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IS AFFIRMATIVE ACTION STILL NEEDED?

by Jack Dovidio
Professor of Psychology

The battle over affirmative action has been fought on many grounds. Scholars have argued passionately for the merits of affirmative action from logic, political ideology, empirical evidence of its effectiveness and appeals to historical and social justice. Others have argued equally passionately against affirmative action also on the basis of logic, political ideology, empirical evidence of its ineffectiveness for the apparent direct beneficiaries as well as for the majority group and appeals to individual merit and personal justice. The passion and the range of the arguments reflect the complexity of the issue.

With respect to this intense debate, with smart and committed people on both sides, I offer a simple point. A colorblind approach to equal opportunity, as attractive as it might seem in principle, is not sufficient to ensure equal opportunity for traditionally underrepre-sented groups in practice. Americans are not colorblind, and subtle biases based on race and culture still pervade our society and negatively impact members of minority groups. My own research has mainly examined the prejudice of Whites toward Blacks, and this will be the focus of the information I present.

One current argument against affirmative action is that, although it might have been useful in the past, affirmative action is no longer needed. Indeed, it is easy to obtain evidence to support this argument. Psychologists, sociologists and political scientists have long studied race relations in America. One thrust of this work has been to understand the nature of Whites' prejudice toward people of color (mainly toward Blacks) and exploring how interracial contact situations can be structured to reduce this prejudice.


"Over the past three decades, nationwide surveys have documented significant declines in expressions of prejudice, negative stereotyping, and resistance to equality of Whites toward Blacks."

Over the past three decades, nationwide surveys have documented significant declines in expressions of prejudice, negative stereotyping and resistance to equality of Whites toward Blacks. Nevertheless, substantial gaps in social, economic and physical well-being between Blacks and Whites persist, and in some cases are growing. Blacks continue to report greater distrust in the system and in other people than do Whites. For example, in one nationwide survey, only 16 percent of Blacks (compared to 44 percent of Whites) felt that “most people can be trusted.” These data challenge the assumption that race is no longer a critical issue for our society.

There are also other reasons — based on empirical evidence — to question whether racism has really declined as much as surveys indicate. Over the past 20 years I have been conducting research with Samuel L. Gaertner that has explored how racism has evolved into more subtle and perhaps more insidious forms.

Aversive racism is one subtle form of bias that is characteristic of many White Americans who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are not prejudiced. But many also possess negative feelings and beliefs that they are unaware of, or that they try to dissociate from their images of themselves as non-prejudiced. These negative feelings may be rooted in common cognitive, motivational and sociocultural forces that can affect most White Americans. These convictions of fairness, justice and equality, along with the most unavoidable development of racial biases, form the basis of the ambivalence that aversive racists experience.

This ambivalence produces more subtle and indirect manifestations of discrimination than more traditional, overt forms of prejudice. Unlike the consistent pattern of discrimination that might be expected from old fashioned racists, whether aversive racists discriminate against Blacks depends largely on the situation. Because aversive racists consciously endorse egalitarian values, they do not discriminate against Blacks in situations in which discrimination would be obvious to others and themselves. However, aversive racists do discriminate, usually unintentionally, in subtle and rationalizable ways, such as (1) when a negative response to a minority group member can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, (2) when evaluative criteria are ambiguous or (3) in terms of providing special favors or support to ingroup members rather than derogating or injuring outgroup members.


"Not only are the perpetuators of bias often unaware of their motives, research has demonstrated that the victims of discrimination may also not recognize that they have been personally discriminated against."

Contemporary racism is more likely to be manifested by Whites as a failure to provide help to Blacks, without any overt intention to cause harm. For example, in one study of helping in an emergency, White bystanders were as likely to help a Black victim as a White victim when they were the only witness to an emergency and their personal responsibility was clear. In a condition in which the bystanders believed that there were other witnesses to the emergency and they would justify not helping on the belief that someone else would intervene, Whites helped the Black victim half as often as they helped the White victim. Bias was expressed but in a way that could be justified on the basis of a non-racerelated reason — the belief that someone else would help.

The subtlety and unintention-ality of contemporary forms of bias (such as modern and symbolic racism, as well as aversive racism) can contribute to racial distrust and tension. Because aversive racists are unaware of their own prejudice and discriminate only when a negative response toward a minority group member can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, aversive racists tend to underestimate the impact of race. They certainly dismiss rac-ism as a motive for their behavior. From the perspective of minority group members, the inconsistent behavior of Whites and their denial of personal bias can lead to questions about the sincerity of these responses. Whereas Whites may be insensitive to seeing racism anywhere, minority group members may be sensitive to seeing it virtually anywhere.

