On April 22, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to allow Michigan voters to constitutionally ban the use of affirmative action in public higher education admissions. This decision adds another knot to the thick web of racial barriers operating in the United States—in this case, making Michigan’s colleges and universities less accessible to students of color. But, in this age of extreme economic inequality across all races, why should we care?
After all, affirmative action primarily seeks, in the words of economist and Duke University professor William Darity, to provide “access to members of socially excluded groups to preferred positions in society.” That is, as Darity points out in his 2013 paper supporting affirmative action, these policies aim for equal representation of historically disenfranchised groups at all levels of the social hierarchy. They do not aim to do anything about the relative positions of the hierarchy itself. Affirmative action is an important anti-racism tool, not a program to reduce inequality per se. A related critique of affirmative action is that the policy simply promotes already relatively advantaged individuals within a disenfranchised group (e.g., members of the African-American middle class). For these reasons, defending affirmative action feels less urgent for some than the call for reducing inequality in general.
We should care about affirmative action because recent headlines have jarred the nation’s consciousness to the immediate, lethal consequences of racism. Three recent highly publicized murders of black teenagers—Trayvon Martin in 2011 in Sanford, Fla.; Jordan Davis in 2013 in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Michael Brown this year in Ferguson, Mo.—demonstrate how racism can effectively condemn someone to death.
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Affirmative action policies combat racism in a critical way. By integrating “preferred positions in society,” affirmative action policies undermine racist intuitions entrenched in the American psyche—intuitions that stop people from acknowledging the full humanity of black people, in particular. A common slogan on signs during the two weeks of non-stop protests over Brown’s shooting stated plainly what should go without saying: “Black lives matter too.” The fact that this statement had to be asserted, rather than assumed, points out the root issue.
The common link between the shootings of the three teenagers is the racial stereotyping of young black men in particular—as violent and predatory—in ways that set them up as targets. Apparently, 30-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman gunned down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin because he looked “suspicious.” Forty-seven-year-old Michael Dunn, from his car, shot teenager Jordan Davis in “self-defense” during a verbal confrontation over the volume of the music Davis and his friends were listening to. In the case of Michael Brown, police officer Darren Wilson shot the unarmed teenager while he held his hands up in the air. Ferguson residents, who are two-thirds black, were under the surveillance of a nearly all-white police force (with 50 white officers out of 53).
Shootings like these are the lethal tip of the iceberg. Many symptoms of racism, while alarming, are chronic rather than immediately deadly. For at least the last half century, for example, the African-American unemployment rate has nearly always been double (or more than double) the rate among white workers. And, in 2012, for every dollar of income the average white household brought in, the average black household brought in only 60 cents. The level of racial wealth inequality is of an entirely different magnitude: the average white household owns 6.4 times the wealth of the average African-American household. The incarceration rate among black males, on the other hand, is 6.4 times the rate among white males. More than one in three black children (37%) live in poverty, compared to one in eight white children (13%). And finally, more than one in three black children (38%) attend almost completely segregated schools.
Psychological research can tell us something about how stereotypes operate, and offers clues about how to break them down. The Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination describes the existence of “automatic prejudice” in American society. The handbook explains that, “[i]f the members of minority groups are consistently presented in negative social contexts (e.g., crime, terrorism, dependency, etc.) then classical and evaluative conditioning processes would certainly be expected to produce prejudiced mental associations with these groups and their members.” The legacy of slavery in the United States, and its present-day offshoots of racial discrimination have consistently degraded the status of being African-American. The laundry list of statistics above attests to how systematically the concept of race defines the economic and social hierarchy in the United States. This racialized hierarchy also plays out in frequent, ongoing, cultural representations of African-American people associated with negative traits that, according to the research, reinforce and deepen prejudices.
Examples abound. There are the emblematic ones. In the mid-1970s, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s anti-welfare rhetoric inspired the iconic image of the “welfare queen”—an African-American woman who cheats the welfare system—and turned her into a political football. During George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid came the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. The ad featured a mug shot of Horton, an African-American man who committed several felonies while out of prison on a furlough program supported by Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. Today, right-wing critics of President Obama, the United States’ first African American president, have dubbed him the “Food Stamp” president.
And then there are the multitude of insidious micro-aggressions inflicted on the character of black men and boys in the media. In a 2011, the Pew Research Center audited mainstream news outlets in Pittsburgh for their representation of black men and boys. “Of the nearly 5,000 stories studied in both print and broadcast,” they found, “less than 4 percent featured an African American male engaged in a subject other than crime or sports.”
