White student views of affirmative action on campus

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White student views of affirmative action on campus

Author: Chesler, Mark; Peet, Melissa Source: Diversity Factor 10, no. 2 (Winter 2002): p. 21-27 ISSN: 1067-7194 Number: 110389768 Copyright: Copyright Elsie Y. Cross Associates, Inc. Winter 2002

The debate about racial affirmative action in higher education now takes place on various levels: in national and state legislative, executive and judicial bodies; among key, decision-making administrators and faculty of colleges and universities; and among students on campus. Students' views on these matters, especially white students' views, afford us a unique window through which we may understand the ways in which larger political and ideological debates influence and reflect their racial consciousness and outlooks.

Recent survey data from a large sample of public university students shows that 52.4% feel that "affirmative action in college admissions should be abolished."I Further, 21.8% of these students feel that "racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America." These numbers reflect a considerable increase from 12 years ago when only 12% of white students felt that racial discrimination was no longer a problem.2 The changing social, economic and political context of race in America, aided by recent Federal Court decisions and politicians' pronouncements about affirmative action in particular, obviously has affected the racial views of college students.

Despite these shifts in student opinion, substantial research argues that racial inequality, prejudice and discrimination continue to exist on college campuses and in communities across the nation; they merely have taken on a more "modern," subtle or indirect form of expression.3 The affirmative action press for greater representation of people of color in higher education is one appropriate response to this situation. In addition, and as part of proactive educational and citizenship concerns, many colleges are attempting to go beyond representational efforts to generate curricular and co-curricular programs that endeavor to create more socially and racially just environments for learning.

But even in the face of programs designed to advance diversity and multiculturalism in higher education, many white students have developed the belief that racial discrimination is no longer a problem and that it need not be directly addressed as part of educational policies/programs. Others argue that racial discrimination still exists in some modified form, but that affirmative action programs are ineffective, unfairly provide advantages to some groups and thereby unfairly punish others. Still other white students support affirmative action programs of one sort or another.

How Do (White) Students View Affirmative Action?

We investigated these views by conducting individual and small group interviews with white students at the University of Michigan, a somewhat distinctive educational setting in this regard. It is both a highly prestigious, elite research university and a current (and historic) site of struggles over racial advances in higher education. However, for the most part white students' views on this campus mirror views elsewhere on other college campuses and in society at large.

While the interviews we conducted with white students do not constitute a representative sample and do not tell us how common these views are, they do help illuminate private attitudes and beliefs, and several central themes in the students' and the general public's discourse about affirmative action. It is important to note that several of these themes may be expressed by the same person. Moreover, people may change their views over time and experience. The themes that emerge from exploring white students' understanding of affirmative action reflect:

* a view that while racial inequality and discrimination existed in the past, there is now equal (educational) opportunity; thus affirmative action is unnecessary;

* a view that although some degree of the racial inequality and discrimination of the past may still exist, affirmative action is an unfair and inappropriate remedial measure;

* a view that affirmative action is ineffective in promoting advancement for people of color, both currently and in their future careers; and

* these themes lead to an emerging and increasingly vocal sense of white victimhood.

On the other side of the coin:

* some white students argue that we must overcome historic racial inequality and discrimination through affirmative action;

* some white students report that they have benefited personally from the more diverse environment that affirmative action has helped create; and

* a few white students see affirmative action as a necessary part of efforts to challenge historic and contemporary white privilege and create a more equitable and just society.

Let's look at these themes one by one.

Racial Discrimination No Longer Exists

As demonstrated in the survey data reported above, the belief that racial discrimination no longer exists has increased over the last decade. The underlying assumption that the playing field is now "level" serves as a foundation from which white students are making sense out of race and affirmative action, arguing that it is no longer (even if it ever was) necessary. Some comments we heard:

I think it is ridiculous to have affirmative action now that everything is equal - no one is being discriminated [against] anymore.

I believe that black people have as much opportunity for advancement as we have. 1 feel like if you go out there and you put yourself out there and you go and find those opportunities that you'll have the same opportunity to advance that we do.

[Since equal opportunity exists now and] all people have the same potential for learning, blacks can succeed as long as they work hard.

