Are Black Students Stigmatized by Affirmative Action?

Opponents of race-sensitive affirmative action admissions programs make the argument that black students who are admitted to college or graduate schools that practice affirmative action are stigmatized with a badge of inferiority. Clarence Thomas and other black conservatives often use the stigmatization argument in their attempts to discredit affirmative action programs.

According to the stigmatization theory, black students admitted to these schools — regardless of whether they were aided by affirmative action or not — are considered less capable by white students and faculty members. Sometimes, according to this view, black students themselves hold to the belief that they cannot adequately compete with white students who were admitted without the benefit of affirmative action.

But a new study, which will be published in the December issue of the California Law Review, finds that black and other minority law school students are not stigmatized by the possibility that they may have been given a leg up in the admissions process. The study surveyed more than 600 students at seven public law schools. Four of the schools practiced race-sensitive admissions and three did not. The results showed that black law students at schools that had race-sensitive admissions were just as confident in their abilities as black students at schools where race-sensitive admissions were not permitted.

Also, students at the affirmative action schools reported that they felt no stigmatization from white students or faculty members.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, professor of law at the University of Iowa and one of authors of the study, stated, “Well-meaning people who value diversity can be influenced by the stigmatization argument if they buy the idea that affirmative action hurts the people it was designed to help. Our study suggests that it does not.”