A Limited Defense of Affirmative Action

I am a beneficiary of affirmative action. These days, so they say, I should be ashamed to admit it. It implies, after all, that I was not otherwise qualified for some benefit I obtained only because of being some kind of “minority.”

I have actually benefited from affirmative action on two different counts–as a woman, and as a Hispanic. Every now and then that gives me a slight edge on the competition. That doesn’t bother me particularly. I’ve been discriminated against as a woman more times than I can remember (or, probably, than I have ever known) beginning at least with my first permanent job, which I obtained only by giving the right answer to the employment agency’s question about what method of birth control I used. (For those too young to remember that era, the right answer was not “none of your damn business.” It was “the Pill.”) On another job, I was sexually harassed before there was even a word for it, much less a cause of action. So I figure any benefit I get from the double x chromosome is just a matter of restitution.

I have also been discriminated against, I’m pretty sure, for being Jewish. This, of course, gets me no affirmative action points, but that kind of makes up for the fact that I do get points for being a Hispanic (both my parents were born in Cuba, and my family is essentially bicultural) even though I have never been discriminated against for that fact. (As a matter of fact, since I am a natural blonde and speak English without an accent, nobody knows I am Hispanic unless I choose to tell them, and I normally do that only where I will get extra points for it. Which is generally in jobs where my ability to speak Spanish really is a plus.) And most recently, I have probably been discriminated against for my age, which is illegal, but for which I get no affirmative action points. So I will take those points where I can get them, without embarrassment and without feeling that my competence is in any way in question.

I went to a good college and made Dean’s List my last two years. I scored in the 98th percentile on my LSATs. But when I applied to law school, I was admitted to a school in which 45% of my class was female, in the mid-’70s, and rejected by another school which had a far lower percentage of female students in that year. The evidence seems clear; I was almost certainly admitted to the former because of my gender, and rejected by the latter for the same reason. My objective qualifications were equally irrelevant to both schools. Probably all those qualifications got me in the second school was a rejection further along in the process than some of my less-qualified sisters (and my totally-unqualified brothers.)

Realistically, of course, nobody ever challenged my academic competence, or that of any other woman I know who has been accepted into any academic program under an affirmative action program. Even the most neanderthal of male supremacists will grant that women on the average do better in school, except in mathematics and the hard sciences, than men. The reason women have historically been discriminated against in academic admissions is that we are not expected to be able to do much of anything useful with our knowledge and academic credentials after we get them.

So the affirmative action issue really only gets raised, where women are concerned, when one of us is promoted to a position of power, beyond the glass ceiling. Then the innuendoes fly–quotas, sleeping with the boss, the supervisor is a leg man, somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife. Most of us, however, would still rather live with the humiliation of possibly having been promoted because of our gender than with the equally potent and much less remunerative humiliation of not having been promoted for the same reason.

Stephen L. Carter’s misgivings

Which is why I have trouble with people like Stephen L. Carter. His Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby is a thoughtful and well-written book with a good sense of the complexities of inter-ethnic relations in the United States of the 1990s. But I have a few problems with its basic premises. Don’t expect the Establishment to make special standards for you, he tells young African Americans. It’s humiliating that we should think we need that. Meet their standards, beat their standards, and demand to be accepted on their terms. For Blacks and Hispanics, who are popularly expected to be less competent in academic achievement, it may actually be a source of humiliation to be admitted to a respectable school under an affirmative action program because of their ethnicity. However, most of the “affirmative action babies” I know would say that it is no more humiliating than being rejected because of that same ethnicity, and pays a lot better.

Carter’s advice takes the Establishment’s claims of devotion to meritocratic standards at face value. Which gives a lot more credit than it deserves to an Establishment that has never really believed in those standards, and has espoused them only when doing so would serve the purpose of keeping a particular group of outsiders outside.

The reason Carter has not seen this hypocrisy is that he is looking at the experience of only one group of outsiders. If he were to consider that of three others–women, Asians, and Jews–whose ability to meet meritocratic standards has rarely been questioned by anybody, he would discover that the Establishment has never had any difficulty excluding them, or severely limiting their upward mobility, on some other grounds.

The merit system: now you see it, now you don’t

For instance, in the 1930s, Harvard Medical School discovered that, if academic qualifications were to be the only criteria for admission, its entire entering class would be Jewish. Indeed, they would have had to double the size of the entering class to get in more than few token gentiles. So they suddenly discovered that there was more to being a physician than “mere” academic excellence. Arbitrarily, they set a quota of 22% for Jewish applicants, a quota which remained in effect until the ’60s, when, like the Jewish quotas in many other educational institutions, it was replaced with a larger and slightly less transparent quota on students from large cities, especially New York City, under the rubric of “geographical distribution.” Those quotas still exist today in many schools.

The experience of women is in some ways even more blatant. When my classmates and I graduated from college in the early ’60s, we frequently looked for jobs before and between graduate school, in the public sector. We took the civil service exams, scored at or near the top, and were repeatedly beat out for the actual jobs by men who had scored a good deal lower, before using their veterans’ preference points.

When I was at college, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was a truism, repeated to us regularly by faculty and admissions honchos, that men scored higher than women on the math section of the SAT, but women scored higher than men on the verbal section. It didn’t, of course, get us much. There were fewer places available for women at good colleges (or any other colleges, actually) than for men, and less scholarship money available for us. So nobody thought much about it. But twenty years later, when the various controversies about the biases of the SAT arose, I was startled to hear everybody, on all sides of the dispute, saying that women scored lower than men on both sections of the SAT. Even the American Association of University Women, in its otherwise beautifully researched study of discrimination against women in education, could only conjecture about what happened, by the end of high school, to the clear lead in reading and verbal skills, that girls have over boys in elementary school. What had happened–a couple of very well-hidden and quickly forgotten news stories revealed–was that in the middle ’60s, ETS changed the verbal section of the SAT, substituting scientific essays for one or two of the fiction selections in the reading comprehension test. Female scores promptly dropped to their “proper” place–visibly below those of their male classmates–and have stayed there ever since.

