Oct. 7, 2008
UI study: minorities do not feel stigmatized by affirmative action
Opponents of affirmative action point to stigma as a reason for dismantling the policy, but a new University of Iowa study counters that argument.
Challengers of the policy argue that minorities who benefit from it could doubt their own credentials or feel the burden of being treated as if they're employed or enrolled only because of race -- not because they earned it.
But researchers surveyed 610 students at seven public law schools, and results indicate that minorities at affirmative action schools feel just as good about their qualifications and about how others treat them as minorities at non-affirmative-action schools do.
Evidence that calls the powerful stigma argument into question is important at a time when California, Michigan and Washington recently passed legislation to end affirmative action in public institutions, and similar measures are on the ballot this November in Colorado and Nebraska, said UI Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig. She conducted the study with sociologist Mary Campbell of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Emily Houh, a University of Cincinnati law professor.
"Anti-affirmative-action activists bring forth lots of arguments against the program, but stigma gets a lot of play because high-profile individuals like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas make the argument," Onwuachi-Willig said.
"Well-meaning people who value diversity can be influenced by the argument if they buy the idea that affirmative action hurts the people it was designed to help. Our study suggests it doesn't, and we think it's important to share this evidence so people can use it to continue to support diversity in education."
Campbell noted that arguments against affirmative action are often based on anecdotal experiences of a few prominent individuals like Thomas, not on data.
"We felt it was important to collect something more systematic and think about how the average person experiences the policy, instead of just one individual," Campbell said. "We can't rule out the possibility of one person feeling stigmatized by affirmative action, but that's not what most people experience."
On average, minority students at both types of schools disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements such as "I do not deserve to be a student at my school," "Classmates/teachers act as if I was admitted based only on Affirmative action," and "I feel stigmatized by affirmative action."
"Generally, when good things happen to people, they think they deserve it. It's human nature," Campbell said. "So we had good reason to be skeptical of the idea that affirmative action makes whole groups of people say, 'I don't belong here, and therefore I'm not going to perform as well.'"
Another key finding was overwhelming support for diversity in education, a sentiment that did not vary by school type. In fact, students at schools without affirmative action were more likely to agree that "Racial diversity is important; it enhances my education," and in the comment section of the survey, several described the lack of racial diversity in their schools as a deficiency.
"Earlier in my career, I taught at a non-affirmative-action school where I literally had one black student out of 110 students in a class," Onwuachi-Willing said. "As professors, we can see that it matters to have a diverse group of students with a broad range of perspectives. It makes class more stimulating, and students learn more from people who don't share the same background."
The study was conducted online in summer and fall of 2007 with second-year law students at four schools that had affirmative action admissions policies at the time (University of Cincinnati, University of Iowa, University of Michigan and University of Virginia) and three that did not (University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Davis and University of Washington). The sample included 443 students from Affirmative action schools and 167 from non-Affirmative action schools with 32 black, 17 Latino, 40 Asian Pacific American and 14 "other race" respondents.
The study will be published in the December issue of the California Law Review.
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