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Can Both of These Statements be True? Musings on Affirmative Action in Academia

with 6 comments

by David (the first in a series of three posts on affirmative action)

Can both of these statements be true?

1) People of colour, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBT community face real, overt discrimination, along with structural inequalities through many or perhaps all stages of their lives, which hampers their ability to be admitted to selective schools and to compete in the academic job market.

2) Straight, white, able-bodied men are at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market as compared to people of colour, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBT community.

They can’t both be true if we regard affirmative action the way president Lyndon B. Johnson did in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University. There, LBJ famously stated  “you do not take a person who for years has been hobbled in chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”

This is philosopher James Rachels‘ position. Rachels argued that affirmative action was not about advancing the under-qualified over the qualified, but simply about fairness, about leveling the playing field. When Harvard admits a poor Black student with a 1300 SAT score over a rich white kid with a 1400, it does this knowing that the white kid likely benefitted from tutoring, a safe neighbourhood, books in the house, and all sorts of advantages that the Black student may have been lacking. Thus the Black students’ 1300 is worth more than the white students’ 1400. It’s only fair.

Stephen L. Carter

But there is another way to look at affirmative action, of course. That way was championed in the famous 1978 supreme court case  Regents of the University of California v. BakkeIn the Bakke case, white med school applicant Allan Bakke was denied entry to UC-Davis medical school in favour of several African American candidates with lower test scores. The judges, who ruled partially in favour of Bakke and partially in favour of the university, struck down racial quotas as illegal and unconstitutional, but claimed the school could use race as a factor in admissions in order to achieve the goal of diversity.

This raises the question: which is it? Fairness or diversity? Or is it some combination of the two?

When talking about hiring in academia, the situation becomes even trickier. In his 1992 book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, African American Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter provocatively states “I got into law school because I am black.” Though a conservative, Carter endorses some forms of affirmative action, though he thinks that affirmative action benefits should be reduced as people advance in life. Thus (I’m extrapolating) poor Black and Latino youth can receive benefits like Head Start and and scholarships to top high schools, and then some preferential treatment in college admissions. At the graduate school level, that preferential treatment should be diminished, in hiring, it should be close to non-existent. The idea being that eventually minority candidates have to stand on their own merits, independent of racial or ethnic background or gender identity or disability.

Carter’s view aligns with the LBJ and Rachels view of affirmative action as remedial, as a form of retributive justice. He doesn’t seem as concerned about diversity among faculty, or grad student population. The question remains, should we be?

Because if we should not, we get to a tricky place. First, there are awkward questions for hiring committees: is a Black man a better minority candidate than a white woman? This is becoming especially tricky as more and more humanities disciplines become feminized. This has already happened to English and Art History (and psychology in the social sciences). The data suggests that history is not there yet, though perhaps not far behind (though philosophy is). Unfortunately, history has shown us that feminized professions come to be disdained: think of elementary and secondary school teaching, nursing, social work, even clinical psychology.

In a sense, I’m “lucky.” In Jewish studies, I compete almost exclusively against other white candidates. I do compete against women though. But when I apply for US history jobs, it’s a different ballgame. And nearly every white person I know in academia, male or female, has a story about a minority candidate being hired immediately, or being sought out by many schools, or generally receiving some form of preferential treatment in hiring. These stories are of course told when only white people are around. This evidence is anecdotal, and I’m certain stories where the reverse is true occur regularly, though I don’t hear about them.

This phenomenon extends beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower. I’ve overheard grumbling about prestigious summer internship programs that admitted a disproportionate number of Black and Latino candidates, where the application process consisted only of writing an essay and checking a box for race, ethnicity, and gender. A white male medical student recently told me that his chief rival for residencies was African American, putting him (the white male) at a disadvantage. At the same time, he acknowledged that his chosen speciality was an old (white) boys club, and he thinks that women and non-whites would have a hard time fitting in.

So with race acting as a double-edged sword, I’m fairly confident that the first statement I made at the beginning of this post is true. Discrimination is real and must be countered. The second statement, that affirmative action rigs the game against whites and Asians, and especially white and Asian males, certainly feels true, though the data don’t yet bear it out. But suppose it is true: is there anything to be done about this? Is there a fairer, better way that still accounts for diversity? I’m not sure. Maybe Stephen Carter’s principle is correct, that diversity should still be accounted for, as a tie-breaker between equal candidates. But who knows? Any suggestions?

This struggle over affirmative action is part of a much larger problem. At major history conferences, it is highly encouraged to have women and people of colour on your panel proposal in order to get those proposals accepted. It seems more like a requirement than a suggestion. This raises several questions: How far should we take the quest for diversity? How essentialized has the female or minority point of view become that it needs to be reflected on each and every panel?

