American Skin: Dispensing with Colorblindness and Critical Mass in Affirmative Action

Deirdre M. Bowen


This exploratory empirical work examines whether students of color enjoy the benefits articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Grutter decision that rationalized the continuation of affirmative action based on diversity interests. Specifically, the Court stated that affirmative action was permissible because students of all backgrounds would increase their racial understanding and decrease their racial stereotyping of minorities. Neither side was happy with the decision—both skeptical that such benefits could transpire for minority students. Yet, in the heat of continuing debate, neither group has empirical support for their arguments until now.

Using survey data of over 370 under-represented minority students from twenty eight states majoring in the sciences, I provide insight into: 1. whether students of color increase their racial understanding; and 2. whether students of color experience a decrease in stigma associated with racial stereotyping.

The first part of the study asks whether minority student enjoy these benefits when they are learning with others whose racial or ethnic backgrounds are different from their own and whether the benefits vary depending on a student’s attendance in an affirmative action institution. Part two of the study analyzes whether these same benefits accrue when students are in a “critical mass” environment in which other members of their same racial and ethnic background are also present in the classroom.

As a key component of Grutter’s rationale was that affirmative action created the much-needed critical mass of minority students, the second element of the study seeks to answer two questions. First, what, if any benefits emerge depending on whether critical mass is present in the classroom and second, how do these benefits differ for students in affirmative action versus anti-affirmative action institutions.

In considering the first Grutter benefit, an increase in racial understanding when learning in a diverse environment, generally, the results are encouraging. Most minority students report this benefit emerges in a diverse classroom. Unfortunately, the second Grutter benefit, decreased racial stereotyping, materializes infrequently in a diverse class. Less than a third of students report a decrease in stigma associated with a reduction in racial stereotyping. Remarkably, these results do not vary based on the presence of an affirmative action program.

Affirmative action, however, did play a role when determining whether the Grutter benefits emerged under conditions of critical mass. Students in affirmative action institutions were more likely to report experiencing both Grutter benefits at greater rates than students in anti-affirmative action institutions. Alarmingly, even with affirmative action and critical mass only about a third of students encountered the benefits of increased racial understanding and decreased racial stereotyping.

The paper argues that these troubling results are the result of creating the landscape of diversity in a “post-race” topography. I argue that affirmative action is a vibrant and necessary tool towards reaching the Grutter goals but first, institutions of higher learning must dispense with the paradox of diversity in a colorblind world. Step one: reincarnate race consciousness; Step two: abandon the critical mass concept.