These students' beliefs also reflect recent changes in how affirmative action is being represented publicly. According to Gamson's and Modigliani's study of how affirmative action discourse has changed, public understanding has shifted away from considerations of who has been historically excluded - and how those patterns of exclusion are/were made manifest to the current national conversation cast in terms of "the unfair advantages 'given' to those who benefit from affirmative action."4

Affirmative Action is Unfair

In making this shift, substantial media commentary about affirmative action has become a-historical. Consequently, devoid of historical understanding of the long-term consequences of past or present racial discrimination and oppression, white students come to believe that affirmative action gives minorities something they have not earned. Moreover, these "unearned advantages" come at the expense of "good, hard-working, middle (read "white") Americans." Here are some of the comments that lead us to this conclusion:

Alright, mistakes were made. Let's not try to make more and just change things now, not try to screw people over. Everything should be equal opportunity.

I had white friends who worked really hard in high school to get in here, and they were angry when they got rejected because affirmative action changed the standards. I think we should get rid of affirmative action and start letting people know that if they don't really work hard to get into college, they won't really be successful.

I think it's a real disadvantage to let people into this school because of their ethnicity. And, it's a terrible disadvantage to me and everybody else who goes to this school It drags the class down.

I'm all for helping whoever needs help, but I don't think it should be based on a history of oppression. I know a lot of bad things happened in history to minority groups but I don't think there should be any link to that .... My generation certainly didn't inflict any of this onto your generation.... I really believe that it should be based on meritocracy... on like who's more qualified.

As the existence of "equality of opportunity" is reinvigorated through the a-historical affirmative action discourse, the racial "other" is also continually being reformulated. Some of these quotes see affirmative action as encouraging the entrance of unqualified or less qualified students, rather than differently qualified students. Moreover, these white students assume that the inadequacies of the students of color, to the extent that they exist, are due to their own fault, rather than the result of historic white privilege and racial oppression that should be rectified.

If white students do not see themselves as part of a privileged group that has10, no. 2 (Winter 2002): p. 21-27 gained historic and contemporary material advantages, then differences in competencies or achievements (their own and others') are explained in terms of individual skill and talent alone. If students of color really are systematically unqualified then opposition to affirmative action is justified on moral grounds of universalism and meritocracy. Then insufficient skills rather than race become the issue, and a concern for merit not racial prejudice the driving motivation.

This narrow perspective on qualifications reflects an inherent assumption of white racial superiority - "white" is synonymous with qualified, competent, hard-working and deserving, whereas "the racial other" is not. This stance is reflected in the assumption that if white candidates (friends) were turned down for admission, it was because someone less qualified (the racial other) was given their place instead.

Affirmative Action is Ineffective Some students make the argument that when unqualified or underqualified students are admitted to the university they cannot "make it" anyway. Whether a function of their poor prior educational experience, lack of talent, or unwillingness to work hard, it is suggested that affirmative action does not really help many students of color.

Unqualified people who get in are not being helped by affirmative action, they are being hurt.

I was reading studies that the people who get into college through affirmative action programs, the majority of them didn't last, they didn't graduate. And it wasn't because of discriminatory problems. All right, it may have some part in that. But I'm going to say that the majority of the problem was that they weren't ready.... If you took... the amount of energy put into manipulating scores and fighting for affirmative action and the rallies they do in Washington... or was it California... take those people and help rebuild inner city schools.

If you're gonna try and make your university the best you should have the smartest, the most motivated people.... If you take the (poorer) student because you need to meet a quota, 1 just think that's terrible. Its almost making someone feel like, "Don't work as hard, your skin's the right color. " 1 just think it should be the most hard working because I think it's gonna come back and affect us if we keep trying to level things out but not go with merit as such.

We see reflected here the argument that college is not an effective site for efforts to redress historic injustice. But not only must such efforts start elsewhere - in communities, in homes and family situations, in elementary schools - the view is that they will not work and should not occur at this level. In addition, some of these comments express a paternalistic concern about the effects of affirmative action on "token" minority members' feelings of self-worth.

