There’s Still Bias Out There, and We Still Need Affirmative Action

If we listen to Justice Sonia Sotomayor and we’re candid about race, it’s easier to understand why affirmative action is still necessary.

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Last week the Supreme Court issued a decision upholding a ban on the use of affirmative action by public universities in Michigan. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented strongly and, in addition to reviewing the legal basis for the use of affirmative action, issued a personal challenge: to speak candidly about race.

Conversations about affirmative action get personal quickly, both for people of color and white folks. And more than one otherwise-progressive white friend has confided to me that they’re frustrated by affirmative action, blaming affirmative action for why they didn’t get into x, y or z school. “It just doesn’t seem fair,” they tell me. “I was more qualified! We’ve moved past Jim Crow and slavery—why should I pay the price?”

Yet what these friends fail to consider is that affirmative action isn’t necessary only because of past injustices; it is also necessary because of the effects of a more subtle, unconscious form of discrimination—or what researchers have come to call “implicit bias”—that continues to play a role both in how we perform and how we assess the performance of others.  

So while policy analysts and lawyers continue to dissect what the high court’s decision on Michigan’s affirmative action ban means for schools across the nation, I encourage all of us to take on Sotomayor’s challenge and engage in a candid conversation about race. But in addition to considering our country’s history of slavery and Jim Crow, that conversation must also look inward, at how our own unconscious biases play a role in perpetuating inequality in schools and beyond.

Implicit Bias in Schools

A person can consciously reject racism, but he or she might still be unconsciously influenced by biased stereotypes. Implicit bias isn’t something that just a few of us deal with, either: Although 85 percent of Americans consider themselves unprejudiced, research shows that the majority of Americans—including teachers—have some degree of implicit racial bias.

Science also shows that when people are stressed—for example, when teachers have too many students of different abilities crammed into one class—or under a time crunch, such as having too many essays to grade, they tend to rely on stereotypes (pdf). Teachers and school administrators have to make hundreds of decisions every day, like figuring out who started a food fight, who to spend time mentoring, who is out of dress code. If they rely, consciously or unconsciously, on stereotypes and generalizations to make those decisions, accumulative damage can be done as young people begin to internalize messages about what they are “good” and not good at. In short, teachers’ subtle unconscious expectations risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stereotypes and Academic Underperformance

The way in which perpetuating stereotypes and subtle expectations can affect performance has been shown through multiple experiments. I’ve written before about one experiment involving golf. When researchers described the task as measuring intelligence, white participants performed better than black participants—consistent with a stereotype of whites as being more academically intelligent. When the task was described as measuring athletic ability, white participants performed worse and black participants performed better—consistent with a stereotype of African Americans being more athletic.

It’s easy to imagine how research on stereotypes and expectations plays out in schools. If a teacher, unconsciously relying on stereotypes of African Americans as athletic, suggests that a black high school student join the football team while suggesting that an Asian-American student join the math club, we should not be surprised at the corresponding degrees of success or failure of those students in their academic pursuits.