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

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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. Bakke. In 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 Jenny Carlson

May 25th, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Posted in Main