I asked a friend of mine whether analytic philosophy conferences had a similar requirement/suggestion in place. He replied that if they did, there would be no philosophy conferences. That is how dominated the field is by white men. This raises another question: is analytic philosophy like history? Is it necessary to have the perspective of women and non-white minorities on matters of analytic philosophy? Or is analytic philosophy “universal” enough that the gender and ethnicity of those who study it is irrelevant? And what about literature and other fields in the humanities?

In asking all these question, I’m forced to wonder: am I just being a whiny white male, ignorant or in denial of my own privilege? I’m not into political correctness, for the most part, but I don’t think I’m a racist, sexist, bigot. I do see race and gender, but I try not to pay attention to those categories when, for example, I’m grading. So why should I pay attention to them when putting together an academic panel?

I’m not trying to be hyperbolic (okay maybe a little) but I’m trying to figure out where I fit in to this discussion as a progressive minded straight white man with a dedication to equality and justice, an understanding of the history of discrimination, yet also with a commitment to objectivity, to the fact that good scholarship can come from anywhere and anyone.

So there is clearly a problem here. But I’m really not sure how to solve it.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 25, 2012 at 08:36

6 Responses

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  1. I am disturbed by this analysis, and its breezy tone. We cannot take on complex problems without reverence for their complexity. If you do history, this is the proper place for some historical context. Utilitarian ethicists and conservative Yale Law profs might be balanced by some views from the other side. You might want to attend to Bakke and the circumstances surrounding anti-AA backlash. You might want to read The Possessive Investment in Whiteness and Whiteness as Property. If you’ve read them, you might want to read them. I don’t think the salient points have sunken in.

    I am a white, Jewish PhD student in the humanities. I have never been in any conversation close to what you are describing. If I was, it would be a heartbreaking moment of revelation that my colleagues are petty careerists and casual racists. I would defriend such people. And I regard neither my acceptance to conferences, nor my attainment of a job, to be entitlements to which I am guaranteed. To leap from rejection to an automatic assumption that someone has jumped my place would make me, I think, a sociopath.

    Kurt Newman

    May 25, 2012 at 20:34

    • Kurt, thanks for the comment. I don’t regard anything I’ve achieved as an “entitlement,” and I certainly don’t “leap” to any assumptions following any rejections I face. So I hope I didn’t come off as a “sociopath” to you, but I promise that I’m not a sociopath but in fact quite friendly. I tried to make my post nuanced, though you probably think I failed in that regard. Others liked the post, but I’m sorry that you didn’t. If my “analysis” and “breezy” tone are not to your liking, you are under no obligation to read my posts.

      David Weinfeld

      May 26, 2012 at 13:29

      • I don t think affirmative aotcin necessarily lowers the quality of workers. I think companies typically make sure a potential worker is qualified for the position. For example, if it comes down to a man and a woman of equal credentials, they might pick the woman to meet the quota. Even then though, the woman will probably work harder than the man would have because in the work force, especially in a field dominated by men such as engineering, women need to prove themselves so they are taken seriously, whereas a man who is hired will be more likely to slack off because he wouldn t worry as much about what others thought. Unfortunately though, there are other cases where employers just pick a minority to meet the quota. In this instance problems can definitely occur if the new worker s qualifications are not up to par. I know this from experience because my dad works for the government and in his job if he interviews people of all types of races and backgrounds and does not end up picking a person of the minority then he has to fill out a large stack of papers saying why the white person was more qualified than the black person. And his argument had better be convincing or else he could be fired. My dad was actually put on trial at his job because a black woman accused him of being racist .for choosing a black man over her. This is absolutely ridiculous. I don t think there is any way to justify this. Sometimes affirmative aotcin can be a good thing because it keeps diversity in the workplace, but anytime the quality of the company or product is neglected, affirmative aotcin can have very negative effects.In regards to Nepotism, I think quality is often compromised. Usually when people help their family or friends, they are doing so because the person in need of assistance cannot find work or does not have the skills to get a job on their own. This means that the person will be given a position for which they probably do not qualify. This is not fair to other people trying to get the same position who are qualified, and it is also not fair to the employer or company. The new worker will probably do a below average quality level of work, and this will hurt the business. I definitely agree with the guy on this video that industries like healthcare can suffer. Nepotism should be used lightly, because if you help someone who is struggling to get into medical school and he/she becomes a doctor then eventually makes a big mistake such as killing someone during a surgery, you are somewhat to blame for helping them get to that position. I know this sounds extreme but there are instances where dramatic things like this can occur, and it s not worth taking the risk. If someone isn t qualified for a position, they shouldn t be accepted into it. A big problem with nepotism is that it is like lying because it often involves writing fabricated recommendations for people who do not deserve them. Doing this can have a chain negative effect and hurt many people including consumers or patients.