Whites Are the New "Victims"

In addition to reinforcing notions of racial superiority and minority inferiority, these quotes demonstrate another historical facet of whiteness coming into play: some white students feel their selfinterest challenged and are taking the presence of students of color on campus personally. That is, they see themselves (and other whites) systematically being placed at a disadvantage because of the presence of these "others", i.e., "it's a terrible disadvantage to me and everybody else who goes to this school... "

These quotes not only reflect an attitudinal system that supports and maintains old-fashioned racism,5 they also are indicative of the emerging "white victim" identity that is supported and reified through the discourse of "reverse discrimination.116 Indeed, if white privilege and ongoing racial discrimination are not acknowledged, then special programs to benefit people of color are seen to victimize whites who feel they have worked hard and merit their current and future positions.

People are punishing white people now because of our past actions. I don't agree with that. To equal out the past they're gonna turn the tables here and make it difficult for white people.

I definitely grew up thinking and still do think that there's a lot of reverse discrimination .... I did nothing wrong with black people, I did nothing wrong, you know? I acknowledge that there was slavery and I understand that and maybe I don't understand what it was like to he a slave or anything, but there's nothing I can do about it.

I think that black people use their race to get jobs, I've seen it happen. My friend should have had this job as a resident advisor, but a black guy got it instead there's no way the black guy was qualified.

When I was applying to college affirmative action came into a lot of conversations with my friends from high school. A lot of people feel, kind of like I do, that it's really kind of like reverse discrimination .... We felt like we were being discriminated against.

Affirmative Action Is Necessary to Combat Racial Discrimination

Interviews make it clear, as do rallies and other campus efforts, that some white students have developed a more complex understanding of the historic and contemporary nature of racial discrimination and are prepared to support and advocate for affirmative action efforts.

If you are a black person you are met with racism and you have a (more) limited opportunity than if you were a white person. Then, if you give the black person preference you are accounting for the lack of opportunity in the general population.

I thought it (affirmative action) was crap, because... you're like letting a less qualified person in just because of the color of their skin. And I thought that was just lame. But, then I started learning about the discrimination all throughout history and I think that it's necessary right now.... If you didn't make a culturally diverse place then the people who had been forced down by the discrimination of society wouldn't ever get a chance to get up... to have the opportunity to come to a good school.

I think it's nice to think that we don't need it anymore... but people don't have the same opportunities. And if affirmative action isn't fair to some white people I don't care. It still helps society as a whole because it's like not fair that there's this idea that America is this great meritocracy where you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter who you are. I think it's naive to think that's true.

From these comments it is clear that some white students see beyond the dominant discourse that surrounds the affirmative action debate. That they have "started learning about the discrimination..." is evidence that colleges and universities can disrupt the a-historical claim that there is now equality of opportunity and that affirmative action is unnecessary.

Whites Can Benefit From Affirmative Action

Some white students report that they feel they have benefited from the diversity that affirmative action programs have brought to their campus and their lives.

I came from a place

that was purely white.. and I came here and I'm just... totally culture shocked. Now I have friends of different cultures, different ethnicities, and I feel I wouldn't have done that if it weren't for the school I was at. If I'd gone to another school where diversity was not such a big deal I could stick to what I was comfortable with, but here you're forced to interact with these difference races.

It (affirmative action) affects me because without it we wouldn't be able to have diverse classes. I wouldn't be able to sit in a class on race and have students who are not white talk about their experience so I can learn from them.... Most of your education in college comes from living with people and interacting with people and hearing people's experiences and learning to deal with people you don't get along with, who you can't understand and can't see eye to eye with, and how to function in those situations. I think that that's, as a white student, where affirmative action benefits us the most .... We'd never really understand other people's points of view without hearing them firsthand.

The social and intellectual benefits of affirmative action also have been reported in several recent research studies.7 The development of skills in critical thinking and better listening ("hearing people's experiences and learning") are chief among them.

A Way to Challenge White Privilege and Create Social Change

A few white students see beyond the anti-discrimination and pro-diversity models of affirmative action and see it as part of the necessary challenge to entrenched white privilege.

