Affirmative Action: Changing Stereotypes

In a new article for Vox, Karla Hoff, a senior research economist at the World Bank, presents an argument for affirmative action.  Hoff argues that stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, and affirmative action represents an important tool for changing stereotypes and correcting inequality in the long-term:

For economists to ignore the factors that affect how we process information as part of the interpretation of economic change would be as wrong as to ignore the evolution of technology itself. Ideology shapes what we see and how well we perform. Ideology can give rise to “equilibrium fictions.” In our framework, changes in power, technology, and contacts with the outside world matter not just directly but because they can lead to changes in ideology. 

Hoff highlights a natural experiment in India that changed perceptions of female leadership over the course of ten years:

In 1993, India adopted gender quotas for village governments, with the quotas assigned to randomly selected villages. In villages with little or no experience of quotas, men evaluate the competence of female leaders compared to male leaders in a biased way, and a higher percentage of boys than girls are in school and are able to read and write. Yet exposure for almost ten years to local women leaders eliminates the bias in men’s perceptions and erases the gender gap in educational outcomes. All the evidence (Beaman et al. 2009, 2012) suggests that the material gains to girls and women as a result of the affirmative action policy are explained by changes in the way females are perceived by others and perceive themselves, rather than by any changes in opportunities.

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COMMENTS: 39


  1. Colin says:

    OK, fine, let’s assume that this does generate a real benefit — where is the cost-benefit analysis? Do the benefits of such a program outweigh the very real costs of engaging in racial discrimination (which, of course, is what AA is)? What about the anger that is generated by people who lose out in the college admissions process because they don’t have a preferred race or skin color? What does that do for race relations? And doesn’t AA itself perpetuate a stereotype that certain minority groups can’t compete without special assistance? How is that helpful?

    Look, racial discrimination is always wrong, and it’s time we stop looking for ways to justify this nonsense.

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    • Eddie says:

      “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” – John Roberts, a wise man.

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      • James says:

        The problem there is even when we (or some of us, anyway) have stopped discriminating on the basis of race, gender, &c,
        people who have been conditioned to see discrimination as the cause of every slight or setback will fail to accept that they are in fact being discriminated against based on their actual lack of ability.

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      • Mike B says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • JBP says:

        Mike B,

        Nice ad hominem argument.

        Also, a lot of factors besides racism can explain skewed end results. Certain races are really into certain sports; thus, they are overrepresented in pro sports. Certain races have cultures that encourage hard work and concrete disciplines, such as math, and therefore, they are overrepresented in physics departments.

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      • Thomas says:

        Mike B, only looking at the results and assuming that it must be because of bias is silly. You’re assuming that there’s no corrections necessary other than at the institutional level.

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    • Greg says:

      If we lived in an ideal world then I would totally agree with you. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where (for example) African Americans have, for generations, been born into a culture that systematically discriminates against them (whether intentionally or not). Generation after generation, young black Americans have the deck stacked against them. It is in this context that we need to view affirmative action: not in terms of taking things away from white Americans, but in terms of righting the injustice that is currently present. Once that injustice is fixed (admittedly not an obvious call – but it ain’t now!), then affirmative action will be both indefensible and unnecessary.

      By the way, your claim about the negative stereotype perpetutated by affirmative action is a reasonable theory, but you shouldn’t rush to believing it unless it’s actually been studied. The effect of role models (as described in this very article) is a real and positive effect – an effect that specifically addresses eliminating current biases, which is eminently fair.

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      • Colin says:

        OK, but it is not obvious that AA helps those it is intended to assist. Take for example a B+ minority student that is accepted to Princeton. That student could succeed at any number of good colleges, but instead is placed at an academic environment where he/she is in over their head and flunks out. This mismatch in schools with ability results in higher drop out rates and benefits no one.

        More practically, this argument also suffers from the fact that not all black Americans are a product of historical discrimination. If your parents immigrated here from Nigeria then the US experience with slavery and Jim Crow impacted your own personal situation not at all, yet you still benefit from AA.

        AA is flawed both morally and practically, and it’s time to end this silly practice. Racial discrimination is always wrong.

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      • James says:

        “Generation after generation, young black Americans have the deck stacked against them.”

        Two points. First, Asian-Americans likewise experienced generations of deck-stacking, yet that hasn’t seemed to deter their success in various academic fields. Second, it’s quite possible to find black Americans who’ve succeeded despite that deck-stacking. What can we learn from them? Do many attribute their success to AA, or to something else?

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      • Joe J says:

        “Generation after generation, young black Americans have the deck stacked against them.”

