By Angela Onwuachi-Willig

For years, affirmative action opponents have pointed to stigma as a reason for dismantling the policy. They have argued that affirmative action engenders feelings of inferiority and dependency in racial minorities and unfairly burdens racial minorities with others’ doubts in their abilities.

Do not believe the hype. The Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative, which would end affirmative action in the state, would cause a startling lack of diversity in Nebraska’s universities. In the summer and fall of 2007, I, along with Professor Emily Houh of the University of Cincinnati College of Law and Professor Mary Campbell of University of Iowa Sociology, explored the relationship between stigma and law school affirmative action admissions policies by conducting a survey of both white students and students of color at seven, high-ranking public law schools in United States.

Four of these schools—the University of Cincinnati, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia—employed race-based affirmative action when our subject class—the Class of 2009—was admitted, while the remaining three—UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the University of Washington—did not use such programs. In conducting our study, we generated new descriptive evidence that counters the stigma arguments that are commonly advanced against affirmative action.

Overall, our study revealed that there was no causal connection between racial stigma and affirmative action at the seven surveyed schools. Specifically, our survey results showed that there was minimal, if any, internal stigma (feelings of dependency or inadequacy) felt by minority students at the surveyed schools, regardless of whether their schools practiced race-based affirmative action, and that there was no significant impact from external stigma (the burden of others’ doubts about one’s qualifications) felt by minority students at the surveyed schools. In fact, our survey results showed that there is overwhelming support across the entire sample for the idea that people should learn to interact with others from diverse backgrounds, and this support did not vary by school type. Also, the survey results revealed strong support among the respondents for the idea that diversity enhances education.

Most importantly, surveyed students who attended schools without affirmative action repeatedly expressed in their comments what they saw as a deficiency in their education as a result of the lack of racial diversity in their schools. For instance, one student at a non-affirmative action school declared: “A diverse student body in education is so important…I have learned a lot from many of my classmates…from large cities. Some of these classmates are racial minorities, and I feel lucky to be able to learn from them the lessons I was unable to learn growing up in a rural, all-White area…I really wish there were more racial minorities in our school to make it a truly diverse experience.”

As these students have learned, stigma (and other anti-affirmative action) arguments are simply outdated and depend upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the policy and its goals. During the 1860s, similar arguments were made against remedial policies when opponents of the Freedmen’s Bureau argued that the establishment of the Bureau would only make recently freed Blacks “special favorites of the law.” These arguments failed back then (for obvious reason), and they should also fail today in promoting the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative.

During and before the 1860s, there was nothing more stigmatic than being counted as merely three-fifths of a person and living under the conditions of brutal and violent slavery and oppression. Today, where education reigns supreme, there can be nothing more stigmatic than not having a meaningful chance to obtain a degree or get a job, being the only person of color in a college classroom, or quite frankly (as comments from our survey demonstrate), attending classes where there are only a few minorities.

Affirmative action helps to combat racial disadvantage by equalizing opportunities in education and work. As our history shows us, affirmative action did not create racial stigma. Racial stigma created it, and affirmative action is needed to eliminate this racial stigma and create diversity in the state.
Onwuachi-Willig is professor of law and the Charles M. and Marion J. Kierscht scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law and a member of the board of governors of the Society of American Law Teachers—SALT.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08