© 2020 by S.M. Vincent Pruis

  • Vince Pruis

Bourdieu & Affirmative Action

How Casual Comments Maintain a Narrative of Equality in the University, Disaffirming Action

When my high school best friend confided in me during our senior year that she wasn’t sure her dream school would accept her, I responded in a way that I'm now ashamed to recall: “No way,” I reassured her. “You’re a Chinese girl who was adopted by a single mom and is going into science: they have to accept you.” I didn’t list why she, a brilliant and engaged student, belonged; instead, I listed every single one of her qualities that marked her as an outsider to academia in the United States, and then in jest I framed those qualities as an unearned advantage. Though I meant to be reassuring, the true outcome of my statement was to reinforce the dominant discourse in my small-town field about affirmative action. My mode of interpreting the world, my habitus, was set on maintaining stratified ideas of belonging while undermining my friend’s sense of security in her application.

This undermining was not purposeful--it was unconscious--but it did serve a purpose. For those in possession of capital, which is a manifestation of power, to maintain power, they must also maintain the transference of power, the university being a primary mode of such inheritance. Thus dominant culture frames the public’s “common knowledge” to disdain affirmative action as an undermining of equality while at the same time the idea of equality is (ironically) used to justify stratification.

Cultural capital is an inherited advantage, one that would seem to signify inequality, but the dominant discourse in the US does not view it as such. As defined by Bourdieu, cultural capital in the embodied state exists as a long-lasting disposition of the body and mind (1986:47). A disposition is not innate; it is produced. The experience of difference begins at conception; the health of the body that is nurturing a fetus will affect the resulting person’s physiology for life. The number of words they hear in their first three months will affect their language skills for life. And preschool will institutionally reinforce and endorse these differences.

In a clip from Sociology is a Martial Art, Bourdieu describes a classroom and the interactions therein. A middle-class child knows how to talk to the teacher, says Bourdieu--the child already knows the mode in which he is meant to respond. If he doesn’t know the answer, then he at least knows the proper format for an answer--and the teacher calls him “darling.” From the very outset of his education, this middle-class child is reinforced by teachers as the most worthy in the classroom. Meanwhile, hundreds of inner-city school children (I’m using here the term provided by my source) are arrested each year for “disorderly conduct” (CT Health 1 Team 2011). They, unlike him, do not have the correct habitus for the academic system; by the time the middle-class child and his inner-city counterparts reach their senior year of high school, their resumes and academic transcripts look almost nothing alike.

And this is where the genius of education as power reinforcement really comes alive: theoretically, anyone can apply to college. Everyone is equal in this opportunity. Like the museum in Bourdieu's piece on artistic taste, open university admissions are a form of false generosity because the free entrance is reserved for those who “have the privilege of using this freedom and who find themselves consequently legitimized in their privilege” (1968:214).

One way of combating this reinforcement of existing power hierarchies is affirmative action; affirmative action, which has a poor reputation, is the policy of favoring individuals from groups that are traditionally discriminated against. One reason for resistance against affirmative action is its exposition of meritocracy as a reproduction system for current arrangements of capital and power. ‘[T]he transmission of cultural capital is no doubt the best hidden form of hereditary transmission of capital, and it therefore receives proportionally greater weight in the system of reproduction strategies, as the direct, visible forms of transmission tend to be more strongly censored and controlled” (Bourdieu 1986: 49): the principles of affirmative action expose that transmission. They threaten the objective facade of the admissions process. Because of these principles' threatening nature, the dominant discourse must create a negative understanding of them.

The advantage of cultural capital, perpetuated by the educational system, is simultaneously masked by a narrative of equality (backed by objectivity) and reinforced by internalized standards and expectations. Like the work station evaluations instituted in Privatizing Poland, the college admissions process “provides the aura of scientific objectivity and rationality [while] it is in fact a highly subjective system that instantiates a particular set of power relationships and then masks them” (Dunn 2004:108). Completely disregarding the aspect of social capital, which appears in the college admissions process as big-name letters of recommendation or legacy admissions (which began as a way of keeping black people out of universities), the comparatively objective evaluations of GPAs and club involvement serve as a bias of their own, indicating who belongs.

