1998, 98). In addition, the six months of steady repetition regarding Clause C appears to have been fruitless, prompting no movement among white women in the polls, largely because of the complexity of explaining legal issues like “standards of review” to laypersons (Chavez 1998, 137, 152). Finally, the anti-209 gender-focused advertisements were undercut completely by radio and television spots run by 209 supporters. These ads featured Janice Camarena, a white, widowed, low-income single mother of three discussing how she had been told by an instructor at San Bernadino Valley Community College that she couldn’t enroll in an English 101 class because it was reserved for blacks. Although her version of the “reverse discrimination” tale was questionable — she hadn’t preregistered for the class, nor had she taken prerequisite classes, and there was an additional section of English 101 being taught at the same time with slots available — the truth hardly mattered. The anti-209 arguments about gender were simply too abstract and hypothetical when compared to the tangible, albeit flawed, image of Camarena, a flesh and blood human, more sympathetic than statistics about glass ceilings and comparable worth (Chavez 1998, 215-216).(10)
The decision to target white women in opposing 209 made sense, stemming as it did from a logical belief that since there were not enough people of color to sway the vote, some whites would be needed, and women were more likely targets than men. The problem seems to have come in the fashioning of the message so as to capture the votes of those white women. Evidence indicating that the most effective message might have been one reminding voters of the ongoing problem of racial discrimination, and that “ending racial and gender preferences” really meant eliminating all affirmative action,(11) was discounted in favor of telling women and anyone who would listen that mentoring programs for teenage girls and women’s centers on college campuses might be closed if 209 passed (Chavez 1998). As history has shown, something prevented this strategy from succeeding.(12)
There are a number of theories as to why attempts to pare white women away from white men in their opposition to “racial and gender preferences” failed specifically in California, and why convincing a majority of them to support affirmative action in general has proven difficult. First is the problem of overcoming the “preference” language. White women are just as likely as white men to think “preferences” unfair; thus, if affirmative action’s supporters can’t succeed in keeping such loaded words off initiative ballots — unlikely given the current trend — they will have to fully explain the ramifications to likely voters. This is not impossible, but does take time.
Second is the difficulty of de-racializing an issue that has been so thoroughly racialized in the public imagination. Most white women in California and elsewhere simply refuse to believe that affirmative action is about them. National focus groups as early as January 1996, seemed to indicate this problem. In many cases, even after group moderators would initiate a lengthy discussion among white women about the gender element of affirmative action, as soon as conversation wasn’t specifically steered in that direction, participants would shift their discussion, and anger, back to race (Garin and Molyneaux 1996). Thus, even if it had been possible in the abstract to change the paradigm under which white women, like men, were apparently operating with regard to affirmative action, doing so in the short period of time called for by an electoral campaign would have been highly unlikely.
A third problem, closely related to the problem created by racialization, is the identification it forces between the interests of white women and white men. If white women perceive affirmative action in racial terms, they will be just as likely as white men — if they are heterosexual — to think they would be harmed by affirmative action, thanks to supposedly reduced opportunities for their husbands or partners (Ladowsky 1995). In this way, years of racialization have encouraged many white women to identify their own interests with those of the larger patriarchal structure that has kept them disempowered. As Lawrence and Matsuda argue (1997, 161-162), if angry white men are perceived as victims, any white woman who “defines self-fulfillment as loving that man” may be reluctant to support affirmative action. But even women who are the most independent professionally and least tied to traditional patriarchal family structures are far from sufficiently supportive of affirmative action.
The fourth problem for those seeking to enlist the support of white women in an affirmative action coalition is pointed to by Madeline Heilman, professor of psychology at New York University, who has found that many women feel uncomfortable with the thought they may have benefitted or could benefit from affirmative action, since to do so may call their own abilities and accomplishments into question (DeAngelis 1995). As white women have made substantial gains in the workplace, it is not at all surprising that many would be reluctant to embrace affirmative action as having been largely implicated in their personal achievements. The popular meritocratic explanation is after all more comforting in a culture where success is largely believed to be solely dependent upon one’s personal characteristics, effort, and ambition. Ironically, thanks to the successes of the women’s movement, millions of white women now find themselves intellectually able to eschew the very policies that have fundamentally improved their professional life chances. Indeed, targeting white women in a pro-affirmative action effort by focusing on gender bias and its likely intensification in the absence of such programs probably seems disempowering to many white women. It reminds them of their potential victimization by sexist structures, a subject about which they would rather not be reminded, particularly since they have a significant stake in believing the system is fair–namely, their racial stake, which guarantees them opportunities generally off limits to most people of color.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the salience of white racial attitudes, and the fact that perceived personal interest seems to have little or no effect on these attitudes. According to Kinder and Sanders (1996, 62), there is no statistically significant difference between whites on racial issues, including affirmative action, owing to perceived personal self-interest; nor from the degree to which one perceives a threat to one’s own job or education; nor from differences in income or occupational status. Thus, attempts to gain support from white women on the basis of what they have gained and stand to lose personally because they are women, were questionable given what is known about white racial attitudes. The only form of self-interest that does seem to affect white racial attitudes is perceived racial group interest: in other words, whites — male and female — perceive their racial interests as threatened by affirmative action. Unless this perception can be undone, reducing what Kinder and Sanders refer to as “white racial resentment” and subsequently increasing white support for affirmative action will prove problematic.