Everywhere we've (white people) gotten we've gotten there because we're white.... I think it's (affirmative action) been happening for years and years but it's been OK because its been (for) white people.... If black people come into schools and everyone assumes they're there because of affirmative action and gets ready to stop affirmative action... No! Take the people who have those views and teach them and show them and change their views.

I think that society exists right now for (to benefit) white people ....

There is a black experience in America that white people don't know about. I sure as hell don't know about it. I read about it. I take classes on it. But I don't live it.... And I don't think we can get that experience without affirmative action.... So it's not like it's affirmative action, it's not like we're helping someone. It's like we're realizing a value that's been ignored for a real long time.

These students are beginning to recognize the role that their own racial position and the structure of society - institutional white privilege - plays in their perceptions of race issues in the United States in general or their understanding of affirmative action in particular. They see affirmative action as part of a broader social change effort, and some are prepared (at least rhetorically) to play an active role in that struggle.

Separation, Institutionalization Shapes These Views

These differing views of affirmative action, and their underlying images of the meaning of race and the "racial other" in American life, mirror claims and myths about race that exist in the society at large. But white students' current beliefs about affirmative action are not driven simply by current political and social discourse. Rather, their views of racial issues generally are built upon a lengthy process of socialization wherein they have come to understand and express their whiteness in particular ways.

Students typically come to college from prior lives of race and class separation and markedly different levels of racial and class privilege. Racially separate neighborhoods and school systems usually do not provide the necessary context within which students can understand or engage each other meaningfully about racial (or class) matters. On most campuses these patterns of separation continue throughout their college years.8

For white students, especially those of middle and upper-middle class backgrounds, being shielded from the social realities of race and racial inequality means that they often are ignorant of and mystified by racial interactions, seldom thinking of or understanding themselves as "having race" or "being white." Many see little or no racism in themselves or the society and certainly do not understand their own racial advantages and privileges. The separation of neighborhoods, schools and communities by race, and the miseducation of young white people regarding racial issues, quite naturally leads to and feeds the notion that racial prejudice and discrimination are no longer major problems for people of color. These students also generally carry a set of a-historic and a-structural views of race relations that stem from and lead to ignorance and innocence.

As they encounter diverse groups of students of color, whites often act on the basis of their stereotypes of others. They often are fearful or awkward in inter-group interactions, seek the safety of in-group selectivity and fail to see their own exclusionary behaviors. When challenged they often experience resentment, a feeling of personal threat fueled by expectations of danger to themselves and their comfort or accumulated group interests and privileges. This resentment currently takes notable shape in the form of white student resistance to affirmative action programs and to their perception that such efforts permit people with inferior talent to succeed via receiving special treatment and that they are the current or future victims of such "reverse racism."

The moral claim of unfairness rests on the principle that all people should be judged (or admitted to college) based on their individual merits. It is assumed in this view that college board tests and high school grade point averages are themselves appropriate, adequate and bias-free measures of merit, and that inequalities rooted in history, the economy and prior schooling are not problematic challenges to the meritocratic standard.

In Conclusion

The view that affirmative action does not work is another part of contemporary white ideology; it is countered by recent studies that testify to the way that students of color, despite the pain and discomfort they often experience at the hands of their white peers and faculty, generally do well in college and afterwards.9 Moreover, the argument that affirmative action is ineffective because it mainly benefits affluent members of minority groups trivializes the importance of gains for middle and upper-middle class people of color. It also overlooks those studies that report white students seeing benefits in their own educational experience from racial (and other forms of) diversity.

The sense of white victimhood is supported by some recent realities; some individual whites indeed may fail to gain admission to college or certain positions or advantages due to advances of people of color. But such "reverse discrimination" is hardly systematic and pervasive, while continued discrimination against people of color clearly still is. People of color are enmeshed in systems of institutionalized racism that exclude, stigmatize and oppress them in ways not encountered by the relatively few white people disadvantaged by affirmative action efforts.

It is clear that not all white students think and feel and act in the same way around racial issues, and it is clear that change and growth can occur. Colleges and universities, as the sites of affirmative action efforts and arenas for the contestation of these concerns, must begin to develop courses and programs that can lead to growth in white students' historic and contemporary knowledge, their understanding of their racial behaviors and privileges, and their relationships with students of color.