Who belongs in the modern architectural equivalent of a castle? Who is supposed to belong?

The university “in its impartiality, though pretending to recognize students as equal in rights and duties, divided only by inequalities of gifts and merits, in fact confers on individuals degrees judged according to their cultural heritage and therefore according to their social status” (Bourdieu 1968:212). Admissions are subjective processes. Still, the idea of objectivity is essential to this transfer of privilege, for an institution is “fully viable only if it is durably objectified not only in things...but also in bodies” (Bourdieu 1980:503). Accepting affirmative action students, seen as deviant bodies, into the university weakens the certainty of transfer. Self-seeking silence “is what makes it possible to legitimize a social privilege” (Bourdieu 1968:211); therefore the equity-seeking affirmative action policies must be culturally condemned--and effectively silenced--for those in power to maintain their status, and those who would benefit from equity must be trained to condemn it as well.

Affirmative action is thus culturally depicted as a source of inequality rather than equity because it disrupts the myth of meritocracy that educational institutions must cultivate. The failings of people of color, women, and those who are disabled or disenfranchised to appear at the university level makes implicit sense to those who argue against affirmative action: somewhere in their internalized model--their forgotten history, their habitus--is a knowledge that these disenfranchised groups could never make it into college anyway. They weren’t there before. They could, theoretically, be there now, but their lack of representation reflects an individual moral failure built into their minds and very bodies (Matza 2009:513). Giving them an "unfair" advantage like affirmative action ignores everyone else’s hard work in its quest to compensate for a system that’s concealed itself so well, no one can see its injustice; all that’s visible is a dramatized advantage called “affirmative action.”

Minorities are given a chance at self-improvement, so, while disregarding questions concerning systemic prejudice, the public blames them for not taking that chance and at the same time ridicules those benefiting from equitable policy as not deserving their place. They are said to be part of a “universe of possibilities equally possible for any possible subject,” while at the same time they are trained to “shape their aspirations according to concrete indices of the accessible and inaccessible, of what is and is not ‘for us’” (Bourdieu 1980:510). Ideally, for the transfer of power through the conduit of university education to work as the bourgeoisie would prefer, minorities would be trained to feel shame about their capacities if associated with affirmative action, or even better to believe that they never wanted access to higher education anyway.

For power to dominate and retain dominance, affirmative action cannot be allowed to disrupt its reproduction in the university system, which has become one of its most important assets. Therefore, discourse in public dialogue is trained by the powerful toward a contempt for affirmative action by framing the recipients as an undeserving group as opposed to those naturally suited to the meritocracy. The functioning of that supposed meritocracy is kept carefully hidden. Maybe if the public were to recognize it, though, they would also recognize the merits and necessity of equitable policy, and they would be able to disrupt the reproduction of the current status quo that is so ingrained in the institution of the university--and maybe I would have been a better friend, as I certainly hope I am now.

Works Cited

Bourdieu. 1968. Artistic taste and cultural capital.

Bourdieu. 1980. Structures, habitus, practices. In The Logic of Practice.

Bourdieu. 1986. The forms of capital.

CT Health 1 Team. 2011. “Hundreds of Ct Inner-City School Children Arrested Yearly on Minor Issues.” ctwatchdog.com online.

Dunn. 2004. Quality control, discipline, and the remaking of persons. In Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor.

Foucault. 1975. The body of the condemned; Panopticism. In Discipline and Punish.

Holmes. 2013. ‘Because they’re lower to the ground’: Naturalizing social suffering. In Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.

Matza. 2009. Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the self, publics, and politics on the Russian talk show.

Sociology is a Martial Art: Bourdieu (2002) online.