Truong: In the Affirmative

by Valerie Truong | 5/28/19 2:00am

Affirmative action as we know it may be on the chopping block. Depending on the outcome of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, a lawsuit in which Asian American students are suing the university for alleged discrimination, diversity as a consideration in admissions will end. This means minority enrollment in universities may drop as a result. Take the case of the University of California Berkeley: After California passed Proposition 209, a law which prohibited the use of race in admissions, outreach and financial aid considerations at California state schools, the number of African Americans enrolled dropped. African Americans today make up only three percent of the student body at UC Berkeley. Tellingly, after the state of California ended affirmative action, graduation rates of African Americans also dropped. From 2013-2016, there was a 16 percent difference between the overall graduation rate and the graduation rate of African Americans. 

This indicates the possibility of a causal link between Proposition 209 and the disproportionately sparse numbers of black students graduating from Berkeley. But even though less African Americans are enrolling, why are so few not graduating as well? A nearly 25-year-old study points to an answer.

In their seminal 1995 study, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson found that stereotype threat — the feeling of conforming to negative stereotypes about one’s racial group — caused African Americans to perform worse than they otherwise would on a test. To conduct the study, Steele and Aronson selected black and white students with similar SAT scores and gave them a difficult verbal test. When the test-takers were told that that the exam would measure their intellectual ability, the black students performed worse than the white students. Steele and Aronson surmised that black students’ performance on the second exam was affected by their fear of conforming to the stereotype that African Americans are intellectually inferior to their white counterparts. Therefore, this fear of conforming to racial stereotypes contributes to the underperformance of minority students whose intellectual abilities are fettered by looming stigmas. 

Affirmative action policies can help to reduce this effect. One way to reduce the effects of stereotype threat is by having a critical mass of minority groups on a college campus. While minority groups struggle with stereotype threat, there’s a certain degree of comfort that is afforded to the majority. Speaking from personal experience, I attended a high school that was two-thirds Asian and a quarter Hispanic, so it was startling, and perhaps a bit intimidating, to suddenly be in a place like Dartmouth where most people are a different race than I am. I found myself hyper-aware of my own race and the spaces I occupied as I bustled about, which I had never really thought much about before Dartmouth because I didn’t have to. Here, there are usually a few other Asian students in my classes, so I am fortunate to not feel as out of place. It is critical that this same sense of belonging and inclusion is felt by underrepresented minorities.

Having a critical mass of minority students matters outside of the classroom, too. While there are racially diverse affinity groups and extracurriculars on campus, there are still spaces that lack racial diversity. One example from my personal experience is my involvement with Rockefeller Center programs such as D-LAB and First-Year Fellows. There were a few other Asians in these spaces, so I didn’t feel tokenized, but this was not the case for other minority groups. 

As an Asian American woman, seeing others like me who are also doing similar work in these spaces has made me feel a greater sense of belonging and dispels fears of being otherized. Having people who look like me helps me to feel more comfortable articulating my own opinions and perspectives. I am not saying that minorities need each other in order to succeed; rather, accepted students are capable of achievement on their own, and feeling more comfortable supports the success of both the individual and the group. This comfort needs to be extended to all minorities, both inside and outside the classroom.