Kevin Wolfman: Affirmative Action Helps White Students Think

There is arguably no touchier subject in America than race. Depending on whom you ask, then, affirmative action—the practice of granting extra consideration to underrepresented minorities in the working world and academia—is either a noble and necessary method of correcting the nation’s race-based structural inequalities, a racist policy that hands “under-qualified” individuals privileges they have not earned at the expense of more-deserving others, or something between those two hard-edged extremes.

Kevin Wolfman

Affirmative action is most often discussed in the context of the college admissions process. Should students from certain minority backgrounds receive special consideration from admissions committees, in light of the unique challenges they face growing up in a historically (and presently) discriminatory society? Or is such consideration itself racially discriminatory against white students, and therefore immoral (if not illegal)?

The focus of both supporters and opponents of affirmative action has been relentlessly narrow: on how it helps minorities, and how it hurts whites. As a result, the debate has grown frustratingly stale over time. Both sides keep talking fast and furiously, but in circles. So it might be refreshing to examine affirmative action from a fresh angle, and ask a new, intriguing question—one long lost and/or ignored in the issue’s emotionally charged crossfire.

Does affirmative action help white students, too?

In the early 2000s, a research team headed by Stanford’s Dr. Anthony Lising Antonio conducted a study on the impact of racial diversity in college. The researchers recruited a pool of undergraduate volunteers, and divided these volunteers into several different discussion groups. Once in the groups, which were moderated by research assistants, each volunteer was asked to both state and justify their opinions on a few different important social issues. Simple enough—opinion research like this has been around almost as long as politics itself, in one form or another.

In this particular study, however, there was an interesting twist. In some of the groups, all the participants were white. But in some of the other groups, all the participants were white except for one. Antonio’s team wanted to know what kind of impact, if any, the presence of a minority participant would have on the white’s responses. Keep in mind that the subjects being discussed were social issues, which often have a clear and contentious racial divide. Would the white participants speak more delicately, even censor themselves? Perhaps decline to answer entirely?

None of the above, as it turned out. Here’s what actually happened: When asked, the white students in the “diverse” groups responded to the questions in more intellectually sophisticated ways than those in the all-white groups. They did a better job at both integrating outside perspectives into their arguments—in other words, giving the “other side” credit for valid points, where such credit was due—and at avoiding the tendency to base their opinions on simplistic, “evaluative” reasoning. They went into greater depth in their responses, pulling from multiple sources and experiences to construct more well-rounded argument. Overall, the whites in the diverse groups demonstrated a greater acknowledgement and understanding of the “trade-offs among perspectives and solutions” in the social issues being discussed, compared to those in the all-white groups. This difference was fairly small, but clear.

Note that the presence of a racial minority did not change the white students’ opinions. It did, however, compel them to formulate and back up their opinions in more comprehensive, intellectually solid ways.

Discerning observers will point to an obvious flaw in this experiment: it only measured the students’ reasoning skills at one specific point in time, in a single (and highly artificial) situation. Luckily, then, Antonio and his team went one crucial step further.

After the discussion groups dissolved, each volunteer was given the opportunity to elaborate on their opinions by writing a short essay. They were also asked some questions, one of which concerned the racial composition of their friendship group—the collection of peers they socialized with regularly, outside the classroom. How might the response impact of a racially mixed friendship group—with whom unmonitored interaction was long-term, casual, and unmonitored—compare with the impact of a racially mixed discussion group, with whom interaction was moderated, regimented, and fleeting?

Analyzing the essays, the researchers found that the students whose written arguments were the most intellectually sophisticated were also, on average, the ones who claimed membership in a diverse friendship group. And this time, the difference was both clear and substantial. As a group, the responses of the white students who associated the most frequently and consistently with non-white students easily scored the highest in “Integrative Complexity”—the researchers’ measure of a response’s intellectual sophistication.

What does this mean? It means that concerted efforts to increase racial diversity on campus may also encourage the development of a student body that thinks more critically and deeply about social and political issues. Diversity does not necessarily change white students’ positions on the issues—there is no indoctrinating going on here—but it does, apparently, compel them to support their positions using greater levels of nuance and sophistication. By the same token, racial diversity seems to discourage the urge to fall back on simplistic, “evaluative” arguments that don’t stand up well to reason and persistent scrutiny.

With that in mind, one implication of this study’s findings is that affirmative action, discriminatory or not, may in fact help white students—at least once the admissions process wraps up and classes commence. Systematic efforts to bring more racial minorities to campus—especially ones whose life experiences are markedly different than those of the average white student—might unexpectedly result in a more intellectually robust white student population.

In the end, of course, the question of whether or not it is “right” to use race as a factor in college admissions still lingers. That debate will doubtless rage on, as charged as ever, for the foreseeable future. But steadfast opponents of race-conscious admissions policies should at least be willing to recognize that, whether ultimately “right” or “wrong,” such policies could be having a positive impact on the intellectual development of the white students whose rights they are trying to protect. If affirmative action is viewed as just one more cloud hanging over the world of higher education, maybe this is the silver lining.

Kevin is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.


Antonio, Anthony Lising; Chang, Mitchell J.; Hakuta, Kenji; Kenny, David A.; Levin, Shana; and Milem, Jeffrey F. 2004. “Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students.” Psychological Science 15(8): 507-510.

Kevin Wolfman

Kevin Wolfman

Kevin is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs.