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Affirmative action refers to any measure, beyond a simple termination of discriminatory practice, adopted to correct for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future. This controversial social policy has inspired research in a variety of disciplines. The present research paper summarizes research on (a) the economic effects of affirmative action on target groups and on organizations, (b) stigmatization of affirmative action target group members by others and by the individuals themselves, and (c) attitudes toward affirmative action.
- What Is Affirmative Action?
- Economic Effects of Affirmative Action
- Affirmative Action and Stigmatization
- Attitudes toward Affirmative Action
1. What Is Affirmative Action?
Humans have a propensity to distinguish between the in-group and the out-group, a process that often results in prejudice and discrimination toward individuals in the out-group. Consistent with this tendency, most countries have long histories of discrimination toward women and racioethnic minorities. During recent decades, many countries have passed antidiscrimination laws, and some have gone further to require that affirmative actions be taken to enhance opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups. Although affirmative action may apply to university admissions, this research paper is restricted to affirmative action in the workplace. It summarizes the economic, behavioral, and psychological research on affirmative action that has been published in English. Most of this work has been conducted in the United States or Canada.
What is affirmative action? That question can be answered conceptually, legally, and operationally.
1.2.1. Conceptual Definition
Many conceptual definitions have been offered. For example, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has defined affirmative action as ‘‘a term that in a broad sense encompasses any measure, beyond a simple termination of discriminatory practice, adopted to correct for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination [from] recurring in the future.’’
1.2.2. Legal Definitions
The legal definitions of affirmative action vary from place to place and change over time. Critical dimensions on which the law varies include which groups are targeted, which actions are required and forbidden, what penalties can be imposed for violations, and how the law is enforced. In the United States, federal affirmative action law is jointly determined by the U. S. Constitution (5th and 14th amendments), presidential executive orders (e.g., Executive Order 11246 [EO 11246]), legislation (e.g., Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991), implementing regulations promulgated by federal agencies (e.g., Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs [OFCCP], Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]), and court decisions.
Organizations in the United States may be required to establish affirmative action plans (AAPs) for four reasons. First, courts may impose AAPs on organizations that have been convicted of discrimination. Second, to avoid adverse legal decisions, organizations may set up AAPs as required by court-approved consent decrees. Third, EO 11246 and other acts require affirmative action of federal agencies and of most organizations that do business with the government (i.e., federal contractors). Fourth, government ‘‘set-aside’’ programs at the federal, state, and local levels require that some proportion of contracting and procurement expenditures go to designated firms. In addition to these legal bases for affirmative action, some organizations may voluntarily take affirmative actions to diversify their workforces. All AAPs are constrained by the Constitution and by the Civil Rights Acts.
It is not possible to describe here the requirements and constraints of affirmative action in detail. However, because most AAPs in the United States are established by federal contractors as required by EO 11246, some of their key requirements and constraints are described here. First, the organization must not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Second, the organization must complete an annual utilization analysis that compares its workforce, in terms of gender and racioethnicity, with the available qualified workforce. Third, if underutilization of women or a racioethnic minority group is revealed, the organization must generate a plan for eliminating the underutilization. Fourth, the plan should use targeted recruitment, outreach, and other nonpreferential actions that will facilitate target group success. Fifth, the plan must not involve the use of demographic status (i.e., racioethnicity, gender) in making selection, promotion, or termination decisions. This last point is important: Preferential treatment of women and racioethnic minorities is contrary to EO 11246. Preferences are legal only when they are specifically required by a court order or consent decree to reverse the effects of proven discrimination.
1.2.3. Operational Definitions
For current purposes, we must consider two types of operational definitions: organizational implementation of affirmative action and the descriptions of affirmative action used in behavioral research. Organizational AAPs are complex. They potentially include organizational structures, written reports, proscribed and prescribed processes, and more. Although ‘‘best practice’’ reports exist, the author has never seen a report summarizing the frequencies of typical practices. Importantly, although much of the public equates affirmative action with preferential treatment, the actual frequency of such illegal procedures is unknown. Operationalizations used in behavioral research tend to be brief, simplistic, and (often) illegally strong.
1.3. Public Beliefs
The American public construes affirmative action in many different ways. Some people focus on the role of affirmative action in decreasing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. Other people believe it involves quotas or preferential treatment. Very few people think of affirmative action in terms of recruitment and outreach, and virtually nobody has a realistic understanding of the law. Beliefs about what the term ‘‘affirmative action’’ means vary with respondent characteristics, such as racioethnicity and political orientation, and predict support or opposition to affirmative action.
