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Affirmative Action and the Stigma of Gender and Ethnicity: California in the 1990s

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With the passage of Proposition 209 by California voters in November 1996, affirmative action programs by public agencies had to be dismantled. Campaign rhetoric produced by proponents of the proposition emphasized the concept of merit and recalled civil rights rhetoric of the 1960s to suggest that affirmative action was in fact racial preference. This paper addresses the proposition that the emphasis on merit was in fact based on an unacknowledged belief that white women and members of visible minorities are, by definition, lacking in merit. My conceptual framework is based on Goffman's concept of stigma, notably the notion of a "spread effect" by which the mark of difference entails other areas of difference or defect. Data from published sources, together with inclass exercises and student focus groups, suggest that there is substantial support for my proposition.


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