White women must choose sides in affirmative action debate

SOME WHITE women say they will stand up for affirmative action as women.

"Women's jobs and futures are on the line," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority.


"This is a scary time, and this is the kind of fight that can be lost," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

"This is the fight for us over the next two years," said Elizabeth Toledo, president of NOW in California.


The scary reality for these three women is that they don't know how many white women will stand with them. The signs are clear that in this battle, most white women will forgo being women and will simply pass for white.

A recent USA Today-CNN-Gallup survey indicated that 61 percent of white women still support affirmative action. But in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 79 percent of the middle-class white women were against it. In a February Field poll in California, 66 percent of white women and 65 percent of white men supported a proposed ballot initiative that would end affirmative action. Seventy-one percent of white women supported ending it for women.

The wild fluctuations in the polls make white women the wild card of the debate. White women have gained the most during 30 years of affirmative action yet have escaped its stigma. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., did not use white women to scare white, male voters about losing jobs. Allan Bakke did not attack white women over medical school admissions. Rutgers president Francis Lawrence did not say that white women were a "disadvantaged population that doesn't have that genetic hereditary background." Charles Murray did not attack white women's IQs in "The Bell Curve."

They all painted affirmative action with a black face as white women moved up dramatically into middle management. White women are 36 percent of the nation's work force, according to the Labor Department's "Glass Ceiling Commission." They are 36 to 39 percent of executives, administrators and managers in wholesale, retail, entertainment, communications and banking. They are 40 to 50 percent of executives in insurance, education and hospitals and 66 and 67 percent in social and health services.

African-Americans are 10 percent of the work force, but only 4.5 percent of the executives. In no industry did the level of African-American male executives match or exceed their share of the work force. African-American women managers exceeded their share of the work force in only one industry, social services. Even there, white women were 83 percent overrepresented. African-American women were 36 percent overrepresented as executives.

In census data, white women are the group whose gains most parallel declines in the share of top jobs held by white men. As white men have gone down 12 percentage points as executives since 1983 (64 to 52), white women have gone up 8 points (30 to 38). As white male lawyers and judges have gone down 8 points (81 to 73), white women have gone up 7 (15 to 22). As white male doctors went down 8 points (74 to 66), white women went up 5 (13 to 18). While the white male share of sales supervisors went down 10 points (67 to 57), white women went up 8 (26 to 34).

African-Americans went up in the above professions by no more than 2 percent. Yet 15 and 17 percent of white men said in last week's polls that they lost out on jobs and promotions to black people, compared with only 7 and 10 percent who remembered losing out to women.

White women have to decide whether they will lend sanity to the debate by acknowledging their gains or fuel racism with silence. As Deval Patrick, the Justice Department's African-American civil rights chief, argues for affirmative action, Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy, Jamie Gorelick, both white women, are much cooler.


Ms. Gorelick said, "I don't like numbers games." That is like Republican Bob Dole's "The race-counting game has gone too far." Ms. Gorelick forgets that 30 years ago no one would have counted white women eligible for two top jobs at Justice.

In 1920, white women won the right to vote, then disappeared as African-Americans were lynched for wanting the same franchise. Susan B. Anthony said, "An oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household . . . carries discord and rebellion into every home of the nation."

White women of the 1990s, feeling safe in their percentages of mid-level managers and much safer than African-Americans in their physical proximity to white men as fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, seem quite close to locking the door on anyone else who needs affirmative action. In the 1970s and '80s, white women had no problem hitching up to the affirmative action banner of "women and minorities." If they now want to rip down the banner, it will confirm the dirtiest little secret of all about affirmative action.

While it was given a black face, affirmative action really meant white women before "minorities."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.