2. Economic Effects Of Affirmative Action
There has been a lively debate regarding the economic effects of affirmative action on the targeted groups and on organizations subject to affirmative action regulations. The implicit question is whether the benefits of affirmative action outweigh the costs. That question cannot be answered in the abstract because it depends both on the effects of affirmative action and on the values one assigns to organizational outcomes and to the well-being of the target groups. Although such values are a personal matter, it is possible to study the effects of affirmative action. Both conceptual and empirical studies have been published, and the conclusions are summarized in what follows. However, it is important to acknowledge some unavoidable methodological challenges. Causal conclusions are possible only when the experimenter can randomly assign experimental units to treatment conditions while holding constant all other potentially relevant factors. That is impossible when dealing with a public policy such as affirmative action, where assignment to ‘‘conditions’’ is determined by the law and by the experimental units (organizations and target groups) themselves.
2.1. Target Groups
Many studies assess the employment status of White women and racioethnic minorities, vis-a` -vis White men, in federal contractors versus noncontractors while controlling for relevant variables such as the type of industry. A positive effect of affirmative action is inferred if the relative outcomes of target groups are better in federal contractors than in noncontractors. This research indicates that affirmative action has had a positive effect on the employment status of White women and racioethnic minority groups, but the results are complex and some are tentative. At a minimum, the effects have varied across target groups, locations, time, and types of positions. The initial effect of affirmative action was substantial for African Americans and slightly positive for White women. The limited work on Hispanic Americans suggests that they were also helped. The clearest effects were on employment, especially in professional positions, although wages may also have been affected. However, this conclusion must be qualified by effects of region and time. The largest initial impact of affirmative action (and of antidiscrimination law in general) was observed in the South, where the extent of discrimination was most extreme and so there was the greatest room for improvement. In addition, changes were most substantial during the decade from 1965 to 1975. Broad progress stagnated during the 1980s, especially for African Americans, although there is some indication of continuing effects on the status of White women.
Other studies use micro-level employer data drawn from a variety of sources, including the organizations themselves. This work has found that target groups profit more from affirmative action than from passive equal opportunity practices. The effects of affirmative action vary across target groups, locations, industries, implementation procedures, and other factors.
A final indication of the effectiveness of affirmative action is the finding that growth in employment of White women and African Americans within organizations is predicted by organizational AAP goals. Although the relation is positive, the actual growth in employment of these groups is just a fraction of the goals. This demonstrates that affirmative action goals do not function as strict quotas.
The public debate surrounding affirmative action often centers on the presumed consequences of affirmative action policies for organizations. Critics claim that AAPs adversely affect performance by (a) forcing organizations to expend resources on implementation, (b) constraining organizational decisions, and (c) forcing organizations to hire underqualified individuals. Supporters of affirmative action argue that AAPs improve organizational performance by (a) motivating both White male and other employees and (b) providing organizations with the resources represented by a diverse workforce.
Theoretical models show that whether the net effect of affirmative action on organizations is positive or negative should depend on several factors, including the extent of preexisting discrimination, exactly how the AAP is implemented, and differences in human capital resources of majority and minority groups. Preexisting discrimination would hinder firm performance by limiting access to the resources represented by the victimized groups. If affirmative action decreased this discrimination, the effect on firm performance would be positive. On the other hand, if discrimination were already absent, the constraints on behavior posed by affirmative action could have a negative effect. Similarly, AAPs such as focused recruitment that serve to increase organizational access to human resources should have a positive effect on performance, whereas preferential selection should have a negative effect. Finally, the magnitude of the negative effect of preferential selection should increase with the size of the human capital gap between the majority and minority applicant groups.
As is clear from the preceding, there are logical arguments for both positive and negative effects of affirmative action on organizations. Thus, we turn to the empirical literature. The strongest research has included a wide variety of organizations and has controlled for industry, job level, and other influential variables. The paper qualifications (e.g., education) of minorities and White women appear to be somewhat lower than those of White males in firms with AAPs, particularly when affirmative action is used in hiring rather than when it is used only in recruiting. (The use of affirmative action in hiring does not necessarily imply preferential selection. Instead, it can involve actions such as the use of different screening mechanisms and the insistence that each set of interviews must include one person who belongs to an underrepresented group. Many organizations reported that affirmative action was involved in hiring processes that resulted in the selection of White males.) Importantly, the minor decrements in educational qualifications are not associated with decrements in performance. Several explanations are offered for this apparent inconsistency, but all relate to the fact that firms that use affirmative action tend to have superior human resources practices. For example, virtually all AAPs include extensive recruitment, and this increases the overall quality of the labor pool. In addition, these organizations tend to use selection procedures that are unusually comprehensive and valid. Their use of comprehensive selection systems enables them to detect high-potential minority applicants whose competence is greater than their education would suggest. The null effect of affirmative action on organizational performance that has been observed in the multi-industry research has been replicated in the few studies that have assessed a single type of organization (e.g., police departments).
3. Affirmative Action And Stigmatization
Concerns about stigmatization have been raised by judges rendering decisions in affirmative action cases, by Black and Hispanic intellectuals, and by conservative opponents of affirmative action. Empirical research has addressed several questions, of which three have received the lion’s share of attention. Are members of affirmative action target groups stigmatized by others? Do members of affirmative action target groups expect to be stigmatized by others, and if so, what are their reactions? Do affirmative action beneficiaries engage in self-stigmatization? Work in this area draws on concepts from stigma theory and from attribution theory, particularly the principle of discounting.
