Research News

Winkle-Wagner co-authors report examining racial discourse around Fisher affirmative action case

June 08, 2017

UW-Madison's Rachelle Winkle-Wagner co-authored a recent peer-reviewed article examining racial discourse surrounding the “Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin” Supreme Court case, which challenged the consideration of race in the college admissions process at that university.

The report is co-authored with V. Thandi Sulé, an associate professor at Oakland University, and Dina C. Maramba, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University.

The article, which appears in the journal Equity & Excellence in Education, is titled, “Who Deserves a Seat? Colorblind Public Opinion of College Admissions Policy.”

It utilizes critical discourse analysis to assess reader comments to newspaper articles on the case in an effort to better understand how people in the general population are talking about race and racism as it relates to college access.

“This paper was a really unique opportunity to think differently about the idea of ‘discourse,’ ” says Winkle-Wagner, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and a faculty affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. “By examining how people anonymously post online, we are able to understand some of the extremes in how the general population might be talking about race.”

When examining the case, the report’s abstract notes how the affirmative action policies at the University of Texas were “framed as being antithetical to individualism, merit and competition. Many comments, divorced from social and historical contexts, used colorblind rationale to justify their opposition to affirmative action yet relied heavily on popular polarizing racial discourse in their argumentation. Social policy implications related to facilitating college diversity and promoting educational equity are presented.”

The report adds: “The United States has always been a country of contradiction, upholding individuality, freedom, and meritocracy while being mired in oppressive social and political practices. As a result of this long- standing tension, the country once again finds itself grappling with how to facilitate access to one of its prized resources, the public flagship university.”

From the authors’ analysis of the hundreds of reader comments related to the case, they found that the “narratives overwhelmingly reflected abstract liberalism by emphasizing concepts like hard work and choice to justify the status quo.”

“It’s clear we may need to start communicating differently about affirmative action, race-based college admissions policies, and college access more generally,” says Winkle-Wagner. “The findings of our analysis also suggest that people might need different ways of talking about race and racism, too.”