Deirdre Bowen , J.D., Ph.D

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October 24, 2008
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Deirdre Bowen: Affirmative action: The numbers don't lie

On November 4, Coloradans are being asked to vote on the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative which proposes, among other things, to ban affirmative action in college admissions. Make no mistake in thinking that this proposal supports equality. Passage of Amendment 46 would be a giant step backwards.

The campaign incorrectly asserts that passage of similar anti-affirmative action initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan did not end in the dire results that opponents of such bans predicted. Ask the under-represented minority students who attend schools in those states if they agree.

A recent national study I conducted of 335 high achieving under-represented minority students majoring in the hard sciences from 33 states shows grim results for those students attending schools in the aftermath of anti-affirmative action campaigns.

Asked whether they had encountered overt racism from other students, 43 percent of students who attended school in California, Washington, Michigan and Florida where affirmative action is banned said "Yes." Less than half of that number (20 percent) of students who attend schools in states that allow for race-based admissions answered similarly. Yet, anti-affirmative action supporters argue that such policies are outdated because racial issues no longer exist in America. They also maintain that banning affirmative action will lead to equality for all students.

Why, then, are minority students, who have been admitted under the exact same criteria as other students, almost twice as likely to have their qualifications questioned (46 percent) compared to students who attend schools in states that use race based admissions (25 percent)? Anti-affirmative action proponents claim race-based admissions increases resentment. In fact, the opposite is true. Banning affirmative action leads to suspicion and doubt.

It gets worse. While 80 percent of under-represented minority students ranked their ability to succeed as high, regardless of the state in which they attend school, substantially more students in anti-affirmative action states felt pressure to succeed because of their race (74 percent) than students in affirmative action states (40 percent). In addition, 31 percent of students in anti-affirmative action states as opposed to 19 percent of students in affirmative action states felt faculty had lower expectations of them compared to non-minority students.

But those wishing to ban affirmative action want us to believe that the use of race in admissions leads minorities to think that they can't succeed on their merits. Once again, the numbers don't support such a claim. Minorities don't question themselves when affirmative action is present. Instead, far more whites question minorities' merits when affirmative action is not present.

In light of this, many more minority students in anti-affirmative action states think race based admissions are necessary for minorities to get ahead (55 percent), compared to those students attending schools in states that do allow race based admissions (32 percent). Recall, these are students who did not benefit from affirmative action policies when they applied to school. It is the treatment they endure during their four years in higher education that leads minority students to question whether they are operating on a level playing field.

It may come as no surprise then, that after enduring at least four years of increased hostility despite the absence of "racial preferences," only 3 percent of students in states that banned affirmative action versus 21 percent of students in race-based admissions states agree with this statement: Faculty and students no longer think minorities can only get into college with the help of affirmative action.

Furthermore, 20 percent of students in affirmative action states versus 40 percent of students in anti-affirmative states plan to investigate graduate school admissions policies on race. Not because they believe they will need such policies to get admitted, but to find a less hostile learning environment.

In other words, minorities find more divisiveness on campuses without affirmative action than those with affirmative action, contrary to what supporters of Amendment 46 would like you to believe.

Affirmative action is working, but the job is not yet complete. When minority students are admitted to schools under the same meritocracy as white students, but are disproportionately encountering overt racism, disproportionately having their qualifications questioned, disproportionately feeling pressure to succeed because of their race, and disproportionately perceiving that faculty have lower expectations of them, race still matters.

We now know the effects of doing away with affirmative action. And know this: Amendment 46 is not about gaining civil rights. It is about dismantling them.

Bowen is a professor at Seattle University School of Law. More on this study can be found in her forthcoming article Brilliant Disguise: An Empirical Analysis of the Colorblind Ideal in a Post-Affirmative Action World.


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The Summit Daily Updated Oct 24, 2008 04:53PM Published Oct 24, 2008 04:53PM Copyright 2008 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.