Character  &  Context

Appeasement: Whites’ strategic support for affirmative action policies

Image of alternating black and white hands on top of one another

By Rosalind Chow

When we think about the people who support affirmative action policies, we generally believe that they support affirmative action policies because they want to see social inequalities reduced. And, for the most part, this belief is well-founded; affirmative action policies – which are typically defined as policies that take into the consideration social group membership, such as race, gender, religion, etc., when making a decision – were originally enacted specifically in order to counteract discrimination against minority groups. In short, it is generally true that people who support affirmative action policies do so because they are motivated by the desire to see egalitarian, or less unequal, outcomes.

In contrast, my colleagues and I have evidence that affirmative action support can also be driven by a motivation to enhance or maintain inequalities between groups. Why might someone who is a member of the dominant group in a society – in this case, we study White Americans –support affirmative action policies? We argue that this might happen because maintaining existing hierarchies is much easier when the dominant group can get buy-in from subordinate groups. When considered in this way, a motivation to maintain hierarchies might manifest itself in a willingness to give up a little (by supporting affirmative action policies) in an attempt to avoid having to give up more and actually change the status quo. We call this strategy appeasement.

To recap: Because dominant group members who want their group to remain on top (or are pro-hierarchy) understand that maintaining the hierarchy is easier when subordinate groups consent to the existing arrangement, they are particularly sensitive to how the subordinate group views them. When confronted with evidence that suggests that the subordinate group is unhappy with the dominant group, these pro-hierarchy dominant group members will try to appease subordinate group members by being willing to support policies that seem to help the subordinate group. Importantly, their support for these policies is not because they actually want the subordinate group to be better off, but because they hope that by giving up a little to the subordinate group, the subordinate group won’t ask for more.

To test this possibility, we conducted three studies in which we either manipulated or measured how positively or negatively a subordinate group viewed the dominant group, and then looked at how these perceptions influenced pro-hierarchy White Americans’ social attitudes and support for affirmative action policies. We found that when pro-hierarchy Whites thought that Blacks had a negative view of Whites, they both perceived more economic and political threat from Blacks (Study 1) and had greater support for affirmative action policies (Study 2) than when they thought that Blacks had a positive view of Whites. In addition, and importantly, in the third study, we manipulated whether participants believed that the hierarchy was likely to change. We reasoned that if the hierarchy was unlikely to change, there would be no reason to engage in appeasement; if the other side can’t credibly challenge the status quo, then whether or not they like you is irrelevant. Consistent with this, when pro-hierarchy Whites believed that the economic and political landscape was unlikely to change, they no longer responded to perceptions that Blacks disliked Whites by increasing their support for affirmative action policies, suggesting that their support was strategic in nature and not because they actually wanted to help Blacks. Finally, in a fourth study, we found that pro-hierarchy Whites believed that if their group supported affirmative action policies, the political and economic future of Whites would be less likely to change, again suggesting that, for pro-hierarchy Whites, their increased support for affirmative action policies was not because they actually wanted change, but because they thought that by supporting affirmative action policies, they’d actually prevent more change from happening.

These studies reveal an important point: hierarchy maintenance involves much more strategic behavior than meets the eye. In this case, we show that a motivation to maintain existing inequalities can actually manifest in behavior that seems to run counter to the group’s dominant position. In other work, pro-hierarchy Whites voted for Obama in the 2008 Presidential election when they thought that doing so would allow them to claim that the United States is a post-racial society (Knowles, Lowery, & Schaumberg, 2008). Taken together, this work suggests that we can no longer assume that support for policies that are designed to reduce inequalities is actually driven by a desire to see those social inequalities disappear.

Rosalind Chow is an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. Brian Lowery is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Caitlin Hogan is a People Analyst at Google, Inc. All three contributed to this article.

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