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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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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