Brilliant Disguise: An Empirical Analysis of a Social Experiment Banning Affirmative Action

81 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2009 Last revised: 27 Sep 2011

Date Written: February 1, 2009


The notion of a colorblind society captured the imagination of voters who passed propositions banning affirmative action in higher education admissions in California, Washington, more recently in Michigan, and on November 4th, in Nebraska. Affirmative action is no longer required, proponents assert, because society no longer judges people by their skin color. They argue that the need for affirmative action is a vestige of a bygone era, and such a policy only creates resentment and stigma. This paper confronts the colorblind ideal myths of stigma and resentment, which appear at much greater rates in anti-affirmative action states. In analyzing data from a national survey of 335 students majoring in the sciences, this paper tests the three main arguments of affirmative action opponents and finds: 1. that under-represented minorities experience far more hostility at institutions of higher learning in states that bar affirmative action in admissions than in those states that permit race-based admissions; 2. that under-represented minority students encounter more external and internal stigma at institutions in states that ban race-based admissions; and 3. students who experience critical mass by never being racially isolated in the classroom encounter the least amount of overt racism and stigma. Thus, contrary to what anti-affirmative action advocates argue, students of color endure silencing, the pressure of "performing" and the hostility of "imposition" in white spaces at a far greater rate in the states that espouse a colorblind ideal. Moreover, this paper raises questions about the court's use of a diversity rationalization, the benefits of critical mass, and the effects of stereotype threat and makes recommendations.

Keywords: affirmative action, higher education, colorblind ideal, race, stereotype threat, critical mass, diversity, racism

Suggested Citation

Bowen, Deirdre M., Brilliant Disguise: An Empirical Analysis of a Social Experiment Banning Affirmative Action (February 1, 2009). Indiana Law Journal, Forthcoming, Seattle University School of Law Research Paper No. 09-08, Available at SSRN:

Deirdre M. Bowen (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

206.398.4289 (Phone)

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