White Women and Racism: Invisible Realities, Visible Consequences
Although progressives are hesitant to acknowledge it, the fact remains that white women are not significantly more liberal on racial attitudes than white men, obviously complicating attempts to get them to think positively about a topic like affirmative action. According to survey data, white women’s racial attitudes are something of a mixed bag. While white women are more willing than white men to accept structural explanations for racial inequity and generally more accepting of affirmative action — so long as the issue isn’t presented as one of “preferences” — many of the racial attitudes of white women are no better and perhaps actually worse than those of white men. For example, when asked if the federal government should intervene to create jobs and opportunities for blacks, there is no statistically significant difference between the responses of white men and white women. Similarly, there is no gender gap between white men and white women in response to the question: “Would you be willing to send your child to a school where half the students were black?” When asked if they would be willing to send their child(ren) to a school in which the majority of students were black, white women are actually more likely to object than their male counterparts, and white women are more disapproving of interracial marriage between whites and blacks than are white men (Schuman, Steeh, Bobo and Krysan 1997, 235).
This data indicates that white women are slightly more prone to giving a racially hostile response when the situation calls for more intimate contact between whites and people of color. So although women may be less racist in some abstract sense, it appears that if they perceive policies or gains for African Americans as requiring closer contact with themselves, white women are no different than white men, and perhaps even more racially hostile. Since affirmative action serves increasingly to integrate the workforce and schools, these concerns over close contact could spill over to a generalized anxiety, ambivalence, or even hostility with regard to affirmative action. Given the tendency for racial prejudices to cluster and operate as free-floating anxieties (Allport 1954), such a relationship between attitudes on seemingly unrelated aspects of racial thinking is all the more possible.
The degree to which “average, everyday” white women may be burdened with their own substantial racial prejudices can be anticipated by the significant extent to which even committed feminists and progressive white women are seen to model racially prejudiced attitudes and behavior. According to a 1992 survey by Ms. magazine, a third of their white female readers admit being uncomfortable talking to people of color about racial issues, and only 16% have “many” friends of another race, compared to 75% of Asian Pacific Americans, 74% of Latinas, 67% of Native Americans, and 53% of African Americans. Over one-third of white women say they have few if any friends of color (Malveaux 1992, 25-26). Although one can hardly measure racial prejudice by looking at friendships, the level of interracial isolation that seems to burden white women alone signals a degree to which white women, like white men, are largely cut off from the life experiences of people of color. Such isolation can lead to a less sympathetic outlook regarding issues of importance to people of color, like affirmative action.
As with most Americans, white feminists also deny in large measure that they suffer from significant racial prejudice, let alone racism. Only one in five in the Ms. survey admitted to prejudice, while only 18% claimed to be racist. Interestingly, white lesbians were the least likely to suffer from denial of their own racism problem: 42% admitted they were racist on some level (Malveaux 1992, 27). Such disparities between white heterosexual women and white lesbians are hard to explain, short of acknowledging that at least to some degree, so long as white women are intimately linked with white men — a problem which, by definition is less of an issue for lesbians — they have a harder time perceiving the effects of their own racial conditioning. White male privilege operates as a veil, clouding the ability of many white women — even committed progressives — to perceive the degree to which they too are implicated in the system of racism.