According to the discounting principle, an individual’s confidence regarding a possible cause of some outcome is affected by the presence or absence of plausible alternative causes. For example, if a woman is hired by a firm that has an AAP that targets women, she could have been selected either because she is highly qualified or to help the firm meet its affirmative action goal. In the absence of affirmative action, the only remaining explanation is her qualifications. Thus, a woman hired in the context of an AAP will be evaluated less positively than a woman hired in the absence of affirmative action or less positively than a man. This reasoning applies both to observers and to the selected individual herself.
Note that the logic of discounting requires the assumption that affirmative action involves preferences. Also note that this reasoning assumes there are only two plausible reasons for an individual’s selection—qualifications or affirmative action—and that a White male’s selection must necessarily be based on his qualifications. This ignores factors such as traditional gender or racial discrimination, nepotism, personal friendship, similar backgrounds, and the myriad of other factors that are unrelated to merit but nonetheless affect employment decisions.
3.1. Stigmatization by Others
In the prototypical stigmatization experiment, the participant is given information about the background and performance of an employee who is either male or female and, if female, either is or is not an affirmative action hire. The affirmative action condition nearly always involves absolute preferences. The participant is asked to evaluate the employee on competence and other dimensions. Comparisons among the three conditions—male, female, affirmative action female employee—provide the key tests of stigmatization. In a second approach, the male participant believes he is working with a female leader on a one-way communication task, with the leadership role having been assigned on the basis of either test performance or gender. Again, the affirmative action condition involves explicit preferences. After successful or unsuccessful completion of the task, the participant is asked to evaluate his partner.
Consistent with the discounting principle, the affirmative action female is stigmatized. In the scenario research, she is evaluated less positively than either the male or the non-affirmative action female. In the communication research, she is evaluated less positively when selected on the basis of gender than when selected on the basis of test scores. Although the target is usually a White female, a few studies have included racioethnic minority targets. The stigmatization effect generalizes to these targets.
Having established the existence of stigmatization, subsequent research has concentrated on determining its limitations. Key conclusions include the following. First, stigmatization can be eliminated by providing incontrovertible information regarding the employee’s competence or successful performance on the job.
Second, ambiguous information about employee success does not eliminate stigmatization. Third, stigmatization occurs when affirmative action is explicitly described as involving preferences and also when it is undefined. The latter finding is consistent with the common assumption that affirmative action involves preferences. Fourth, stigmatization does not occur when affirmative action is explicitly limited to the elimination of discrimination. Much of this work has assessed the impact of respondent gender and racioethnicity and has sometimes found that stigmatization is most evident among respondents who are not members of the target group. With this exception, there is little research on the potential importance of other individual attributes, such as political ideology, prejudice, and belief in a just world, regarding the extent of stigmatization. In addition, there is little use of attribution theory other than the principle of discounting.
3.2. Target Group Members’ Anticipation of Stigmatization
Conceptual and empirical work on self-fulfilling prophecies and stigmas suggests that the anticipation of stigmatization will affect the individual’s affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. The belief that others consider one to be inferior will usually be distressing. It can stimulate either assumption-confirming or assumption-disconfirming behavior, depending on the situation and the individual. Indeed, concerns about stigmatization have motivated several Black and Hispanic intellectuals to speak out against affirmative action. However, little research directly addresses this issue in the context of affirmative action. The research that exists suggests that many White women and racioethnic minorities expect to be stigmatized by others even in the absence of affirmative action. They anticipate that affirmative action will increase the stigmatization, although they may express less concern about this possibility than do White males. The anticipation of stigmatization, with or without affirmative action, affects their feelings and behavior. One consequence may be a lessening of support for affirmative action. Nonetheless, they apparently believe that the known disadvantages of discrimination outweigh the possible disadvantages of stigmatization because they consistently support nonpreferential versions of affirmative action. A second possible effect could be an increase in stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to the fear that one may behave in such a way as to confirm negative stereotypes of one’s group. It is exacerbated by factors that draw attention to the stereotype and to the individual’s membership in the devalued group. Although the presence of an AAP may be such a factor, this possibility has not yet been subjected to empirical investigation.
3.3. Self-Stigmatization by Target Group Members
Self-stigmatization refers to doubts regarding one’s own competence, subsequent selection of a less demanding task rather than a more demanding task, decreased interest in the position in question, negative affect, and the like. There are two primary reasons to anticipate self-stigmatization as a result of preferential selection. The first relates to the discounting principle mentioned previously. If a woman knows that her selection is based on her gender rather than her qualifications, she may be less confident about her qualifications than she would be if merit were the only plausible reason for her selection. Preferential selection may also lead to self-stigmatization because receiving help can have self-threatening implications. The fact that one is helped suggests that one needed to be helped, and this implies incompetence.
