For our second lecture in the Diversity and Inclusion for a Global Society class, we read and discussed an article by Peggy McIntosh titled “White Privilege – Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. The article noted how being “white” opens many doors for whites and made them confident, comfortable and oblivious while other racial groups were likely experiencing the opposite. In addition, it outlined a long list of privileges that are often unrecognized or unacknowledged by whites. Among the long lists was a statement about the effect or consequence of affirmative action for racial minorities. The statement reads: “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race”. While the statement is about the stigma that results from affirmative action in work place, it reminds me of the stigma that minority students enrolled in colleges with affirmative action policies also face because of their race. Although we often think of affirmative action as something positive for racial minorities, studies have shown that it can have negative effects (stigmas) on them. In this blog, I will discuss the definition, benefits and stigmas of affirmative action, and ways in which institutions can combat the stigmas.
Formal theory or scholarship
What is Affirmative Action?
Wikipedia describes affirmative action as “policies that support members of a disadvantaged group that has previously suffered discrimination (and may continue to) in such areas as education, employment, or housing.” The aim of affirmative action in higher education is to increase access to college education for historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups by demolishing the wall of segregation that excluded them in the past, and to promote racial and gender diversity. However, critics believe it is unfair and results in reverse discrimination. While access to higher education and students’ diversity have improved in recent decades, racial minorities and women continue to face discrimination or stigmatization that affect their performance in college (Fischer & Massey, 2007).
How does affirmative action benefit minority students and college campuses?
Affirmative action has been under threat during the Trump’s administration. The administration believes that affirmative action is reverse discrimination that provides minority students with privileges and better opportunities at the expense of students of other races. While the administration seeks to ban affirmative action in higher education, majority of adult Americans (60 percent) favor affirmative action programs for racial minorities (Gallup Poll, 2016). Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the programs. The reason majority of American favor affirmative action programs and the Supreme Court has allowed colleges to continue to use affirmative action policies is because of the benefits it provides to minority students and college campuses.
An Harvard article on “The Case for Affirmative Action” reported that minority students who benefits from affirmative action eventually succeed more than their peers who attended lower ranking universities. These students had a higher chance of graduating, earning a professional degree and higher incomes.
In addition to benefiting underrepresented students, affirmative action promotes diversity which enhances the college experiences of students of all backgrounds. A recent study by Century Foundation suggests that racially diverse schools can help reduce students’ racial bias, improve their leadership skills, satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence. Also, racially diverse and integrated schools promote equitable access to resources, educate students that are more productive, more effective, and more creative team players who are better equipped to succeed in a global economy.
Considering the benefits diverse college environment provides for all students, affirmative action polices should be promoted and supported and not banned.
What are the stigmas of affirmative action?
While affirmative action provides many benefits, if the programs are not effectively managed, it can result in stigmas that negatively affect the very students they are supposed to help. Critics of affirmative actions have often argued that it stigmatizes all minority students as incompetent or unqualified resulting in discouragement and underperformance irrespective of individual qualifications. (Fischer & Massey, 2007). They also argue that affirmative action sets up beneficiaries for failure by placing them in highly selective universities where their skills do not match the required abilities to succeed.
However, recent evidence by Fischer & Massey (2007) does not support the later argument of students’ mismatch. In their study of some selective colleges and universities in the U.S., they reported that the performance of minority students (who benefited from affirmative action policies) with lower SAT scores than institutional averages were not poorer than the performance of other students. In addition, the found that minority students who benefited from affirmative action in institutions with less intensive use of the program performed better academically and dropped out of college at lower rates than other students.
While there was no support for underperformance by students benefiting from affirmative action at the institutions studied, they found support that stigmatization of minority students affected their academic performance and well being. The negative consequences of affirmative action increased with college year for the minority students with their academic performance decreasing after their first year in college. Affirmative action creates a perception that minority students are admitted to colleges due to their demographics rather than qualifications. As a result, other students view minority students in institutions with affirmative action programs as unqualified and incompetent, and this view causes these minority students to doubt their self-competence which likely results in poor academic performance (Leslie et al., 2014).
Missing components that needs to be addressed about the stigma of affirmative action
Affirmative action policies in higher education have increased diversity but often creating stigma for the students that they are designed to assist. Reports on the consequences of affirmative action have often focused on the effect of stigmatization, but have largely ignored ways to eliminate stigmatization of minority students and the consequent underperformance. In addition, more reports have focused on eliminating stigmatization of minorities in workplace. Therefore, there is the need for more research to be done on eliminating this problem among college students.
To tackle the stigma of affirmative action, institutions of higher education should emphasize the qualification of students and the benefits of diverse and integrated college environment. Emphasis on the qualification of students and the benefits of a diverse and inclusive school will help reduce the perceptions that affirmative action and other diversity and inclusion initiatives results in reverse discrimination. Students admitted into colleges with affirmative action policies should be reminded that they were admitted for their qualifications. This will prevent students from doubting their abilities.
Colleges should also make their admission process more transparent. This will allow people to recognize that underrepresented students are selected based on their qualification and not just because of their race. Implementation of affirmative action plan should be followed through with steps to prevent the unintended consequence of stigmatization.
In addition, students should not just be admitted to colleges, they should be supported all through. Increasing employment and retention of minority faculty and staff who can provide mentorship for minority students can also reduce the stigma of affirmative action policies.
Future studies on the effect of affirmative action on higher education should examine how the diversity of faculty and staff in higher education impacts minority students’ experiences in institution with affirmative action policies. Questions to address may include: will minority students in colleges with more diverse faculty and staff experience less stigma of affirmative action? How will they perform academically compared to minority students in colleges with less diverse faculty and staff?
Leslie, L. M., Mayer, D. M., & Kravitz, D. A. (2014). The stigma of affirmative action: A stereotyping-based theory and meta-analytic test of the consequences for performance. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 964-989.
Fischer, M. J., & Massey, D. S. (2007). The effects of affirmative action in higher education. Social Science Research, 36(2), 531-549.