February 12 2007 - New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Stanford Knowledgebase has found that affirmative action is still a highly contentious issue in American society with people typically opposing it either because they regard it as inherently unfair or simply because they are racist.
A series of studies by Brian Lowery, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Business School together with assistant professors Miguel M. Unzueta from UCLA, Eric D. Knowles from UC Irvine, and Atiba Goff from Pennsylvania State University offers new insights into responses to affirmative action and suggests how policies could be made more effective.
Brian Lowery said:
"People may not support affirmative action because they're concerned about their own group's well-being. It may be that someone would support a policy that helps women, blacks, or Latinos, for example, but fears that an affirmative action policy might hurt his group."
In one study, white participants were asked to rate the effect on whites compared to minorities and their level of support for four affirmative action policies. These included: hiring a minority, even if a white were more qualified or as a "tiebreaker" between two equally qualified candidates; not basing hires on race, but providing training to minority applicants to improve their qualifications or focusing on increasing minority applicants.
The study found that the more participants felt a policy would help minorities, the more they were willing to support it, but only when they anticipated no disadvantage to members of their own group. Recruitment and training were perceived to help minorities at least expense to whites.
Brian Lowery commented:
"It appears from these results that people can separate out the issues of helping minorities and hurting whites, showing that racism isn't always the issue."
Researchers also studied responses to affirmative action when outcomes were framed in terms of their impact on whites compared to blacks. Participants were asked to rate the fairness of a policy designed to increase the number of black applicants but not make hiring decisions based on race. They were also surveyed on the degree to which being white was an important part of their own identity.
Participants were told either that the policy had reduced the proportion of white employees from 90 to 82 per cent of the company's workforce, or that it had increased the number of black employees from 5 to 13 per cent. The higher participants scored on the white-group identity scale, the less supportive they were when told the policy reduced the percentage of white employees. The same group also perceived the policy to be less fair. Regardless of white-group identity scores, those told the effect was increased black representation showed no differences in their response, and support for the policy increased if participants were told that white employment was not affected.
Brian Lowery explained:
"White people may say, and believe, they're not supporting affirmative action because it creates inequities, but in many cases the reason they think its unfair is because they think it's hurting their group. What's missing is the recognition that in some situations one group's disadvantage is another group's advantage. Reducing unfair discrimination against blacks will increase their representation and simultaneously reduce the representation of whites."
"I chose the numbers in the study precisely to reflect the fact that the new policy allowed for employee ratios to become more representational of national demographics. So, essentially, the policy was correcting the unfair advantage that whites had had all along.
"Typically, people suggest they oppose affirmative action because they think that actively hiring minorities over equally or less-qualified whites is unfair. However, this study used a weak policy - just attempting to increase black applicants - and still you see perceptions that it was unfair. In this case, affirmative action is perceived to be unfair because it is believed to hurt whites.
"It's not as if whites - and white men, in particular - are 'outside' and objectively evaluating such policies. Nor is it necessarily that they're opposing these policies because they are expressing racist attitudes. Their concern about their group's position and well-being can have an effect on how they respond - even if they may want to help minorities and women."
Researchers argue that these studies demonstrate that everyone has a stake in affirmative action and there are important implications for managers interested in adopting effective policies.
Brian Lowery concluded:
"It's important how you frame the policies to your constituents. If you present them as somehow hurting whites and white males, you're going to get less support than if you present them as benefiting minorities. Also, instead of solely focusing on reducing discrimination against women and minorities you also need to create awareness that by discriminating against minorities and women, the organization also inadvertently advantaged whites. New research I'm doing suggests that individuals are more willing to accept policies that reduce their group's opportunities when they understand that."