        Doesn’t bear out with the evidence.
        Simple studies have been done, comparing the life experiences and sucesses of just arrived/refugeed Africans vs African Americans born here. If the true cause of the lack of African Americans success was external biases and having the deck stacked against them, the newly arrived Africans would fare the same or worse than the native African Americans , most likely worse since they would also be facing language, financial, culture shock and educational problems.
        However, by various studies newly arrived Africans do far better than native African Americans.
        This shows that it is not external bias and stereotyping keeping Affrican Americans down, but factors internal to their culture. Such as doing well in school being socially punished for “acting white”.

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    • John says:

      The problem is that very few people are aware of their hidden biases. I’ll gladly support the end of affirmative action once implicit association tests show that the general population genuinely holds minorities in equal esteem.

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      • csdx says:

        I’m reminded of the application process for the music school, where the admissions judges consistently picked mostly men, ostensibly because they performed better. However, when they changed the process so the judges couldn’t see the gender of the performer, suddenly far more women were selected.

        This I think definately advocates for at least gender/racially blind processes. But in cases where that’s not possible some kind of affirmitive action could be used to offset this unconcious bias effect

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      • Joe J says:

        This is a reply to Csdx comment about music auditions. Discrimination is one possible explanation to the difference in judging. Another one is the addition/elimination of stage fright. I know I occasionally have problems speaking in front of an audience, hiding me from the judges and judges from me would change my performance. An alternate explanation to the discrimination of the judges, would be a gender based heighened sensitivity to being judged.

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    • Mike B says:

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  2. Jeff says:

    stereotypes can be self-fulfilling

    How about the stereotype that any beneficiary of affirmative-action is not good enough to merit that position on their own? Would that stereotype being self-fulfilling be a good thing for those that Hoff ostensibly wants to help?

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  3. Mickey says:

    Ive never understood the draw of affirmative actions. I’m sure the KKK had many reasons that they fully believed to push favoring one color skin over another. Affirmative action is the same thing. Finding reasons to justify treating people differently based on their race or color of skin. That is the definition of racism.

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    • Travis says:

      I’m not sure what’s difficult to understand about affirmative action. It’s clearly a system designed to disrupt the status quo in situations where the status quo evidenced institutional bias, even when an effort is made to counteract that bias.

      Unfortunately, the result is a form of discrimination in its own right, but generally the situations where it is implemented are situations other methods to remove bias had demonstrably not worked. So when left with the decision of what is the lesser evil: The status quo, or affirmative action, and it’s not an easy question, but often legitimately it would be affirmative action.

      Whether or not it lasts too long, or is appropriate in all its current settings is another question entirely.

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  4. Matthew says:

    i actually am for equality but not for affirmative action, just because it literally ignores a person’s character in favor of their physical traits,

    but saying that it changes things over time just kind of raises the question of how long should it be in effect? 10 years, 100 years?
    basically the whole argument rests on the belief that stereotypes are self fulfilling

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    • pawnman says:

      Exactly. The article says it took about a decade for India to start recognizing the abilities of women in leadership positions. Affirmative action has been in place for almost 50 years. While I would be willing to admit that there may be a benefit from some form of affirmative action, clearly we are not executing it correctly if we still aren’t seeing the gains from it after roughly three generations of students.

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  5. Eddie says:

    The stereotypes I generate from affirmative action are not positive. It isn’t “there are more minorities at my school; I feel more comfortable around them and perceive that they are equally capable to people of my race”, but instead, “apparently the only way to get enough of certain minorities here was to add 100 points to their SAT scores during comparison with others.” It’s so publicised that institutions have to go out of their way to increase certain demographics that it directly suggests a lack of equivalence in achievement. This is really unfortunate for those who would succeed regardless of benefits from their race. The last thing that is fair for them is to have to combat a suspicion that they don’t deserve to be where they are, but that is the flip side of the very thing that is broadcast in bragging about affirmative action policies. At the same time, as this study suggests, and which seems also fairly self-evident, if there were fewer minorities around, it would also lead to stereotypes as to the reason for that lack. I think the moral may be to be more discreet about how the demographics of the company/institution are produced.

    I realize this is all direct thought, and speaks nothing of subconscious or underappreciated experiences with others under these policies. Obviously much has been argued in that separate sphere of inquiry, but it doesn’t have much to do with this study.

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  6. Erik Dallas says:

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    • Colin says:

      At what point will AA no longer be necessary? What conditions have to be met? Will it be the day a black man can be elected president? How does engaging in state-approved racial discrimination solve the problem of racial discrimination? Why should the children of wealthy black or Hispanic parents be given preference over the children of poor white parents? Do Sasha and Malia need a leg up? Why don’t Asians need AA? What should we make of the fact that women outnumber men and college and graduate at a higher rate — do we need AA for males? How do we determine who should qualify as black or Hispanic? Is being one-fourth sufficient? One-eighth? If my future children use my fiance’s Spanish surname instead of mine should they be able to benefit from AA?

      So many questions!