        June 19, 2012 at 12:40

      • After attending class on Thursday, I deilnitefy think about affirmative action more differently. At times, I think it s unnecessary and unfair and other times I think it is much needed in order to help those move up in the world. Regarding the above question, my initial reaction was that student was completely correct. Why should someone who is less qualified for a job, especially in the medical field, receive a job based on affirmative action, when there is probably someone more qualified for that job? I don t think that someone should be chosen for a job based on their sex or race just to assure that a hospital or doctor s office meets the specific regulations on affirmative action. If I were a patient I would much rather have a doctor care for me who is right for the job, whether that means a person of color, a woman, or a white person. There are many qualifications that are needed to be a professional in the medical field, and I don t believe race should be one of them? In order to be a qualified individual in the medical field I think one needs experience, a warm personality, knowledge of their practices, patience, sympathy, and intelligence, nowhere in those qualifications would race play a factor, which is why I don t think affirmative action should be a determining factor while hiring in specific jobs. If I were a director of a hospital I would want to hire those who are highly qualified for a job despite sex and race.On the contrary, when it comes to college admissions, I think at times affirmative action is necessary. Everything Sam has been saying about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer shows to be true in a situation like college admissions. Those who are at the bottom, who attended a poor schooling system, live in low-income areas, and are unable to afford college, don t really have the chance to move up in the world. Having affirmative action gives these individuals a chance that they wouldn t necessarily receive without it. College admissions would take into consideration where the individual grew up, the number of students in their class, and their race to find the best group of students to attend their school.When it comes to nepotism, I feel as though I m torn similar to how I feel about affirmative action. Before taking this class I had more of a distinct opinion, or so I thought I did, but Sam actually is making me think, put yourself on the other side of the argument. I m sure people who are less qualified for jobs are able to get jobs because of the connections they made or the people they know. But who s to say that s not fair when they made the connections themselves becusae they knew if would help them get a job and in the end they re the ones benefitting? On the contrary, as an elementary education major if someone who has a lower GPA, and less experience than me receives a job over me because their Uncle is a principal I would be angry and discouraged. So I guess the question is where do we draw the line? How do you find a balance between the two?


        June 20, 2012 at 02:36

    • I thought this was a very ineretsting question. After thinking about it, I don t think that affirmative action would necessarily make less qualified people hired in fields that require certain certifications. It would at most give them a boast into getting accepted into programs, but it would be their own responsibility to be successful in that program. A minority may get accepted into medical school because of their ethnicity. However, acceptance does not equal completion. Like we learned in class nepotism is more of a threat than affirmative action. Nepotism would bring less qualified people into a position before affirmative action. When people hire their friends and family, the most qualified people are not even considered. Although, how can we blame each other for hiring their friends and family when we all do the same thing? We trust the people we know before we trust strangers. Different people could bring more to a job than our friends but they do not get the chance to. I have gotten jobs through friends/relatives and there are definitely more qualified people for those jobs than me. Also I found that by working for people I have a personal relationship I could get away with a lot more than another person would have. I would show up late or take longer breaks or was just lazy. My quality of work was significantly less than another s would have been. It sucks to be the person who does not get hired because they don t have the connections to get the job. Life really is who you know rather than what you know. There is nothing we can really do to solve this issue so we need to just accept it. In real professional jobs such as doctors, this should not be the case. You need to know how to be a doctor rather than just knowing other doctors. But you may get accepted into a college over someone else because you are a certain race. This could be seen as an unfair advantage to some but you need to work hard afterwards to make that schooling worthwhile. Personally I benefitted from a form of affirmative action/nepotism getting into Penn State. I applied from out of state and for some reason there are higher standards for non-Pennsylvanians to get accepted. My high school college counselor is an alumnus from PSU and our school has a decently high acceptance rate to the main campus and the branch campuses. Upon arriving at PSU, I found that I had a higher GPA and SAT score than most of the Pennsylvanians that got attend here. If my counselor did not have the relationship he has with this college would I have gotten in even though I think I am more qualified than others? I don t really need to worry about it because I was fortunate enough to have gotten in. We all benefit from certain things in certain ways. Overall, I think we all need to just except things for the way they are because there isn’t anything we can do about it.


      June 19, 2012 at 16:31

  2. […] line with our series of three posts on affirmative action, I thought I would mention this cool new book that just came out […]

    Ph.D. Octopus

    May 29, 2012 at 16:54

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