Most research in this area has used the following research procedure. Male and female participants (typically White undergraduates) believe that they are about to partake in a one-way communication task. Assignment to the leader and follower roles is said to be based either on gender or on test performance. In reality, assignment to role is predetermined and the participant is assigned to the leader role. After role assignment, participants are asked about their leadership ability in general, their interest in serving as the leader in the communication task, and the like.
This research reveals consistent evidence of self-stigmatization by preferentially selected White undergraduate women. This effect is clearer for judgments of competence than for reports of motivation or task interest. However, when the AAP involves selection among comparable candidates, self-stigmatization is eliminated. Research on people of color is very sparse, but the work that exists has failed to observe self-stigmatization. This null effect likely stems from the belief by people of color that they are hurt more by discrimination than they are helped by affirmative action. Similarly, virtually all of this research has studied undergraduates; the limited work on employed adults has obtained no evidence of self-stigmatization. Several studies failed to replicate the effect with White male respondents. This is consistent with the general lack of concern about self-stigmatization among White males, who have profited from traditional race and sex discrimination for centuries. These results suggest that initial self-confidence plays a critical role in reactions to preferential selection, and there is some empirical support for that perspective. Finally, psychological processes such as self-protective and egocentric biases would work against the development of self-stigmatization.
One observation applies to all of the work that has been discussed in this section: Negative effects are limited to situations in which affirmative action is operationalized as preferential treatment or is assumed to involve preferences. Preferential selection causes observers to question the competence of the selected individual and causes selected White women to doubt their own competence. These effects are eliminated or sharply reduced when affirmative action involves preferences among comparable candidates, and these effects are fully eliminated when affirmative action is restricted to the elimination of discrimination and opportunity enhancement efforts such as targeted recruitment.
4. Attitudes Toward Affirmative Action
By far the largest body of research on affirmative action deals with the variables that predict attitudes. Support for affirmative action is frequently assessed in large surveys, and many dozens of questionnaire studies have been published.
Although many attitudinal predictors have been studied, this research paper is limited to the variables that have received substantial empirical attention. These predictors can be divided into three categories: structural aspects of the AAP, characteristics of the respondents, and psychological mediators. The structural factors include AAP strength, identity of the target group, and justification. The individual difference variables fall into two categories: demographic characteristics and opinion variables. Finally, the respondent’s personal and collective self-interest and the perception of affirmative action fairness are presumed to mediate the relationship between the individual difference predictors and attitudes.
4.1. Structural Factors
The structural factors include details of the AAP. Real AAPs are complex. They include utilization analyses that compare the employer’s workforce with the corresponding qualified labor market as well as organizational structures that assign responsibilities for maintaining equity. If target groups are underrepresented, the AAP includes goals for target group employment and a set of processes for implementation of the change. In contrast to this complexity, few research descriptions of AAPs exceed a single paragraph. In addition, much of this research includes AAPs that would be illegal if actually implemented.
4.1.1. Affirmative Action Plan Strength
The structural factor that has received the most attention is the manner in which the AAP attends to demographic status. This is typically referred to as AAP strength. The most common AAPs used in research, from weakest to strongest, include (a) the elimination of discrimination against the target group; (b) opportunity enhancement activities such as focused recruitment of the target group and the provision of training; (c) a tie-break procedure (often referred to as weak or soft preferential treatment) in which members of the target group are preferred if, and only if, their qualifications are equivalent to those of nontarget applicants; and (d) a preferential procedure (typically referred to as strong or hard preferential treatment) in which members of the target group are preferred even if their qualifications are inferior to those of nontarget applicants. Quotas would also qualify as strong preferential treatment. Although strong preferential treatment is normally illegal, this is the version most frequently used in behavioral research. Note that these four procedures confound the weighting of demographic status with the relevant phase(s) of the employment process.
Most research has found a negative effect of AAP strength on attitudes. The elimination of discrimination receives strong support. Opportunity enhancement procedures receive somewhat weaker support. Preferences are opposed, with most studies finding greater opposition to strong preferential treatment than to weak preferential treatment.
However, the preceding conclusions must be qualified. To a great extent, they are drawn from research on White respondents. When the effect of AAP strength on attitudes is studied within racioethnic minority groups, the negative monotonic effect observed among Whites is not always observed. Although all groups express opposition to strong preferences, racioethnic minorities make less of a distinction than do Whites among the weaker versions of affirmative action. Indeed, two studies on minority respondents have found greater support for recruitment than for the elimination of discrimination or any other AAP. Very few studies have included multiple racioethnic groups and AAPs of varying strength, so this conclusion is tentative.
