New Research Offers Insights Into Why People Oppose Affirmative Action

New research offers insights into why some people oppose affirmative action, as well as perspectives into how such policies may be more effectively framed.


A recent article on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website says that researchers typically suggest that people who oppose affirmative action do so either because they think it’s inherently unfair, or because they are racist. But Brian Lowery, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has found no validation for this idea in a series of studies conducted with assistant professors Miguel M. Unzueta from UCLA, Eric D. Knowles from UC Irvine, and Atiba Goff from Pennsylvania State University. Their research was published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


The researchers conducted four studies involving white participants who were presented with four different affirmative action policies. In the first study, the white participants were asked how they thought each policy would affect whites versus minorities and were asked to rate how much they would support each option. The policies include (1) hiring a minority, even if a white were more qualified; (2) hiring a minority as a “tiebreaker” where two candidates were equally qualified; (3) providing training to minority applicants to help them become better qualified, but not basing hires on race; and (4) focusing on increasing minority applicants, but not basing hires on race. The researchers found that the more whites felt the policy helped minorities, the more they were willing to support it, but only when they thought it would not hurt members of their own group. Recruitment and training, which were seen as “milder” policies, therefore, received more support than policies perceived to help minorities at the expense of whites. From these results, Lowery believes it appears that people can separate out the issues of helping minorities and hurting whites, showing that racism isn’t always the issue.


A second study examined how responses to affirmative action differed when outcomes were framed in terms of how they affected whites versus blacks. The study found that the higher participants scored on white-group identity measures, the less supportive they were of the policy when they were told it reduced the percentage of white employees. But the group that was told how the policy benefited blacks did not show differences in their response to the policy, regardless of how white-group identified they were. Results from a third unrelated study found that when participants were told that white employment remained unaffected by the new policy, they also supported it regardless of how white-group identified they were.


Extrapolating from the results of the various studies, Lowery concludes that “White people may say, and believe, they’re not supporting affirmative action because it creates inequities, but in many cases the reason they think it’s unfair is because they think it’s hurting their group.” Lowery said that what’s missing is the recognition that in some situations one group’s disadvantage is another group’s advantage.


Lowery says that if managers present affirmative action policies as “somehow hurting whites and white males,” then there will be “less support” for them than if they were presented as benefiting minorities. He also suggests that instead of solely focusing on reducing discrimination against women and minorities, managers should also create awareness that by discriminating against minorities and women, the organization also inadvertently advantaged whites. Lowery is conducting new research that suggests that “individuals are more willing to accept policies that reduce their group’s opportunities when they understand that.”


Summarized from the story, “New Take on Affirmative Action,” in the January 2007 edition of Stanford Knowledgebase, a free monthly electronic newsletter published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.


By Patricia A. Schaeffer, Vice President-Regulatory Affairs

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