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Brent McFerran
Brent McFerran Ph.D.

What Makes Affirmative Action Seem (Un)Fair to Caucasians?

Whites Who Endorse Equality Show Bias Against
Other Whites Harmed by AA

Polls and studies consistently show that White Americans show the lowest level of support for Affirmative Action (AA) policies. Opponents of AA often argue that this is because it violates principles of meritocracy. Indeed, there have been numerous legal challenges to AA on the grounds that it is “reverse discrimination”. Supporters have noted that self-interest (rather than merit) could explain Whites’ opposition.

In a new paper, my coauthors (Jun Gu, Monash University; Karl Aquino, University of British Columbia; Tai Gyu Kim, Korea University) and I tested these explanations against an alternative one: namely, that Whites’ fairness judgments are based on both the adversely affected person’s race and the fairness evaluator’s ideological beliefs.

In three separate experiments, we presented a total of 804 White study participants with a scenario in which either a more qualified White or Asian male job candidate was rejected for a job in favor of a relatively less qualified Black male candidate. Each experiment described this scenario for a different type of job: a university professor, a sales representative, and a police officer. After reading the scenario, participants were asked to evaluate how fair or unfair they thought the decision to hire the less qualified Black candidate over the relatively more qualified White or Asian candidate. The qualifications of the White and Asian were held constant so we could determine whether people would evaluate the fairness of the decision differently depending on the race of the adversely affected party.

The results? Across all three types of jobs, we found that Whites who were ideologically opposed to social equality judged the hiring decision as more unfair when the White was rejected for the job in favor of the Black candidate than when an Asian male (who had the same qualifications), was rejected. However, Whites who strongly endorsed a social equality judged it more unfair when the Asian was rejected for the job than when the White was rejected.

Put another way, both those who strongly endorse equality and those who oppose it are biased, albeit in opposite directions: those who strongly endorse equality are biased against Whites; those who oppose equality favor them. Our results suggest that neither self-interest nor meritocratic explanations can fully account for Whites’ opposition to AA.

These findings shed light on one possible explanation for why political conservatives, who tend to reject policies that try to increase social equality (such as Affirmative Action), might be more angered by cases that could be perceived as reverse discrimination against Whites than political liberals, who tend to support social equality enhancing policies, even if a member of their own race is adversely affected as a result.

Full paper:

Gu, Jun, Brent McFerran, Karl Aquino, and Tai Gyu Kim (in press), “What Makes Affirmative Action-Based Hiring Decisions Seem (Un)Fair? A Test of an Ideological Explanation for Fairness Judgments”. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

About the Author
Brent McFerran

Brent McFerran, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of marketing at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University.

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