Affirmative action stigmatizes its beneficiaries

Today’s Guests Are:

Priscilla A. Ocen: Priscilla is a third year law student at the University of California, Los Angeles. While at UCLA, Priscilla has served as co-chair of the Black Law Students Association. In addition, she is a founding member of Students Helping Assure Racial Equity, Justice and Diversity (“SHARE JD”), a coalition of students concerned about the unacceptable lack of racial and ethnic diversity at UCLA School of Law.

George A. Turner, Jr.: George is a third year student at the UCLA. George currently serves ast editor-in-chief of the National Black Law Journal and is a founding member of SHARE JD.

Rafael Yaquian: Rafael is a third year law student at UCLA. Rafael has served as co-chair of the La Raza Law Students Association. He is also a founding member of SHARE JD.

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MYTH: Affirmative action stigmatizes its beneficiaries.

FACT: The stigma facing women and people of color is not caused by affirmative action but by the very stereotypes that have always been used to exclude such groups from educational and employment opportunities.

One of the most common anti-affirmative action arguments is that it harms the very people it is intended to help. This argument relies on two false presumptions: First, that affirmative action conflicts with a genuine American meritocracy, so that people (including its beneficiaries) will always question the qualifications of those who participate in such programs. And, secondly, that the stigma associated with these programs is so pervasive that it even damages those women and people of color who have not benefited from affirmative action. In this sense, these policies are said to cause the members of marginalized groups to question their accomplishments, and to prevent anyone from ever knowing whether they actually deserve the positions that they occupy in American society.

In reality, the stigma associated with affirmative action derives from misunderstandings about its nature. These misunderstandings are rooted in the idea that merit can be easily quantified and measured objectively through the use of standardized criteria. Because affirmative action requires that we depart from the use of such criteria, they are thought to “unfairly favor” the beneficiaries of affirmative action; and, in so doing, to promote reverse discrimination. However, thinking about these programs as a form of “preferential treatment” for the “less qualified” is impossible if we remember that they function only to level a playing field that is already biased against women and minorities.

Affirmative action does not provide free entrance to unqualified women or people of color. It is senseless to assert that someone was admitted to a law school, for instance, “based only on the color of their skin”. If admissions were offered regardless of qualifications, our institutions would be completely dysfunctional – filled with unqualified people. Law schools – like other institutions that employ affirmative action policies – have no interest in bringing in unqualified people. Instead, they use affirmative action because it allows them to identify qualified candidates whose potential to succeed would otherwise be overlooked. Studies that track affirmative action’s beneficiaries have clearly demonstrated how successful these policies are at identifying qualified individuals who are otherwise unfairly assessed. (Read the introduction to Willam Bowen and Derek Bok’s groundbreaking study on affirmative action’s overwhelmingly successful beneficiaries HERE)


Although the debate around differential admissions policies always focus on race and gender based affirmative action policies, there are many beneficiaries of other admissions policies that look beyond numerical assessments of “merit”.

At most schools admissions officers look favorably on children of alumni or donors, even though these applicants (overwhelmingly white and wealthy) are already advantaged. The Wall Street Journal reports that Duke University, one of the top universities in the country, routinely admits students who would be deemed less than stellar by traditional measures of merit, simply because they are the children of wealthy donors. Click HERE to read the story.

Policies such as the one employed by Duke University may fairly be termed “unfair preferences,” as they do not counterbalance a meritocratic system that discriminates against these individuals. Indeed, they reinforce the privileges of those who are already advantaged. Yet, no one would seriously make the claim that these individuals are or should be burdened by stigma.

The real source of a “stigma” for women and people of color is not affirmative action at all. Does anyone really believe that before affirmative action, there were no negative stereotypes associated with the academic and professional capabilities of women and people of color? The reason it is so easy to stereotype the beneficiaries of these policies is because our culture is already loaded with negative stereotypes about the competence of women and people of color. The stigmas that surround affirmative action spring not from its actual effects, but from the kinds of pervasive discrimination that affirmative action acts to correct.

After all, if affirmative action is the cause of stigma, how can we explain the absence of stigma’s burden when genuinely preferential programs for non-minorities cause no such stigmas? The unfortunate truth is that the stigma facing women and people of color has nothing to do with affirmative action and everything to do with the perpetuation of the same gender and racial stereotypes that have always been used to exclude such groups from educational and employment opportunities. The beneficiaries of these programs are stigmatized for the very same reasons that these policies exist in the first place: persistent and sometimes unconscious beliefs that women and people of color are simply less talented, hardworking and competent than their white male counterparts.

