Running Commentary

APA recently filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan's affirmation action case, to be heard before the Supreme Court on April 1. The brief urges the court to affirm the university's admissions policies in its undergraduate and law schools. Our association files a number of briefs each year in court cases where findings from psychological research can be useful. Why did APA decide to file a brief in this case?

The decision to file the brief on behalf of the university stems in part from APA's support of affirmative action more generally. In 1999, our Council of Representatives adopted a resolution in strong support of affirmative action. This council resolution formed the starting place for the APA brief, which argued that diversity in higher education was important for three reasons. First, racial and ethnic bias remains a significant problem in our society, and diversity promotes harmonious and productive intergroup relations. Second, diversity is associated with an enhanced educational environment, where students are prepared to participate in a pluralistic society. Third, achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity in psychology and increasing the number of culturally competent psychologists, regardless of race/ethnicity, are important goals for our profession.

Several different lines of research were used to make the case for each of the above arguments, but some of the most compelling came from work on the social psychology of prejudice and discrimination.

Racial and ethnic bias

Despite remarkable strides in the reduction of overt discrimination and negative attitudes, such behavior toward minorities remains a significant problem in American society. Discrimination in housing, health care and hiring still exist, and negative stereotypes of minorities continue to show up on national surveys. But some of the most striking findings come from social psychological studies of people who maintain outward attitudes of equality--that is, who do not consider themselves prejudiced. For example, when white research participants are asked to evaluate candidates for a job, they rank highly qualified and poorly qualified blacks and whites similarly (i.e., they recommend that they be hired or not hired). Yet, when the candidates' qualifications are ambiguous, they recommend hiring the white candidates significantly more often than the African Americans, and feel more strongly about their recommendations for the former.

Another compelling line of research illustrates that prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination may occur outside of conscious awareness. Using something called the Implicit Association Test, a reaction time procedure, psychologists can ascertain the speed with which two concepts can be associated. For example, we can associate a pair of words like "evil" and "fight" more readily than we associate words like "calm" and "fight." Our reaction times will be faster in response to the former pair than to the latter. Similarly, it has been found repeatedly that reaction times are faster when photos of African Americans are paired with negative words, and when photos of whites are paired with positive words. Changing the race/word combinations slows reaction time substantially.

Impact of intergroup contact

On the positive side, psychological research also indicates that such unconscious bias and stereotyping can be reduced by social conditions that facilitate a relearning of negative associations about particular groups. In other words, by changing the social context that supports and reinforces negative attitudes, unconscious bias can be reduced. Studies have found that increasing exposure to and face-to-face interactions with people of different racial and ethnic groups can reduce prejudice and even unconscious bias.

Although it has been argued that reading materials about different groups or attending diversity workshops without minority participation can accomplish the same ends, the science indicates that interpersonal interactions between groups is critical to improved racial attitudes. Research at the University of Michigan took this idea one step further, by demonstrating that students from universities that foster greater intergroup interactions on campus, and students who participate in them, demonstrate significant and positive improvements in a variety of educational, attitudinal and citizenship outcomes. In other words, a focus on diversity on campus has positive benefits for students.

In addition to APA, other organizations filing briefs relied heavily on psychological research, including the American Sociological Association, the National Education Association and the University of Michigan itself. Regardless of the outcome of the case, I am personally grateful to APA's outstanding legal team, which pulled the brief together under incredible time pressure, to the many scientists who consulted with them and especially to those psychologists whose outstanding research made this excellent brief possible.

Further Reading

For citations of the research described, see the APA Supreme Court brief, available at www.psyclaw.org/grutter-v-bollinger.pdf.