It should come as no surprise that convincing white women of their shared interest with people of color — with regard to affirmative action or any other issue — would be challenging. After all, centuries of racist propaganda, particularly concerning the physical “danger” posed to white women by people of color (especially black men) was bound to have some residual effects. For white women to identify with these men of color now would require them to cast off the psychological detritus of anti-miscegenation laws, as well as the historical discourse that has posited white women as the victims of people of color and white men as their “defenders and rescuers” (Frankenberg 1993, 237). This psychosexual dynamic has been well established in discursive history, and continues to have measurable results in the present. Consider that the contemporary discourse on black crime and violence — from Willie Horton, to Susan Smith, to the “Central Park Jogger” — has sought to recreate and reinforce this victim/victimizer dichotomy, with white women seen as at risk from racialized others. Such discourse makes it difficult for white women to identify with these racial “others,” particularly when those others are typified as the black men whose mere presence in an elevator seems to regularly make white women clutch their purses or briefcases more tightly. Popular books, like Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve and Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, even attempt to excuse the white fear responses to blacks under the guise of “rationality.” Blacks according to these authors really are more dangerous and violent, either due to bad genes or a “civilizational deficit.”(13) In light of the persistent onslaught of such racist invective masquerading as social science, it will no doubt prove difficult to create in whites, male or female, a shared sense of destiny and interest with their fellow citizens of color.(14)
What Works: Framing the Affirmative Action Message
At this point, the reader may conclude that all is hopeless. If white women are too bound in racial privilege, or patriarchy, or false efficacy, to see how they have gained from affirmative action, and what they stand to lose in its absence, then what in the world can be done? Luckily, there are arguments made by the supporters of affirmative action that seem to work with white women, and even with some white men. That these arguments are not apparently the ones stressing the particular benefits of affirmative action for women, or even stressing gender at all, may be surprising, but should hardly be troubling.
According to recent focus groups, surveys, and available polling data, the points that appear most effective in convincing whites of both sexes to support affirmative action — or at least be hesitant about voting to abolish it — are the following:
– The problem of racial discrimination — particularly the closed nature of the “old boy’s network” — makes it too soon to eliminate affirmative action. Although polls show most whites reluctant to acknowledge racism is still a large problem, once evidence is provided on this score, movement is possible, particularly among white women.
– The persons pushing to eliminate affirmative action have questionable motives: In an attempt to divert people’s attention from real economic and social problems, politicians are trying to scapegoat and pit the races against one another for their own political gain. Given the general distrust of political figures, this point has become increasingly important.
– The consequences of “backsliding” on discrimination would be particularly terrible given the changing demographics of the American population, with whites becoming less and people of color more of the nation’s citizenry. In an increasingly non-white United States, anything that would lock out the new majority of the population from equal opportunity is seen as unfair, and economically and politically suicidal.
– Affirmative action does not mean the hiring of unqualified people. It is particularly important to make this point, since popular perception assumes the opposite is true. Recent evidence from a study at Michigan State, indicating that persons hired under affirmative action actually have higher performance ratings than white men, hired under traditional mechanisms, makes the point effectively (Feminist Majority Foundation 1997).
– Affirmative action and quotas are not the same thing. Both white men and women typically perceive “quotas” as the problem that abolishing “preferences” will solve. Pointing out the distinction between affirmative action — largely recruitment and outreach programs, flexible goals, and “taking a second look” to make sure women and people of color aren’t excluded unfairly from consideration — and quotas, can make a significant difference. (Garin and Molyneaux 1996; Southern Regional Council 1996)
Despite the recent setbacks to affirmative action, there is still an opportunity to build a working coalition to defend against further erosion. This coalition can, and ultimately must, include white women. That building support for affirmative action among white women has proven difficult thus far, speaks more to the ways in which attempts to build this support have taken shape than to the inherent unwillingness of white women to join such a coalition. By emphasizing the gender benefits of affirmative action, along with the potentially devastating consequences of its elimination for women as women, supporters have hoped to persuade enough white women that their interests lie in voting against initiatives like the one in California.
Unfortunately, this strategy has failed. In part, it has failed because still not enough white women fully understand what they have gained and what they stand to lose; but there is something else going on as well. The successes of the women’s movement have put white women in a position where it is harder for them to see — or more painful to acknowledge — the ongoing and potential problem of gender bias limiting their opportunities. Furthermore, the racialization of affirmative action has proven so complete that dislodging this paradigm from the minds of voters is largely impossible, especially in the short-run, and probably counterproductive in the long-run, due to the effect “deracialization” would have on solidifying white denial of the problem of racism. Finally, many white women suffer from the same racial prejudices as white men; thus attempting to attract their support for affirmative action without directly confronting their misperceived racial interests and subtle but real racial hostility is all but guaranteed to fall flat.
Ironically, perhaps, much of what can work to gain support for affirmative action from white women can also work for some white men. Universal arguments about the benefits to the larger society as a whole and concerns over the ongoing problem of racial discrimination seem to be more effective than narrow gender arguments. If the right seeks to paint affirmative action as divisive because it “pits one group against another,” the last thing proponents should seek to do is confirm this faulty analysis by papering over real racial divisions and creating in the minds of listeners and voters a new set of divisions based on gender.