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    • Erik Dallas says:

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      • Colin says:

        Economic disparity proves zilch. You have to also prove that everyone is putting forth the same amount of effort and account for all other such factors. Some of the wealthiest/best off demographics in the US are minority groups such as Persian-Americans and Indian-Americans. Their success is not evidence that they discriminated against others to get to where they are (indeed, as minority groups it is doubtful they even have this power) or that others conspired to help them along, it’s that they are well-educated, savvy and worked their butts off.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        > it’s that they are well-educated, savvy and worked their butts off

        Well, Colin, it’s that, plus the fact that they came from wealthy, politically powerful families back home, which explains, to give only one example, how they managed to become well-educated in the first place.

        You don’t exactly see many Dalits or even Shudras in your “successful South Asian” group, do you? They’re all Brahmins and Kshatriyas (the elites of Hindu society), aren’t they?

        And when you sit down with your wealthy Persian friends, you don’t really hear them talking about how their dad fixed cars and their mom cleaned houses, do you? The stories that I hear run more like “My grandfather is a general in the Iranian army, my mother grew up in a wealthy family with a bunch of servants, my father is a millionaire, I spent every summer playing with my cousins on our enormous family farm, almost all the men in my family attend graduate school, it was no trouble to send me to school in the USA for eight years, I never needed to apply for financial aid…”

        That’s not exactly pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, is it?

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      • Joe J says:

        Income differences denote a difference, it does not denote discrimination. As was discussed with the male femal wage gap, personal choices are often made which greatly effects outcome, not discrimination.
        I have the choice to do a high stress high paying job or a low stress low paying job. If I choose one vs the other that creates a great income disparity, but does not have a discrimination component. If my culture prefers one to the other,a cultural income disparity now exists which has nothing to do with discrimination.
        The problem with AA is it ASSUMES a set discrimination.

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  7. Bob says:

    I was a tepid supporter of AA. Then, I was subjected to the “get whitey” whims of a govt bureaucracy, aka stealth reparations. No more! Thanks.

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  8. David Leppik says:

    This is not universally applicable. There are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and even in the most repressive societies they know each other intimately. (Many men who voted for women’s suffrage in the US said their mothers convinced them.) Gender bias involves the interpretation of daily life through the lens of a stereotype. Thus, the most egregious stereotypes dissolve quickly. It’s one thing to claim that your wife and daughter are exceptions to the rule, but if your neighbors are also exceptional, you start to question the rule.

    The claim in Hoff’s study is that because people saw female leaders, they lost the stereotype of women as incompetent leaders. But there’s more than that: they also saw a new path for success for their own daughters. (In contrast, Benazir Bhutto being Prime Minister of Pakistan didn’t make ordinary Pakistanis aspire for their own daughters to become leaders.)

    Racial bias is different. People of different races often don’t know each other intimately. They might not mix at all. If you know only one Estonian, you might assume that all Estonians are like that person– or you might continue to believe the Estonian stereotypes, and assume that person is exceptional. You need to know many unrelated Estonians before you really question a stereotype. As a result, egregious racial stereotypes can flourish unchecked. And, of course, if races don’t mix then they don’t have a vested interest in each other’s success.

    It’s interesting to note that these were ten year trials. America’s experiment with affirmative action is decades old and has resulted in the debunking of a few stereotypes, but mainly it’s offered alternative exemplars. It’s easily to imagine another black president once one is in the White House– and it’s easy to extend that to other leadership positions. But we haven’t erased the stereotypes of black hoodlums: we simply apply a different stereotype depending on whether we’re being approached by a black guy in a suit or a hoodie.

    So has American affirmative action run its course? This study doesn’t say.

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    • RGJ says:

      I think everyone gets the irony of fighting discrimination by discriminating. Maybe there was a period of time somewhere in the 70s, say, where blacks needed a hand up to get going in society.

      But there is another generation coming along that is being imprinted with the clear message that blacks are inferior in some ways and needed an equalizer. My kids are competing for colleges and I hear them talk about how this kid or that kid got in due to race.

      Blacks are, what, 12 percent of the population? Asians, latinos, they seem to be assimulating well. Time to end prejudice.

      John Robert’s quote is great, by the way. ““The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

      Very hard to bemoan racial prejudice when it is the policy of the state, ranted FOR by leaders like Jackson and Sharpton.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Most black students *don’t* get admitted to college because of a racial preference. I wish that schools actually told these black kids the truth about their own admissions, so that the well-qualified Black students would quit wondering whether they were inferior.

        Assuming your kids are white, I think you should be countering their race-based grumbling with the facts: the black, Latino, and Native American students who get a boost from race-based admissions aren’t reducing their own chances for admission. Those “disadvantaged minorities” are replacing Asian students. When universities eliminate racial preferences, the number of white students admitted stays the same, and the number of Asian students booms.