Even allegations of criminal behavior take on a uniquely negative spin when leveled against a black person. During an August 18, 2014, radio broadcast about assailed Michael Brown of Ferguson, National Public Radio reporter Robert Siegel described a theft allegedly committed by Brown as a “pretty thuggish moment,” as opposed to just a “theft,” a “criminal act,” or some similar combination of race-neutral words. Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of the historically Black women’s college, Spelman College, describes the omnipresent feature of racism like smog: “[S]ometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.”
Psychologists have by now performed numerous experiments that document “automatic stereotype activation”—how people use racial stereotypes reflexively. Take for example evidence from a psychology experiment that timed how long white participants took to categorize positive and negative words after experiencing a visual cue of a white or black person. White participants took longer to respond—a sign of unease—when an image of a black person preceded a positive word, compared to when an image of a white person did. These patterns were not, however, related to explicitly stated prejudices. Racial stereotypes appear to unconsciously prime their minds to automatically associate a white person with positive attributes and a black person with negative attributes.
A study by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities documents a more harrowing expression of implicit pro-white and anti-black attitudes. Interested in explaining the over-representation of racial minorities among pedestrian traffic fatalities, Portland University researchers tested whether racial bias exists in the treatment of pedestrians by drivers. In predominantly white Portland, Ore., they observed that compared to white pedestrians, black pedestrians had to wait longer for drivers to yield to cross the street, and were passed by twice as many drivers. “Our findings are … consistent,” the researchers conclude, “with behavioral manifestations of implicit racial attitudes.”
To reduce these implicit prejudices, the emerging psychological research prescribes frequent exposure to experiences that not only contradict the pejorative assumptions about people who are not white, but affirm positive alternative assumptions. A 2008 experimental social psychology study identified converting stereotypes into “counter-stereotypes” as the key to reducing automatic negative stereotyping on the basis of race. In other words, to eradicate today’s ingrained pro-white/anti-black attitudes, we need to live and breathe a world filled with counter-stereotypes. Just identifying and criticizing anti-black attitudes doesn’t cut it. Affirmative-action policies are uniquely suited to break racial prejudices because these policies increase the presence of nonwhite people in preferred social positions.
Consider African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ remarkable anecdote: “No one has benefited more from affirmative action than I have. The class of ’66 at Yale had six Black graduates. My class, the class of ’73, had 96. And the difference was because of affirmative action.” We also have more systematic, if less dramatic, evidence from the work of economist Jonathan Leonard. His empirical research linked meaningful improvements in African-American workers’ employment opportunities to federal affirmative action policies. Specifically, better enforcement of affirmative action during the 1970s led to a greater share of African-American men and women in the workforces of federal contractors. These policies also increased these workers’ access to better-paid white-collar and craft occupations. Changes like these can begin to normalize the association between people who have been historically discriminated against and the positive social status of holding a decent-paying job that requires specialized skills.
What affirmative action policies need to do—though have not yet achieved—is to make these associations common occurrences. When they are, people’s daily experiences can chip away at the reflexive negative associations with African Americans by normalizing positive associations. This would represent important progress toward replacing the existing set of race-based assumptions with one that permits every person to be seen as possessing a fuller range of human qualities—and ultimately the same basic human constitution—no matter his/her race. And, eventually, people may reflexively see their own humanity mirrored back in the faces of people of different racial backgrounds, instead of seeing something “less than.”
Affirmative-action policies, of course, are not a panacea for racism. To substantially reduce racism, we also need a barrage of policies that address the wide range of racial disparities that exist: anti-discrimination laws in housing, economic policies that promote full employment and greater equity in the distribution of wealth, reform of school disciplinary policies and the criminal justice system. The list goes on. Affirmative-action policies, however, play a critical role in draining the power of automatic racial stereotypes.
Reducing the severity of today’s economic inequality would also help reduce racism, since social tensions can be channeled into scapegoating and fuel racism. However, whether these social tensions are intense or moderated, the fact remains that a specific group of people consistently stand in their crosshairs.
Without affirmative action, in combination with other anti-racism policies, we can expect to continue to normalize—for everyone—our existing racist intuitions. And, these intuitions will inevitably produce more tragic losses. Let’s be clear here: that means that, as a nation, we are promising to inflict insufferable pain and loss for families that include men who are young and black. Empathy, however, may lead many more to feel the urgency for affirmative-action policies.