Photo: HADLEY GREEN, STR / NYT
Students walk past Widener Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., May 1, 2018. Harvard faces a lawsuit that accuses it of discriminating against Asian-American applicants.
Students walk past Widener Library on the Harvard University campus…
This week’s announcement that guidance supporting affirmative action in higher education will be removed signals that President Trump’s administration believes such efforts to be, at most, unnecessary or, at worst, patently unfair to white and Asian students. Several key findings from a robust body of social science evidence refute such beliefs.
First, racism persists. (This statement is laughably obvious to many people of color in our country but seems to bear stating.) Statistics demonstrate that white and Asian-Americans attend better funded primary schools, make more money and live longer than black and Hispanic Americans. Yet, it could be argued that these striking patterns are not direct evidence of racism. So let me describe some of that data, too.
In one study in an employment context, identical job applications were more likely to yield interview offers when the record was labeled “Emily” or “Greg” than when it was labeled “Lakisha” or “Jamal.” In research my colleagues and I conducted, “Jose Gonzales” and “Jamal Jenkins” were viewed as less appropriate for high-status occupations such as engineering, architecture and computer programming than the otherwise identical “James Sullivan” and “Lee Chang.” In fact, the presumably white and Asian candidates were recommended more than the black and Hispanic candidates for a high-status job, even when their resumes were much lower in quality. This general pattern was confirmed by a recent analysis of 24 separate, but similar, studies since 1989 showed that applicants receive about 36 percent more callbacks than identical Black applicants and 24 percent more callbacks than Latinos. Moreover, the effects were largely unchanged over the nearly 30-year period racism persists. It follows that efforts to restrain the effects of racism and create equal opportunity — such as those provided by affirmative action — are still needed.
Second, there is no such thing as race-blind anything. The idea that humans can overlook race may be appealing, but it is not supported by evidence. Human brains are organized in such a way that we automatically notice and pay attention to race. If you don’t believe me or the evidence, do a Google image search on “faces” and try as hard as you can to not notice each person’s race. It doesn’t work. In fact, the part of our brain, the amygdala, that is involved in processing race is also the part of our brain that is implicated in tricky emotions such as threat and fear.
Moreover, trying to enact color-blind policies may in fact have the opposite effect. When people are told not to think about something — like don’t think about bears or don’t think about the chocolate cake in your refrigerator — we often can think of nothing else but bears and chocolate cake. In the case of race, people who are encouraged to ignore race (rather than encouraged to value differences) seem to express more racial bias. This means that telling people to ignore race might actually increase racism.
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Third (if it help to have a “business case”), ethnic diversity in institutions of higher education improves outcomes that people care about. Compared to students in homogenous environments, students who attend ethnically diverse institutions are better prepared for employment in terms of cultural competence, decision-making and problem-solving skills.
Institutions of higher education aim to teach young people how to think critically and make good decisions based on the best evidence available. The best evidence, considered critically, supports affirmative action.
King is a professor of psychology at Rice University.