Arguments against affirmative action frequently propose that racism is no longer a problem and that, in fact, “reverse discrimination” is now likely to occur in which Blacks are favored over Whites who are equally or even more qualified. Empirical research, including some of our own, demonstrates this does happen. However, this effect occurs primarily in situations in which the real consequences are minimal. In situations that have more immediate impact on Whites, discrimination against Blacks is more likely to occur.

For example, aversive racists are more likely to manifest subtle discrimination in response to direct or symbolic threats to the status quo, such as by showing less acceptance of and support for high status relative to low status Blacks, and by resisting policies designed to change the status quo that benefits Whites when these policies can be opposed on nonracial grounds. Although opposition to affirmative action may be firmly rooted in personal and political ideology, independent of race, some opposition may also be motivated directly and indirectly by racial bias. On balance, the impact of discrimination against Blacks in consequential situations outweighs the effects of “reverse discrimination” that occurs in more tokenistic ways.

Approaches for dealing with the traditional form of racism are generally not effective for combatting the consequences of aversive racism. Aiming to provide colorblind equal opportunity, in particular, may not be successful. Aversive racists are not colorblind. A growing body of research demonstrates that Whites immediately categorize Blacks on the basis of their race, and negative stereotypes and attitudes are automatically activated. As a consequence bias can continue to occur at the personal level or in terms of policies that subtly disadvantage Blacks or fail to provide Blacks the support that Whites receive.

There are three key elements of affirmative action programs that made them more effective than equal opportunity policies for combatting or mitigating the negative effects of aversive racism. First, affirmative action programs are proactive, including policies and procedures for ensuring a diverse applicant pool. Affirmative action does not mean quotas for hiring and promotion, which are in fact illegal. Nor does it necessarily mean preferential hiring. The goal is to assemble, in a self-conscious and active way that can counteract the effects of subtle bias (in the form if ingroup favoritism or preferential support in the form of mentoring), a diverse pool of fully qualified candidates for hiring or promotion.

Second, the most common feature of affirmative action programs is the emphasis on recordkeeping and identification of accurate availability statistics so that organizations can accurately gauge their progress toward their diversity goals. The subtle process underlying discrimination can be identified and isolated under the structured conditions of the laboratory. However, in organizational decisionmaking, in which the controlled conditions of an experiment are rarely possible, contemporary bias presents a substantial challenge to the equitable treatment of members of disadvantaged groups. Not only are the perpetu-ators of bias often unaware of their motives, research has demonstrated that the victims of discrimination may also not recognize

that they have been personally discriminated against. Systematic monitoring of disparities along consensually accepted dimensions can reveal cumulative effects of contemporary forms of bias that are more evident than the impact that can be determined in any particular case.

Third, affirmative action policies are outcome-based; issues of intentionality are not central. Demonstrating intentionality, which is typically a major issue of concern for equal employment opportunity programs, is problematic because of contemporary forms of bias. These biases commonly occur unintentionally.

In summary, over the past 25 years social psychologists have identified and documented the subtle nature of contemporary forms of bias. In contrast to the direct and easily discernible traditional forms, contemporary biases are expressed, often unintentionally, in indirect and ration-alizable ways. Because of the subtle nature of contemporary bias, passive equal opportunity employment policies may not ensure the fair and unbiased treatment of traditionally disadvantaged groups. Policies designed to protect disadvantaged individuals and groups from one type of discrimination based on overt anti-outgroup actions may be ineffective for addressing biased treatment based on ingroup favoritism that may characterize aversive racism. In contrast, affirmative action, with its focus on documenting and responding to disparities at the aggregate level and its emphasis on outcomes rather than intention, addresses some of the particularly problematic aspects of subtle biases that permit disparities to persist despite people's good intentions.

Finally, it is important to note that even though biases may be unconscious, unintentional and subtle, that does not mean that bias is inevitable or immutable. Significant changes can occur in individuals and in society. Expressed racial attitudes have changed dramatically since the civil rights legislation 30 years ago. The personal, social and economic well-being of Blacks, women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups have improved since the advent of affirmative action. We should not delude ourselves, however, that equality has been achieved, that equity is now guaranteed or that we are a society beyond bias. Racism is not a problem that will go away if we ignore it; we have more than 200 years of history to prove it. Racism still needs to be combatted actively and self-consciously. Good intentions alone are not sufficient to guarantee equality. Affirmative action is far from perfect and how it is implemented needs to be reexamined critically and carefully, but it is still needed.