4.1.2. Identity of Target Group
A few studies have manipulated the identity of the target group. There is a tendency for White respondents’ attitudes to be less positive when the AAP targets minorities (especially African Americans) than when it targets White women or individuals with disabilities. Explanations for this effect could include racial prejudice (which would lower evaluations when the AAP targets racial minorities) and inclusion of the target group in the respondents’ scope of justice (which would raise evaluations when the AAP targets White women or individuals with disabilities). However, there is such little work in this area that these conclusions must be tentative. One would expect the impact of target group status on attitudes to vary with demographic status of the respondents, but this interaction has received too little attention to permit any conclusion.
A number of studies have assessed the effects of explicit justification on attitudes. This work has found a modest positive effect of justifying the AAP on the basis of fairness (it is needed to remedy past discrimination) or economic value (it increases diversity, which has a positive impact on the organization’s success). Justifying the AAP by stating that the target group is underrepresented appears to have a neutral or very small positive effect.
4.2. Individual Difference Variables
Dozens of studies have correlated affirmative action attitudes with a host of individual difference variables. The conclusions drawn in what follows are largely based on a meta-analysis of this research that was presented by David A. Harrison, David A. Kravitz, and Dalit Lev-Arey at the 2001 meeting of the Academy of Management.
4.2.1. Demographic Variables
Two demographic variables, racioethnicity and gender, have received the bulk of the attention, although there is also enough research on education to permit conclusions. Other variables such as age, income, and religion have occasionally been studied, but they have typically been included as controls rather than as variables of central interest. It is important to emphasize that demographic variables cannot serve an explanatory role. If one finds an effect of gender, for example, then one must ask why the effect occurred. The answer necessarily lies in the opinion variables that covary with gender and with the psychological mediators, as detailed in what follows.
One of the most consistent and powerful predictors of affirmative action attitudes is the respondent’s racioethnicity. African Americans are the most supportive, Whites are the least supportive, and Hispanic Americans usually fall between the other two groups. The very limited work on Asian Americans suggests that their attitudes are usually more favorable toward affirmative action than those of Whites but are less favorable than those of other minorities. Despite these mean differences, it is important to note that disagreement exists within each of the groups. Many White Americans support affirmative action, and many African Americans oppose it. Also, as mentioned previously, attitudes vary with the interaction of racioethnicity by AAP strength. There is a large effect of racioethnicity in evaluations of strong preferential treatment, a weaker effect in evaluations of weak preferential treatment and opportunity enhancement plans, and no effect in evaluations of the elimination of discrimination.
Why is the effect of racioethnicity so consistent and substantial, at least in reactions to the stronger AAPs? One simple explanation is that attitudes are a function of self-interest, and affirmative action has different implications for the interests of the various groups. There is no doubt some truth to this explanation, but it is much too simple. For historical and cultural reasons, individuals in the various racioethnic groups see the world in different ways, and these differences affect their affirmative action attitudes. If we consider Blacks and Whites in the United States, for example, we find that African Americans are more likely than Whites to be politically liberal and to identify with the Democratic party. They are more likely than Whites to have experienced racial discrimination and to believe that it is an ongoing problem. They are less likely than Whites to be racially prejudiced against Blacks and to believe that affirmative action involves preferences. Each of these differences is associated with attitudes toward affirmative action.
Numerous studies have assessed gender differences in attitudes toward affirmative action. In general, women are more supportive than men. However, this conclusion must be qualified. First, it is not clear whether it applies equally to all racial groups. It is only among Whites that gender determines target group membership, so self-interest considerations would suggest that the gender effect should be larger among Whites than among other racioethnic groups. At least one study has reported a reverse effect of gender among African Americans. Second, the author’s reading of the literature suggests that the gender effect has shrunk over the past 20 years or so. However, the correlation between effect size and year of publication has not yet been reported, so this supposition is tentative.
The third demographic variable that has received the most attention is education. Some of the most significant work on education has used it as a moderator of other predictors in the context of tests between competing theories. When the main effect of education has been assessed, the effect has varied with respondent race. The relation between education and support for affirmative action is usually positive among African Americans and is usually nonsignificant or negative among Whites. This latter result is anomalous because education is also associated with decreased racial prejudice and increased political liberalism, both of which predict support for affirmative action. This relationship between education and support for affirmative action among Whites merits closer investigation.
4.2.2. Opinion Variables
The two theoretical perspectives that have received the most research attention emphasize the importance of political ideology and prejudice. Distinguishing between these two approaches is complicated by the positive correlation between political conservatism and most measures of prejudice. A third theory posits that prejudice and political orientation serve as mediators between a desire for group dominance and affirmative action attitudes. Each of these three perspectives is described in what follows.
Research indicates that prejudice is among the most powerful predictors of White Americans’ attitudes toward affirmative action. However, the effect of racial prejudice varies with the measure used. The correlation is larger when racial prejudice is assessed with a measure of contemporary racism than when it is assessed with a measure of old-fashioned racism, and it is smaller yet when it is assessed as pure anti-Black affect. Because of a dearth of research, comparable distinctions among measures of sexism cannot be made.
