In the Public Interest

Recent events offer encouraging evidence of progress toward diversity in the United States. But other evidence points to resistance and retrenchment from this movement. APA has been a leading voice in articulating the societal merits of diversity and has made its pursuit a top priority.

The 2007 Super Bowl was historic as not only the first, but two African-American coaches met in this major sports event. This followed the 1987 Super Bowl where Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, led the Washington Redskins to a win. These two historic occasions showed that African Americans could play the quarterback position and coach, contrary to the widely held stereotype that blacks had neither the intelligence nor leadership skills to be quarterback or head coach.

Other notable trends toward increasing diversity in the United States include Nancy Pelosi's election to speaker of the House, the first woman to hold that position, and the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the democratic presidential nomination. Although not the first woman or African American to run for president, their consideration as "serious" candidates and front runners is undeniably unique. The 110th Congress is possibly the most diverse ever. While these milestones mark achievements to celebrate, it is at the same time discouraging that at the beginning of the 21st Century, these are still "firsts."

Institutionalized affirmative action has been one of the major avenues for achieving diversity and equal opportunity in the United States. Yet affirmative action continues to be attacked. Substantial psychological research has addressed issues of critical importance to discussions of diversity and affirmative action. APA has recently used this research in several amicus curiae briefs, and APA's leadership has articulated policies that confirm the association's strong commitment to and willingness to work in support of diversity and affirmative action. I share here descriptions of a couple of briefs APA has submitted to the highest courts in the land that bring psychological research to address questions of affirmative action. I encourage you to read the full briefs at www.apa.org/psyclaw/amicus.html.

Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) were affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan undergraduate and law school. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of race-aware admissions policies at public colleges and universities to obtain "educational benefits that flow from a diverse" student body. The Court affirmed the law school admissions process, but ruled against the university's undergraduate admissions policy. APA's amicus brief supported the University of Michigan's admissions processes based on three sets of research findings: 1.) prejudice against racial and ethnic groups persisting in American society; 2.) people who believe themselves devoid of racist attitudes continue to harbor attitudes that can lead to subtle, discriminatory behaviors; and 3.) prejudice and stereotyping may be ameliorated through contact between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. APA also argued that diversity in higher education leads to cultural competence, which is critical to the psychology profession and to society at large, thus reinforcing the Court's conclusion that "diversity is a compelling state interest."

In Comfort v. Lynn School Committee (June 2004), race was one of several factors used to monitor the impact of decisions regarding transfers by a student from his/her neighborhood school. The decision of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lynn's plan, as urged in APA's brief.

APA's brief presented a substantial body of psychological research demonstrating that racial and gender categories, in particular, become salient for children at a young age, and these classifications may evolve into negative stereotypes. Once racial categories are formed and become salient, social information is systematically distorted to reinforce racial stereotypes and reject information inconsistent with them.

Most recently, APA joined with the Washington State Psychological Association in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents v. Seattle School District (U.S. Supreme Court), by extending the arguments in Lynn to show that although adults may find it difficult to abandon racial stereotypes, children who interact regularly with persons of other races are less likely to engage in stereotypical thinking about racial groups. Children and adolescents in racially diverse schools are more likely to regard others as individuals, rather than simply "the product of their race."

While clearly there is progress toward equal opportunity and diversity and significant advances that can engender much needed pride, confidence and optimism, a lot remains to be done. This is true not only in response to the assault on affirmative action, but in general to achieve the promise of "equality for all."