A prior edition of The Diversity Factor examined a number of contemporary innovations under way in higher education institutions that attempt to address the current state of racial understanding and relearning.10 Other compendia of program options have been developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and are regularly discussed at meetings of various higher educational associations, such as the American Association of Higher Education and the American Society of Higher Education. But by themselves, minor innovations in selected arenas of the curriculum or student life, or efforts constrained to the margins of our educational institutions, will not alter the environment within which students of different racial/ethnic groups engage or learn with one another. The most important efforts, from our point of view, are those that are sustained via parallel changes in the nature and role of the faculty, the operations of departments and the culture and structure of higher education organizations themselves.

White students did not come to their racial views from an environmental vacuum and they will not change them without considerable support from more socially just collegiate missions, cultures, structures and programs. White students and students of color who do develop new relationships and new ways of learning and working together may carry such wisdom and skills with them for the rest of their lives. Then they may become change agents in our society's broader struggle for racial equality and justice.

We would like to thank Amanda Lewis, Andrew Sher and students in several classes of the Intergroup Relations Conflict and Community Program for their assistance in gathering the materials presented here.


1. Entering Student Survey, Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Higher Education Research Institute (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 2000).

2. S. Hurtado, "The campus racial climate: Contexts of conflict," Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 63, No. 5 (1992), pp. 539-569.

3. E. Bonilla-Silva and T Forman, "I am not a racist but...: Mapping white college students' racial ideology in the USA," Discourse and Society, Vol. 11 (2000), pp. 50-85;

E. Cose, The Rage of a Privileged Class (New York: Harper

Collins, 1993); J. Dovidio, F Mann and S. Gaertner, "Resistance to affirmative action: The implications of aversive racism." In E Blanchard and F Crosby, eds., Affirmative Action in Perspective (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989), pp. 83-102; J. Feagin and M. Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994); D. Kinder and J. Sears, "Prejudice and politics: Symbolic racism versus racial threats to the good life," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 40 (1981), pp. 414-431; H. Schuman, C. Steeh and L. Bobo, Racial Trends in America: Trends and Interpretations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); A. Sher, Racial Attitudes of

White Males at the University of Michigan, Undergraduate Sociology Honors Thesis (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1992). 4. W Gamson and A. Modigliani, "The changing culture of affirmative action," Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 3 (1987), pp. 137177.

5. J. Dovidio and S. Gaertner, "The aversive form of racism." In J. Dovidio and S. Gaertner, eds., Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism (Orlando, FL: Academy Press, 1986), pp. 61-89; J. McConaghy, "Modern racism, ambivalence and the modern racism scale." In J. Dovidio and S. Gaertner, op cit, pp. 91-126.

6. E. Bonilla-Silva and T. Forman, op cit; C. Gallagher, "White reconstruction in the university," Socialist Review, Vol. 24, Nos. 1/2 (1995), pp. 165-187;J. Feagin and H. Vera, White Racism (New York: Routledge, 1995); J. Kincheloe, S. Steinberg, N. Rodriguez and R. Chennault, eds., White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

7. A. Astin, "Diversity and multiculturalism on the campus: How are students affected?" CHANGE (March/April, 1993), pp. 44-49; P. Gurin, "Expert report of Patricia Gurin." In Grutz et al. v. Bollinger et al., No. 97-75321 (E.D. Mich).

8. S. Hurtado, E. Dey and J. Trevino, "Exclusion or self-- segregation: Interaction across racial/ethnic groups on campus," Presentation at meetings of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA (1994). 9. W Bowen and D. Bok, The Shape of the River: The Long Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); R. Lempert, D. Chambers and T Adams, "Michigan's minority graduates in practice: The river runs through the Law School," Law and Social Inquiry, Vol. 25 (2000),

p. 395.

10. The Diversity Factor, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Fall 1996).

Mark Chesler, Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan and Executive Director of Community Resources Ltd., is an active researcher and consultant on issues of organizational change involving race and gender inequality.

Melissa Peet, a doctoral student in Education at the University of Michigan, focuses her teaching and research on a wide range of social justice issues.

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