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  9. csdx says:

    Hmm it seems people here feel generally against affirmitive action with regards to either race or gender? What about similar programs except the criteria is economic background. Rather than just the idea of financial aid assitence, what about a kind of affirimitive action for poor people?
    I think it makes some measure of sense, in say the college admission process. After all if the SATs can be studied for, is the kid with years of prep and multiple attempts really better than the poorer kid who took it only once but scored 100 points lower?

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    • Tim says:

      This! It never made sense to me when people would explain that affirmative action is needed because African Americans are more likely to be raised in poor neighborhoods, without the opportunities that others have. It always seemed so prejudiced to me that it was assumed that ALL African Americans were at a disadvantage. Especially when I came from a fairly affluent High School that had a good number of African Americans.

      Why not remove the correlation and go directly to the root and allow extra consideration for those of lower economic statuses?

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  10. josh says:

    The argument over whether or not implementing affirmative action at the collegiate level is not worthy of consideration because it oversimplifies the problem of educational disparities based on race and ethnicity by forcing colleges to bear the brunt of controversies related to ethnic minority students tending to have poorer educational outcomes compared to White and Asian students.

    Affirmative action or lack of it, in making admissions decisions cannot, in isolation, change the fact that there is great disparity in graduation rates for ethnic minority students, when compared to White and Asian students. The causes of this disparity are numerous, with just a few including pervasive conscious and unconscious racism in educational settings, internalized racism, greater exposure to traumatic events, lower SES, fewer role models who have gone to college, cultural norms, distrust of authority, fewer attachments to persons and institutions with influence over educational decisions, in addition lower college admission rates for students who aren’t White or Asian. While I don’t know if affirmative action is the solution, it’s a step in the right direction because it attempts to decrease disparities in educational outcomes for ethnic minority students. Attempts at increasing equitable outcomes for students should be applauded.

    By the way, there is no evidence that affirmative action hurts White students’ ability to gain admission to college, so you can ignore your buddy who whines about not getting into the prestigious school because of affirmative action.

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  11. Tim says:

    In my opinion, affirmative action that works by lowering the bar to reduce inequality is morally questionable. It undermines those who deserve to be there while perpetuating stereotypes of incompetence. I believe the affirmative action process should give those traditionally discriminated against the tools and training to meet the same standard that applies to everyone else.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      One thing that most people don’t realize is that (by law) Affirmative Action employment programs do not “lower the bar”. The rule in an AA workplace is that you never hire an unqualified person of any race, disability, veteran status, etc.

      The AA process first identifies qualified candidates, and then looks in that pool to see whether any of the qualified candidates happen to be in the targeted groups (e.g., veterans). If so, then you hire the qualified person from the target group (or, if there are multiple such candidates, whichever of those candidates has the best qualifications).

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      • Joe J says:

        LOL, not true. It often lowers the bar, forcing the hiring of less qualified people. Because the cost of a possible lawsuit or media smear campaign is higher than the loss of hiring a less or not qualified person.

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  12. Shane L says:

    In Northern Ireland the old police force, the RUC, was almost entirely made of Protestants in a community where Catholics made up around 40% of the population. There was deep distrust among many Catholics for the RUC, and violence between Irish nationalist paramilitary groups and the RUC was widespread – hundreds of RUC officers were killed and some police collusion with British Loyalist murders was later uncovered.

    As part of the peace process, the RUC was changed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001, which had a specific policy of finding a 50-50 Catholic-Protestant representation in the police. This was an attempt to win back faith from the deeply suspicious Catholic community.

    In that kind of case, it might be pragmatic to use affirmative action. Any police force that is feared and hated by nearly half the population will had major problems in fighting crime, so this top-down policy of getting a representative sample of the population might be a lesser evil.

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  13. ryan says:

    Not that I am shocked, but more evidence economists don’t care about other areas of research/too lazy to search them. Self-fullfilling prophecy has nothing to do with what you think about yourself, or your own actions affecting performance. Its an individual’s thoughts about another’s performance, and then that other performs in a way congruent with the individual’s thoughts. Like a teacher thinking one kid is smart, and one is not- and then when grades come out the first gets an A the second a B but that happens because the teacher spent more time teaching towards A not B.

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  14. Voice of Reason says:

    I think that an interesting Freakonomics study would be the benefit of creating laws that discriminates against yourself and your family (white guys passing laws encouraging affirmative action) against selfishly realizing that there are inequalities, but hoping that they’ll just work themselves out because you see no need to shoot yourself in the foot and hurt yourself and your family, and your future generations.

    Plus, another issue being the devaluing of an institution that artifically lets in less qualified people to “level the playing field” rather than making decisions organically. How that hurts the institution, and gives an advantage to those who make rational decisions.

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