1. This has essentially been the position of organized women’s groups in the wake of the 209 setback. Those who emphasized gender over race in trying to defeat 209 have expressed, on a number of occasions, the belief that their strategies were basically sound, but that due to inadequate resources and getting a late start in the campaign, they were unable to convince enough white women in time for the November vote. Similarly, Kelli Evans, the Director of the No on Initiative 200 campaign in Washington State (the group trying to prevent a 209 copycat from passing there), has expressed her confidence that the gender focus is appropriate, “the only way to win,” and that the only reason the effort failed in California was due to organizational incompetence and lack of money. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: ADDED, NOVEMBER 2005: As predicted in this piece, the gender focus in Washington, as in California, failed miserably. Now, mainline civil rights groups are once again pushing for a gender focus in the campign ro preserve affirmative action in Michigan, the next state where the anti-affirmative action forces are trying to secure victory. It appears as though some people, especially mainstream liberal white folks, like consultant Celinda Lake, and Democratic Party types, never learn).
2. Please note that use of the phrase “women and people of color” is a stylistic choice and is not meant to imply that women may not also be people of color, or that people of color are synonymous with men. I realize this dichotomy is often perpetuated by commentators on race and gender, and I have no intention of joining in this unfortunate practice, as it has been aptly criticized by feminists of color for years. When lecturing, I typically refer to “women of all colors and people of color, male and female,” but such phraseology could become unwieldy for a journal article. Let it suffice to say that when I refer to opportunity for, or discrimination against “women and people of color,” I mean women as women and people of color as people of color.
3. Even those factors that some consider “independent” of gender bias, and which explain about half of the gap in male/female earnings are far from what could fairly be considered truly independent variables. For example, while some of the wage gap is explained less by overt discrimination than by seniority, education or experience in the workforce, all of these factors are themselves influenced by entrenched gender bias or institutional sexism. If women have less seniority, because, like people of color, they were largely excluded from certain types of jobs for many years, we should hardly consider that to be an independent source of wage disparities. In effect, virtually all the difference in male/female or white/non-white earnings reflects the reality of discrimination, either present or past, and its attendant consequences in terms of accumulated “credentials,” which are themselves largely contingent upon one’s place in the opportunity structure.
4. This is in direct conflict with the claims of conservative groups like the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., which blames demographic and “human capital” factors for most of the existing wage disparities, like absenteeism, workforce participation rates, etc. (Furchtgott-Roth and Stolba 1996).
5. The author served as Assistant Director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, the organization that, in 1990 and 1991, was given much of the credit for defeating Duke in those races. For more information on Duke’s political ascent, and fall, see Rose 1992.
6. For detailed information on the cases involving these men, see Ezorsky 1991, and Fiscus 1992.
7. The Piscataway School Board acknowledged it laid off Taxman so as to keep Debra Williams, a black teacher, for the sake of diversity in the Business Education Department of the high school. However, it should be noted that the decision to do so — which came about because of budget cuts — illustrates how difficult it is for whites to evaluate people of color fairly against their white counterparts, even when it appears by objective measures that the person of color is more qualified. Taxman and Williams had identical seniority, having started teaching the same day, and, according to the Board, were identical in their qualifications in every other way. Thus, the reason they ultimately kept Williams was because there were no other black teachers in her department, and the Board felt an obligation to support diversity. This rationale is ultimately what became controversial and helped create in Taxman the perfect victim: injured solely because she was white. Interestingly enough, the case would never have come to court at all had the Board simply made the same decision based on a non-racial factor that was readily available to them, namely, merit. As it turns out, Williams held a master’s degree in business education, while Taxman did not. Although such academic credentials may or may not mean that Williams was actually a better teacher, it goes without saying that whites with advanced degrees are regularly considered more qualified than people of color without them. Such a rationale is often used to explain why it is so difficult to attract more faculty of color on college campuses or in public school systems (Hampson 1997, 14A).
