White privilege and affirmative action

The late Derrick Bell, pioneer of critical race theory, used to say that white people who oppose affirmative action in college admissions were hypocritical or naive.

Affirmative action for black people, he said, has much less impact on the chances of the average student than all the preferences given to the white elite.

Special consideration is given to children of donors, children of alumnae, graduates of expensive private schools and athletes skilled in sports such as rowing or polo that only rich people participated in.

Bell died in 2011, but facts, including a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, support what he said.

Some 43 percent of white Harvard students admitted between 2009 and 2014 got bonus points for being ALDCs – athletes, legacies (children of alumni), dean’s list (from families of big donors of potential donors) or children of faculty or staff.  Fewer than 16 percent of black, Hispanic or Asian students benefited from such preferences.

The study also indicated that three-quarters of the white students who got bonus points would have been rejected if they hadn’t got the points.   Most of them come from upper-crust families.  Such families are also able to give their children the benefit of private schools or well-funded public schools in rich school districts.

All this matters because Ivy League universities such as Harvard are gatekeepers for the top jobs in banking, law, government and academia, and only about 4 or 5 percent of applicants are admitted.

So why, asked Derrick Bell, is all the emphasis on the extra help African-Americans get from affirmative action policies?

One answer is that affirmative action for rich white families is seldom talked about, but affirmative action for racial minorities is talked about constantly, both by those who favor it and those who oppose it. 

When proponents of affirmative action bring up white elite privilege, they do not challenge white elite privilege; they use it as a talking point to defend their own programs.

Affirmative action for minorities is an example of what Bell called racial fortuity, although I am not sure he would have agreed.  

Racial fortuity happens when black people’s interests and white (usually elite white) people’s interests happen to coincide.  

Affirmative action serves the function of lightning rod for resentment of non-elite white students who can’t get into colleges such as Harvard.


Derrick Bell argued that African-Americans deserve a proportionate share of college admissions and faculty positions as payback for centuries of enslavement and Jim Crow, which has resulted in black people being in the lowly positions so many of them are in.

He wrote about African-Americans as if they were an oppressed nation, like the Irish under British rule or the Poles under Russian rule.  If that is what they are, then they need representation as a group, not just equal opportunity as individuals.

Another reason for affirmative action is viewpoint diversity.  Black men and women typically have different life experiences from white men and women; the insights arising from these experiences should be available.

This is not contrary to “merit,” Bell wrote, because the selection criteria were never neutral or objective. 

He himself was the first black person to become a tenured professor in Harvard’s School of Law, and he said it is because Harvard recognized the need because to have an African-American on its tenured law faculty.  He said he accepted with the understanding that he was the first, but would not be the last. 

He did not fit the standard profile of a Harvard law professor.  He did not attend a private school, graduate from an elite university or serve as law clerk to a Supreme Court justice. 

But that doesn’t mean he was unqualified to teach law at Harvard.  He was by all accounts a popular and innovative teacher and was the author of many interesting law review articles, many of them collected in The Derrick Bell Reader.

When he left to become dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, he demanded Harvard replace him with a black woman.  The typical life experience and insights of black women are different from those of black men.

Ideally a law school professor should be chosen on the basis of his or her knowledge of the law, ability to teach the law and commitment to teaching.  That would for the benefit of the students, not as a reward of merit. 

But I don’t know if anybody knows how to assess these qualities in advance, beyond screening out the obviously ignorant, incompetent and lazy.

In practice, Bell said, the selection criteria are always set to produce a certain result.  A century ago, as others have pointed out, admissions criteria were modified in order to limit the number of Jews; nowadays, many argue, they are now set up to limit the number of Asian-Americans.  

So, Bell asked, why not be honest?  If black people are unrepresented or underrepresented, why not just say your goal is to hire more qualified black law professors?  Why not just do it instead of looking for indirect means to reach the same goal?


The reasons affirmative action is such a high-stakes issue are: 

  1.  Economic inequality in the USA is extreme and growing.  Half or more of the U.S. population, including most black people, are falling behind economically.
  2. The kind of degree you hold is a big part of whether you wind up in economic heaven, hell or purgatory.  Law degrees from Harvard, Yale and other elite universities are a gateway to life in the economic elite.
  3. People with extreme wealth and power, most of whom are white, will always have the means to game the system so their children can stay in the elite.
  4. Under these conditions, trying to carve out exceptions for African-Americans and other minorities will meet stiff resistance and, at best, benefit only a few.

If the privileges of elite white people are unassailable, then, as a matter of logic, it is not in the interest of African-Americans to give up affirmative action and compete on a level playing field with non-privileged whites and other groups.

It will be hard, and maybe impossible, to change until limits are set on the wealth of the elite by means of taxation, and limits are set on the power of the elite through regulation of anti-social economic activity, such as private equity, and enforcement of the laws, including the anti-trust laws.

At the same time we US Americans need to lift up people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, who are disproportionately people of color, by means of universal health care, a minimum wage that is a living wage, better public school education, stronger labor unions and economic policy whose goal is full employment.

If every hard-working person could be certain of a decent income, without taking on a huge amount of debt to get an educational credential, and if there were paths to success that didn’t depend on degrees from elite institutions, the issues Derrick Bell raised would be manageable.

But to bring that about would require solidarity among the mass of black and white American citizens based on their common interests.  Bell thought racism is so baked into the white American psyche that this would be impossible.


Racial Realism by Derrick Bell for the Connecticut Law Review (1992)

The Myth of American Meritocracy by Ron Unz for The American Conservative (2012)

Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard by Peter Arcidiano, Josh Kinsler and Tyler Ransom for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Preferential treatment of white kids is the real college affirmative action by the Tribune Content Agency.

The ‘Privilege Bias’ and Diversity Challenges in College Admissions by Audrey Murrell for Forbes.

As Long as There’s White Privilege, We’re Going to Need Affirmative Action by Latisha Marrero for Education Post.

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One Response to “White privilege and affirmative action”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Affirmative action was never seen as a problem for rich folks. The real opposition is from the white working class who have been rabble roused by some very cynical people.


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