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.


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.


"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." - John Roberts, a wise man.


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.


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?


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.


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


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.


Erik Dallas

The opportunity cost to society for not correcting discrimination is huge. In the case of gender discrimination against women, potentially half of societies economic output and creativity is potentially lost. Racial discrimination has large economic consequences, and the potential output would be related to the proportion of the population. Granted in some cases persons decimated against are not completely prevent from working, however often the permitted productivity wage is a poverty wage and is not a substantial portion of their full economic potential. Society needs to bear the minor cost of Affirmative Action to be able to fully realize the potential of all of its citizens. As noted in the article around the world the status of women in many countries is dire to the extent that they are denied a primary education. However even in “post racial” America quite pervasive racism is alive and well and still needs corrective action.



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!


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.

David Leppik

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.



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.


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?