8. Claims by Hopwood that she was victimized by racial affirmative action are dubious, despite her victory at the appellate level, left intact by a Supreme Court decision to deny certiorari on appeal. Hopwood (and co-plaintiffs) claimed they had scored higher on the LSAT than many of the black and Latino students ultimately admitted to the first year law class. On this point there was no dispute. But what the court ignored in finding for the plaintiffs was that there were also 109 whites with lower scores than Hopwood (and 67 with lower scores than her co-plaintiffs) who were offered a slot at the Law School. Furthermore, the plaintiffs in this case were — with the exception of their LSAT’s — arguably no better qualified than those admitted under affirmative action. Hopwood herself filed no recommendation letters, no personal statement, despite being asked to do so, and her answers to application questions were rated by school officials as “vague,” “brief,” and “unimpressive.” Plaintiff Doug Carvell had ranked 98 out of 247 graduates at low-prestige Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas, and was referred to in one recommendation letter as being a “mediocre” student. Co-plaintiff David Rogers had actually been kicked out of the University of Texas’ undergraduate Honors program years earlier because of bad grades. After all but failing out of UT, Rogers got a professional writing degree from a branch of the University of Houston and filed no letters of recommendation with the UT Law School. (Kauffman and Gonzalez, in Garcia 1997, 234).
9. According to recent surveys, two-thirds of American women refuse to call themselves feminists, and only one in five college women expresses willingness to identify with the women’s movement (Burkett 1998).
10. This effective use of Camarena in California should serve as caution for those seeking to defend against 209′s carbon copy in Washington. Since Katuria Smith — also a working-class white woman — is suing the University of Washington over its race-based affirmative action, there is little doubt that supporters of Initiative 200, as the effort there is called, will seek to utilize her to undercut any gender focus by the No On 200 forces. Unfortunately, as of this writing, No On 200 has shown no signs of learning from what happened in California, and is, in fact, following much of the same playbook with regard to the gender focus (No Initiative 200 1998; Lake memo 1998).
11. Focus groups since early 1995 had shown that if voters understood the true implications of 209 — the elimination of affirmative action — that the overwhelming majority, in every demographic group, including white men, would vote against it. Throughout the campaign however, it was difficult to convince voters of this outcome, and whatever resources could have been put into doing so went toward discussing narrow harms to women. Harris polls in mid-1996 found that nearly 60% didn’t believe that 209 would end affirmative action. Confusion on this simple issue proved to be the most important factor in determining the outcome, since, according to exit polls by the Los Angeles Times, when voters were asked whether they supported affirmative action “to help women and minorities get better jobs and educations” 54% said yes, while 46% said no, exactly the opposite of the results on 209 that day (Chavez, 1998, 237). Other polls indicated that nearly 30% of those voting for 209 thought they had cast a vote in favor of affirmative action.
12. Groups that invested considerable time and energy in pursuing a gender-focused strategy continue to advocate it, and claim their grassroots efforts worked, but were short of money and thus incapable of stopping 209 (Chavez 1998, 239). In early 1997, NOW claimed grassroots efforts had closed the gap on 209 from twenty-five points to only eight by election day (Toledo 1997). This position ignored some salient caveats, including the fact that most of the grassroots work was performed by Californians for Justice (CFJ)–an organization which operated primarily in communities of color and focused on long-term movement building, stressing race instead of gender in the process. In fact, CFJ’s efforts drove down support for 209 principally by increasing opposition, then turnout, amongst people of color, the majority of whom actually supported it before being reached by the grassroots mobilization efforts (Chavez 1998, 152). Although the opposition to 209 was outspent — thanks largely to the refusal by the Democratic Party to invest funds comparable to the Republicans — the combined funds of the various opposition groups surpassed $3 million (Chavez 1998, 252; Coleman 1998, 33), probably enough to do considerable grassroots work, if not the more expensive (and ultimately ineffective media buys).
13. For more information on the attempts to normalize and rationalize white racism, see Armour 1997.
14. Not only will attempts to shift attention from race to gender likely fail — particularly in the short-run as dictated by a political campaign — it is also likely that attempting to do so could have harmful repercussions for the long-term interests of racial equity. If the problem that gave rise to the need for affirmative action in the first place was white privilege, white racism, and its attendant oppression of people of color, and if the corollary problem is the unwillingness on the part of most whites to acknowledge and confront that system of privilege and oppression, then how can it be helpful to further mask that system by refocusing our attention away from race and racism and pretending that explicitly racial issues are really about something else? In fact, doing so could ultimately strengthen white denial about institutional racism and privilege, thereby making systemic change more difficult. As Frankenberg (1993) explains, “focusing on one’s membership in a bounded group may mean failing to fully examine what it means to be part of a cultural and racial group that is dominant and normative” (230). To the extent affirmative action’s proponents insist on “deracializing” the issue, and choose to focus on talking to women as members of a bounded group — women under patriarchy — they run the risk of further making white racism invisible to the very white women they will need in order to build a working civil rights coalition.
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