When athletes, the children of wealthy alums (and former Presidents) or the family or friends of influential employers are selected for reasons other than merit there is no manifest doubt about whether or not they are qualified for or deserving of the benefit simply because they are not subject to the negative stereotypes about their ability that women and minorities typically face.

Bottom Line: Affirmative action is the solution for, not the cause of stigma!

Affirmative action departs from the use of standardized criteria only to the extent that they are biased with respect to its beneficiaries. Once we recognize this fact, we can see that the stigmas associated with it represent only the evolution of the same false stereotypes that have dogged out-groups throughout our nation’s history. The solution is not the eradication of affirmative action, but the eradication of stigma producing stereotypes. One way to combat the perpetuation of such stereotypes is to ensure that classrooms and workplaces are diverse. Exposure to people from a broad array of social, ethnic and racial backgrounds is known to have a debiasing effect. To put it another way, ending affirmative action cannot cure stigmas based on negative stereotypes, but supporting affirmative action programs that increase diversity within our institutions can do so.

Colin Powell
Former United States Secretary of State

When asked about the stigma that opponents say affirmative action imposes on blacks who attend these schools, Powell, proponent and unabashed beneficiary of affirmative action, dismissed it, saying, “I would tell black youngsters to graduate from the schools magna cum laude and get one of those well-paying jobs to pay for all the therapy they’ll need to remove that stigma.”


Even though we know that affirmative action is not the cause of stigmatizing attitudes, the reality of stereotype- based stigma is too often a part of the lived experience of women and minorities who often have to rebut a presumption of incompetence at work or at school. Ending affirmative action, however, will not end end the racist and sexist attitudes that many of us confront. In California, for example, consideration of race in university admissions has been banned since the 1996 passage of Proposition 209. Yet 10 years later, the stigma once ascribed to race and gender conscious polices lives on. Consider the experience of students in a post – affirmative action environment:

Did You Know?

In 2003, hundreds of students from the University of California system told compelling stories of racial stigmatization and isolation in a brief filed before the United States Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case involving a court challenge to affirmative action at the University of Michigan. In filing this brief and in telling their stories, the students hoped to prevent others from experiencing not only the stigma, but the hostility, isolation and alienation that pervaded the post-affirmative action environment in which they found themselves. Click HERE to read their stories.

Affirmative Action is not the cause of stigma, racism is. If you’re black or another person of color, people assume that you are not as intelligent, unqualified, or undeserving to be in the space. With affirmative action, we would be no less qualified, but there would be more people of color to take advantage of educational opportunities and provide leadership within their respective communities. At the end of the day, more people of color in professional leadership capacities can undermine the stereotypes that lead to stigma. So what we need is more affirmative action,not less of it.

Priscilla Ocen, UCLA School of Law Class of 2007:

I don’t feel any more or less stigmatized here at UCLA than I did at institutions that had Affirmative Action policies.   Some of my professors continue to assume that something is wrong if I go to office hours and classmates tend to be genuinely surprised every time they realize that I know what I’m talking about. I find myself having to prove that I belong here time after time. Sometimes in a literal sense – I’ve been here 3 years and white security guards still ask me for my ID. There is no Affirmative Action here at UCLA, so I have to conclude that the problem is not affirmative action, but an assumption of Black inferiority.
Nikki Brown, UCLA School of Law Class of 2007:

Such students, despite their tremendous capabilities, are working in a situation where race is even MORE salient for them now that it was for their predecessors. The ironic but true fact is that the fewer of them there are, the more their race stands out. Thus, it becomes impossible for them to be seen as individuals, and they come to be associated with membership in stigmatized groups that are not thought to be sophisticated enough to send more than a few students into competitive academic environments.

Mythbusting Homework:

1. Given the fact that affirmative action was banned 10 years ago in California, how do you explain the persistence of the sorts of race and gender stereotypes described above ?

2. Do you wish there were a test that could identify unconscious bias? There is! Try the Implicit Associations Test(IAT) yourself. Click HERE to read more about Implicit Bias.



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