The distinction between contemporary racism and old-fashioned racism requires some explanation. The core of old-fashioned racial prejudice, which prevailed among Whites until the past few decades, is the assumption of inherent inferiority of non-White racial groups. Blacks, in particular, were assumed to be inferior in intelligence and other characteristics. This belief was accompanied with support for racial segregation and for discrimination. Such beliefs have become relatively uncommon. Instead, many scholars argue, such old-fashioned racism has been replaced with contemporary forms of racism. The author uses the term ‘‘contemporary racism’’ to represent several different but related concepts, including ambivalent racism, aversive racism, laissez-faire racism, modern racism, racial resentment, subtle racism, and symbolic racism. These various conceptualizations differ in important ways, but most incorporate the following components. First, they assume that contemporary racists have underlying anti-Black feelings. Second, they assume that contemporary racists do not accept old-fashioned racist beliefs in inherent inferiority, segregation, and discrimination. Instead, contemporary racists believe that African Americans violate American values such as individualism and self-reliance. Third, contemporary racists acknowledge that racial discrimination existed in the past but believe that it is no longer a problem. Thus, they conclude that any economic disadvantages experienced by Blacks are due to their cultural inferiority. Finally, contemporary racists reject racism and any suggestion that their own beliefs are racist. One implication of this is that they feel most free to express their prejudice when some nonprejudicial reason for their action can be offered.
Given this distinction between old-fashioned racism and contemporary racism, one can understand why the latter predicts opposition to affirmative action more strongly than does the former. The anti-Black affect assumed by contemporary racism predisposes individuals to oppose affirmative action. The assistance that affirmative action offers to target group members decreases the importance of self-reliance. In addition, affirmative action is designed to eliminate the effects of discrimination that contemporary racists do not believe exists. Finally, because they can justify their opposition to affirmative action by arguing about the importance of self-reliance and the lack of ongoing discrimination, contemporary racists feel free to oppose it. On the other hand, old-fashioned racists who genuinely believe that Blacks are genetically inferior may conclude that African Americans need the assistance offered by affirmative action and so lessen their opposition. In addition, the ideological argument for individualism that is at the center of the contemporary approaches, and that is a core reason for opposition to affirmative action, is not central to old-fashioned racism. When both old-fashioned racism and symbolic racism are included as predictors of affirmative action attitudes, the latter is appreciably more important and typically explains incremental variance beyond the former.
One problem with the contemporary racism approach is that it overlaps conceptually and (in some cases) empirically with political conservatism. Thus, an individual who espouses a conservative ideology but genuinely lacks any prejudice toward Blacks would score relatively high on most measures of contemporary racism.
220.127.116.11. Political Orientation
Beliefs associated with respondents’ political orientation consistently predict attitudes toward affirmative action. Specifically, numerous studies have found that support for affirmative action is greater among Democrats than among Republicans and is greater among liberals than among conservatives.
From the beginning of the modern civil rights era during the 1950s, the major political parties in the United States have taken opposing positions on many racial issues. This divergence was solidified in the 1964 presidential race, when the Republican party nominated Barry Goldwater to run against President Lyndon Johnson. The civil rights movement played a central role in that election, and this established a pattern of Republican opposition to, and Democratic support for, government policies designed to assist racioethnic minorities. Indeed, in recent national elections, opposition to affirmative action, in particular, has been a formal or informal plank in the Republican party platform. Republican politicians typically refer to affirmative action as ‘‘preferential treatment’’ or ‘‘quotas’’ and argue for its elimination. With this history, it is no surprise that party identification predicts public attitudes toward affirmative action.
Political conservatism is an even stronger predictor of affirmative action attitudes than is political party identification. Political conservatism includes several beliefs that engender opposition to affirmative action. First, conservatism posits that government should not intervene in the marketplace. Affirmative action is a federally mandated policy that constrains business actions. Second, conservatism is associated with support for self-reliance and individualism in both its normative and descriptive meanings. Normatively, individualism argues that individuals should take responsibility for their own success and should not rely on assistance from others (e.g., the government). Descriptively, individualism argues that success in the United States actually is determined by individual actions rather than structural forces. Affirmative action, with its underlying assumption that success is affected by structural factors and its targeted assistance to women and minorities, is contrary to individualism. A related point is that conservatives would support actions designed to ensure equality of opportunity but not those designed to ensure equality of outcomes. For these and associated reasons, conservatism is a strong predictor of opposition to affirmative action, particularly when it is construed as involving preferences.
The past decade has seen the development of a principled conservatism theory of affirmative action attitudes. The argument is that opposition to affirmative action is largely a function of race-neutral conservative principles rather than of racial prejudice. These scholars do not deny the importance of prejudice, but they argue that it is more important among the less educated than among the more educated, who are better able to behave in a manner consistent with their principles. One important point made by some principled conservatism scholars is that members of the public may be less than candid in their responses to survey questions regarding sensitive racial issues. When these researchers use both overt and covert measures of anger about affirmative action, they find the usual effect of political ideology on the overt measures, but this effect is greatly reduced or entirely eliminated on the covert measures. The effect of political orientation decreases because liberals express more anger on the covert measures than they do on the overt measures. A related point is that the effect of prejudice on affirmative action attitudes was stronger among liberals than among conservatives.