Asians are the most recent victims of similar policies. Several West Coast schools, most notably the University of California at Berkeley, have experimented with ceilings on the number of Asian students within the last 10 years. A university, the administration proclaims, has the right to put “diversity” above “mere” academic excellence.

In short, the history of other groups of outsiders suggests strongly that if an entire generation of African American young people followed Carter’s advice to meet meritocratic standards and beat them, the Establishment would have no trouble finding some other pretext to exclude all but the most presentable tokens among them from the precincts and perquisites of power–either by changing those standards, or suddenly discovering the greater importance of some other factor.

That does not, of course, invalidate Carter’s advice. It does make one wish Carter were a little more careful about truth in advertising, however. I tend to prefer Malcolm X’s more honest approach, when he advised his followers to read anything they could get their hands on and get all the education they could, even if all it got them was the proud position of best-educated person in the unemployment line.

Was there ever a merit system?

Before the phrase “affirmative action” ever found its way into our vocabulary, the reality of affirmative action was already as American as apple pie. After all, what else is veterans’ preference, if not an affirmative action program for (in the post-World War II era in which it was born) men? What else is seniority, if not an affirmative action program for older workers? I have never known a veteran, or an experienced union man, who was in the least ashamed to have benefited by those affirmative action programs.

Nor should they be. Before the rise of the meritocratic mythology of the ’70s, any American old enough to have held a job at all knew that nobody gets a job solely by virtue of being the most qualified candidate for it. In an economy which has never even aspired to full employment, most available jobs have several well-qualified candidates on hand. Most employment discrimination does not involve hiring an unqualified person in preference to a qualified one, but rather choosing between more-or-less equally qualified candidates on the basis of factors unrelated to the job.

The Jewish Establishment’s position

Many established Jewish community organizations, like many other high-minded, principled opponents of affirmative action, really believe that they are espousing a pure meritocracy as against a system of arbitrary choice. To take that position, they have to presume that, before the 1969 Civil Rights act, all male Jews had the jobs they were entitled to, by reason of their meritocratic qualifications. They also have to presume that all Jews are male, white, anglo, and middle-class and have nothing whatever to gain from affirmative action. They have to, in fact, ignore the experience of considerably more than 53% of the Jewish community. They even have to advocate giving back to the same academic and professional Establishment that subjected Jewish males to explicit, exclusive quotas until the early ’60s, the power to do it again.

Two cheers for affirmative action

Most supporters of affirmative action see it as a lesser evil. But, unlike its opponents, they recognize the realistic alternative as a greater evil. Affirmative action is not a matter of substituting for a pure meritocracy a system of choices among qualified candidates according to standards unrelated to job or scholastic requirements. It is a substitution of one set of arbitrary choices for another.

The alternative to affirmative action in real life is the divinely-ordained and legally-protected right of the employer or supervisor to hire people who remind him [sic] of his best friend, or people who fit his stereotyped image of the “proper” telephone operator or waittress or whatever. We know that most people who get jobs get them for reasons only distantly related to their ability to perform. In fact, the most serious downside of affirmative action, so far as I can tell, is that it denies future generations a really useful index of professional excellence. When I meet a doctor, or a lawyer, or a CPA, who is female or non-white (or better still, both) and who got his or her professional credential before 1970, I know I am dealing with a superlatively qualified professional, because only the best women and non-whites were able to survive the discriminatory professional screening processes in those days. For professional women and non-whites with more recent qualifications, alas, I have to take my chances, just as I would with a white male of any age.

So we sincerely hope that the people into whose hands we put our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor are in fact qualified to do their jobs. But as a practical matter, we know that we are at least as much at risk from incompetents who were hired or promoted for being the boss’s brother, or being tall, or not being Hispanic, or having an officious-sounding British accent, as from those hired or promoted for being female, Black, or Hispanic–quite possibly more, since the latter are usually watched more closely. In fact, these days I am beginning to suspect that American-born doctors can no longer be presumed to be as competent as doctors with foreign accents, since the latter are subjected to much tougher screening standards.

Well, maybe two and a half

We may see ourselves as winners or losers, and we may attribute our situation to other people or to our own deserts. Human beings generally have never had any trouble taking credit for their own good fortune or blaming others for their misfortunes. More recently, “new age” thinking has led many of us to take the rap for our own misfortunes, often in truly preposterous ways (“How have I created this reality?” the cancer patient asks.) But it is difficult for any of us to admit that our good fortune may be the result of some totally unearned “break” from the outside world–being white, for instance, or male. That is the real threat of affirmative action–that it requires us to consider the possibility that (even if, as is likely, we aren’t as well off as we would like to be) we haven’t “earned” even the few goodies we have. For those of us raised in the Jewish tradition, which teaches us that the Land promised to us by the Holy One is ours only on loan, and that we were not chosen to receive it because of any particular merit on our part, that shouldn’t be too much of a leap. It should make us more willing to grant similar unearned goodies to other people. “Use each man according to his deserts,” says Hamlet, “and who should ‘scape whipping?” Or unemployment, as the case may be. Even us, the few, the proud, the overqualified.

Red Emma

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