Why is affirmative action needed in American colleges and businesses?

"Affirmative action is the only mechanism for ensuring fairness that does not require the aggrieved to come forward on their own behalf," said social psychologist Faye Crosby, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in giving the annual Harry Kirke Wolfe Lecture during APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

Crosby argued that the active approach of affirmative action--as opposed to the passive approach of equal opportunity policies--is essential, since minorities and women may not speak up for themselves if their job or safety could be threatened.

"If you rely on them to come forward, you might be relying on something that will happen too late to be effective," she explained.

Moreover, she added, psychological research shows that victims of discrimination often believe that discrimination only happens to others. "The very victims of discrimination have blinders on that prevent them from seeing the discrimination until it becomes really bad," she explained, noting that others are also often poor at detecting systemic discrimination problems from readily apparent information.

Crosby's own research illustrates the point. She showed participants a series of mock spreadsheets that compared the salaries and qualifications of women and men in several divisions of a made-up company; the women consistently made less money than men despite similar qualifications. However, participants generally failed to see the discrimination. Only when they saw all of the business division salaries at once did the pattern become apparent.

The study--along with other psychological research--shows that affirmative action officers are needed, said Crosby, to consciously look for and prevent patterns of discriminatory practices that may not be readily apparent to employees and supervisors.

The root of our discomfort

But even with such empirical evidence, many Americans still express discomfort with the idea of affirmative action, said Crosby. Many believe it is a quota system, when in fact it is a monitoring system to ensure fairness, she explained.

"Genuine justice concerns can also be part of the reason why people dislike affirmative action," she added. For example, Crosby cited research by psychologist Leanne Son Hing, PhD, and colleagues on people who strongly believe in meritocracy--advancement based on merit. Son Hing found that those who think discrimination has been eliminated are more likely to dislike affirmative action. In other words, because they believe that minorities and women have an equal chance, they object to them receiving preferential treatment. By contrast, those who think discrimination still occurs were more likely to support affirmative action.

"In both instances, these people had a genuine conviction about justice," she explained. "They just had a different view about whether it existed now or not."

However, Crosby argued that the playing field is still uneven for minorities. She and other advocates assert that affirmative action is still needed for two reasons:

  • American culture makes it harder for minorities to demonstrate their merit.

  • A diverse environment is in the best interest of all.

The Supreme Court cited the diversity argument in its recent rulings on the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases in which white applicants to the University of Michigan's law school and liberal arts college accused the university of reverse discrimination, since the university admitted minority students with lower grades and test scores (See the September Monitor for details).

However, Crosby noted that only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg made use of the merit argument. "Ginsberg said there's another thing going on here," said Crosby. "Our country still makes it much harder for an African American to demonstrate their merit."

For example, African Americans and Latino Americans score about one standard deviation lower than whites on the SAT, Crosby said. That automatically puts them at a disadvantage in the admissions process, she explained, even though the SAT does a poor job at predicting who will succeed in college.

"Our reliance on standardized tests forces blacks to pay for the fact that social scientists have unusually good measures of a trait on which blacks are unusually disadvantaged," she said, quoting testing specialist Christopher Jencks.

She added that her motivation for promoting affirmative action comes from her own two grown sons, who are, like Crosby, white: "[They] need to live in a world where there is more justice rather than less justice, where we pay more attention rather than less attention to people's merit, where we don't fool ourselves into thinking we're a meritocracy because we have tests that are slanted to let some people in and condemn other people to lose."