18.104.22.168. Social Dominance Theory
A number of scholars have developed models that emphasize the role of group conflict in motivating attitudes toward affirmative action. These approaches assume that societies are organized as hierarchies, with some social groups being dominant and others being subordinate. To maintain its position, the dominant group creates an ideology that legitimizes the status quo. In the current case, this ideology incorporates meritocracy, political conservatism, classical racism, and a belief in the cultural inferiority of racial minority groups. These beliefs serve as legitimizing myths; they legitimize the differences in status between the dominant and subordinate groups. They also legitimize opposition to affirmative action, which threatens the status hierarchy. This theory explains the correlation between prejudice and political conservatism, both of which serve as legitimizing myths, as well as the correlations of each with opposition to affirmative action.
Social dominance theory differs from some other conflict-based theories in its assumption that people vary in the extent to which they have internalized this perspective. This personality trait is called social dominance orientation. Supporting social dominance theory, there is a consistent correlation between social dominance orientation and affirmative action attitudes.
22.214.171.124. Comparison among Theories
There has been a rigorous debate within the affirmative action area among scholars who espouse the prejudice, principled conservatism, and social dominance perspectives. The resulting literature is quite complex and cannot be summarized briefly. In addition, much of it suffers from a significant limitation, that is, the equating of affirmative action with preferential treatment. As mentioned previously, attitudes toward affirmative action are strongly affected by AAP strength. More importantly, there is evidence that the importance of certain predictors varies with AAP strength. For example, research suggests that principled conservatism may be especially important in predicting reactions to strong forms of affirmative action that run counter to the basic principles of conservatism. On the other hand, racial prejudice seems to be most important in predicting opposition to weaker forms of affirmative action that are less inconsistent with conservative principles. To the author’s knowledge, no research has assessed the relative importance of social dominance orientation across AAP strength.
The consistent correlation between measures of prejudice and opposition to affirmative action supports both the prejudice and social dominance approaches. However, it is important to emphasize that the racism literature is complex and that the strength of the racism–attitude correlation varies with the conceptualization and measure of racism. The correlation is most substantial in studies that employ measures of contemporary racism that often overlap with measures of political conservatism. A limitation of the prejudice approach is that it does not explain attitudes of target group members.
Much of the research designed to competitively test these theories assesses the impact of potential moderators. For example, research has found that correlations between affirmative action attitudes and all three predictors increase with respondent education and political sophistication. This is fully consistent with the logic of social dominance theory, but the principled conservatism approach would predict a negative effect of education on the correlation between affirmative action attitudes and racism. Also contrary to the principled conservatism approach, the correlation between racism and political conservatism increases with education. However, these results are based on overt measures of racism and affirmative action attitudes. As mentioned previously, the principled conservatism scholars have demonstrated that the use of covert measures can profoundly affect results.
Some results supportive of social dominance theory were mentioned previously. In addition, research has shown that the significant correlation between racism and conservatism disappears when social dominance orientation is controlled. This result is consistent with the assumption that racism and conservatism are merely legitimizing myths that render the dominance hierarchy acceptable. Other supportive research has involved the use of structural equation modeling analyses of the social dominance and principled conservatism theories.
Finally, at least one study found that all three concepts—racism, conservatism, and social dominance orientation—contributed unique variance to the prediction of affirmative action attitudes. It is not now possible to say that one of these approaches is right and the others are wrong; it is likely that each is at least partly correct. It is also likely that the validity of these approaches varies with the operationalization of affirmative action. Unfortunately, little can be said about the moderating effect of AAP strength because, as noted previously, the vast majority of studies in the principled conservatism and social dominance areas have equated affirmative action with preferential treatment.
126.96.36.199. Beliefs About the Extent of Discrimination
More than 20 studies have correlated beliefs about the extent of target group discrimination with affirmative action attitudes. The result is clear: Support for affirmative action increases with the perception that the target group has suffered from discrimination. There are at least two reasons for this relationship. First, most people support equality of opportunity for all racial groups and actions designed to ensure such opportunity. Consistent with this reasoning, the association of perceived discrimination with support for affirmative action appears to be most substantial for the strongest AAPs. The second reason for this correlation is that perceptions of target group discrimination are associated with other predictors of affirmative action attitudes. For example, political liberals generally believe that discrimination is still a major problem, whereas conservatives tend to believe that discrimination is now uncommon. Along the same lines, social dominance theory would argue that disbelief in discrimination serves as a legitimizing myth.
4.2.3. Psychological Mediators
Finally, research has focused on the psychological mediators of affirmative action attitudes. Precisely how do AAP strength, racioethnicity, political orientation, and other variables affect attitudes? The two answers that have received the most attention are that they affect the respondent’s perceptions regarding (a) the impact of the AAP on his or her interests and (b) the fairness of the AAP.
188.8.131.52. Self-Interest (Personal and Collective)
Assumptions regarding self-interest underlie the conflict theories, such as social dominance theory, mentioned previously. Self-interest has been assessed both indirectly and directly. An example of an indirect approach would be to use respondent age as an indicator of economic self-interest, assuming that younger workers are more strongly affected by affirmative action policies than are older workers. The direct approach asks the respondent to rate the likely impact of the AAP on his or her outcomes. Each of these approaches is flawed. The indirect measures suffer greatly from construct contamination and deficiency, whereas the direct measures suffer from common method variance and experimental demands. Research using indirect measures of self-interest finds that it is only weakly related to affirmative action attitudes, whereas work employing direct measures finds a strong relation.
Furthermore, research using direct measures finds that self-interest partly mediates the impact of other predictors such as gender and racioethnicity.
Self-interest has been studied at both the personal and collective levels. Personal self-interest refers to the impact of the AAP on the respondent’s own outcomes. Collective self-interest refers to the impact of the AAP on the respondent’s demographic group, which is typically defined in terms of racioethnicity and perhaps gender. The few studies that have included both predictors have found that they correlate similarly with affirmative action attitudes.
184.108.40.206. Perceived Fairness
Attitudes toward affirmative action are more closely related to perceived fairness of affirmative action than they are to any other variable. Indeed, research on evaluative reactions to affirmative action has often used measures of fairness rather than attitudes as the dependent variable. People report positive attitudes toward AAPs they consider fair and report negative attitudes toward AAPs they consider unfair.
Fairness perceptions mediate many of the effects described previously. Strong AAPs that provide rewards on the basis of demographic characteristics rather than merit are disliked because they are seen as unfair. That is a central argument of the principled conservatism perspective. Justifications affect attitudes in part because they affect the respondent’s beliefs about the fairness of the AAP. In short, support for affirmative action is strongly predicted by beliefs about its fairness.
4.3. Complications and Limitations
As detailed previously, attitudes toward affirmative action are affected by actual or perceived details of the AAP, by the target group, and by justification for the plan. Attitudes are also associated with various demographic factors and opinion variables. Many of these effects are mediated by judgments of AAP fairness and self-interest implications. Most scholars would acknowledge the importance of all these predictors. There is disagreement, however, regarding their interrelationships and their relative importance. Unfortunately, most studies include relatively few predictors. In these cases, one cannot know how important the predictors would be in the context of additional variables. A related issue is that many of the most important predictors are individual difference variables that are intercorrelated and over which the experimenter has no control. This exacerbates the ‘‘missing variables’’ problem and also means that causal conclusions cannot be drawn from the results. Of perhaps greater significance, not enough is known about how the predictors interact. We know that the relative importance of racioethnicity varies with AAP strength, but because of a dearth of research, it is impossible to draw strong conclusions about other interactions. This limitation is due in part to an unfortunate tendency for research to include only a single AAP.
The operationalizations of affirmative action have tended to be brief, simplistic, and (often) illegally strong. In many studies, affirmative action is not even defined. Instead, the stimulus is simply the term ‘‘affirmative action.’’ In such situations, responses are determined by the participant’s beliefs about what affirmative action entails, and these beliefs are rarely assessed. In addition, this work relies on respondent self-reports. Self-reports on controversial issues may be less than candid, especially if the research procedures do not guarantee anonymity. Furthermore, much of this research has used only White respondents. Even more disturbing, a few studies pool data across all racioethnic groups, and many studies pool results across minority groups. There is evidence that the minority groups differ in their attitudes. Of greater importance, it appears that minority groups may also differ in the factors that predict those attitudes.
Affirmative action is a complex social policy, and the determination of attitudes toward it is complex. Theories and research designs must be similarly complex if we are to obtain a fuller understanding of attitudes toward affirmative action. There is ample room for progress in this area.
One common thread weaves throughout the tapestry of research on affirmative action: Many negative effects are associated with the use of strong preferences but not with weak forms of affirmative action. Negative effects of affirmative action on organizational performance should be limited to situations in which the organization gives preference to underqualified target individuals. Stigmatization of target group individuals by others and by the individuals themselves occurs when affirmative action involves (or is believed to involve) preferences but not when preferences are known to be absent. Opposition to affirmative action and the resulting conflict exist primarily in response to preferences and quotas. The good news is that such strong preferences are illegal, at least in the United States. The bad news is that a substantial segment of the population equates affirmative action with preferences. A major challenge for the future is to craft affirmative action procedures that are widely perceived to be fair and legitimate and that improve employment opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups. Furthermore, the nonpreferential nature of these plans must be publicized, and the tendency to equate affirmative action with preferences should be eliminated in public discourse and academic research. Such actions should decrease social conflict while leading to a more equitable society.
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