Friday, August 22, 2008


It's been really difficult to try to come up with what to say about affirmative action in light of the responses to "Barking up the Wrong Tree". I know it's not going to come out the way I want it to, but I need to get thoughts down before it all goes away.

One of the things that surprised me in the comments was the extreme hostility to affirmative action itself. This was coming from people who I have read and who have commented here before for the most part, and these are not Republican trolls or closet Libertarians, though I did get a few missives from those whackos. The Republican presentation of affirmative action as an illicit racial rewards system where grossly unqualified individuals replace "deserving" candidates by the truckload just because of race has become ingrained in people's thinking. The Democrats have not done a good job of counteracting that argument, and the events of this election cycle are reinforcing the rightwing narrative.

I don't think that this is true of affirmative action. I have worked in environments where it is taken seriously and in places where it is not. They are very different. In places where it is enforced, like my current company, I work with women in positions besides office assistant and HR. I see women in upper management, in senior technical positions, and managing significant budgets. They also run HR and fill the administrative seats. My current co-workers are every color under the sun, though not as ethnically diverse as at the military base I worked on. My customers are also very diverse. In a recent meeting, with 14 people in the room, fewer than half were white, only only one of them male. Something else that I have noticed is the number of physically disabled people I have been working with. Wheelchairs, crutches, white canes, seeing eye dogs, hearing devices and so forth. Until I worked in operations that took their EEOC obligations seriously, I never saw a dwarf employee. Oh, and there are many, many immigrants from every part of the globe, some of them US citizens, some of them on their way to that status, others content with being residents.

In the other environments, out in the private sector, white guyz ruled, east Asian guys wrote code, and girls stayed in HR or Marketing. Black guys worked in the warehouse or cleaned the garbage. Dark(er) skinned Latinos drove trucks or did maintenance work. Light skinned Latinos were "white". No gimps or freaks need apply. One boss I had would never hire anyone with a dark complexion, be that person AA, mestizo, or south Asian. Never because of himself, of course, oh no, not him, but what would customers do? How would they react? He had to think of the whole company, after all, not just what he would personally be OK with... European and SE Asian immigrants were OK to hire. South Asians could have unpaid "internships", but only if they weren't too dark. This guy is an Obama supporter, by the way.

My point here is that my personal experience of the institutional effects of affirmative action and other equal opportunity measures has been to encounter some incredibly cool and engaging people who work their butts off, and that operations that did not enforce such things also had cool, engaging and hard working people, but that these companies were far more likely to put people into stereotypical jobs and to not let others in the door.

My other point here is that while there can be individuals (like my former psycho boss) who discriminate against other individuals, the power to enforce equitable treatment on a wide scale is institutional. This is an argument I have been making all along when disussing politics - institutions are the social and legal constructs we use to maintain power relations over time and across distance. These power relationships are what must be constructed, or deconstructed, to bring about long term social change. Changes in power mean changes in relative advantage between social groups, and those who are losing advantages will resist change unless they are either too weak to oppose it or can be persuaded that it is in their self interest to relinquish some current advantage for future advantage.

Affirmative action and related equal opportunity measures are examples of using political power to channel institutional power into more equitable courses. It is about institutions, not individuals. If institutions are not required to include a disadvantaged group, then disadvantage is reinforced. If I don't have to allow a class of people (women, Jews, Blacks, parapalegics) into my college, then whatever benefits accrue to my college students are not available to this class of people. When we are under conditions where discrimination and inequity are glaring, then it is easier to focus on the role of institutions in maintaining structures that deliberately disadvantage certain groups in relation to others. It helps if this happens during a time of economic expansion and growing wealth so that people respond positively - yeah, everybody should have a chance to make it rich! What is it with you guys?

However, what has happened is that Republicans have led the way to changing the focus on the purpose of equity policies to recast it as a form of reverse discrimination by focusing on ostensibly "qualified" candidates who "lost their position" to someone who was "unqualified". This is the obsession with quotas, with the fantasy that somehow some brilliant straight A student is being set aside for some flunk-out who happens to be the right color or sex. The focus on the harm done to the otherwise advantaged individual is comparable to the focus on the "innocent life" taken in abortion - what seems so clear in the abstract becomes more equivocal in reality. If you are in a time of economic downturns and people are feeling insecure, then they are going to fight to secure their own advantage or to punish those who they believe have been unfairly awarded what they want. If the person receiving the prefential treatment does not appear to come from a condition of disadvantage, then the resentment is just that much greater.

How many people here have actually conducted job interviews? Not been interviewed for a job, but did the interview to hire someone? I have been doing these since the mid-80s. I have conducted 35 interviews in the last year and almost 200 for 6 different companies and three different universities. The idea that HR forces a department to hire an unqualified minority male or woman of any ethnicity over some white guy is patent bullshit. Most people interview really badly, quite frankly, and resumes are interchangeable. For example, this guy has 10 years of C++ and JAVA programming and knows all the major relational databases, but has never done web development; the gal here has only done web work with SQL server and doesn't know a thing about Oracle and she's been working only 4 years, but she knows ASP.Net 3.0 and PHP like nobody's business and she does graphics. OK, you tell me who will be the better web developer in a mixed MS Windows/UNIX environment where we have to port things to web interfaces from desktop and old mainframe client/server apps? I'll give the nod to the person with web dev experience on the assumption that she can pick up Oracle easier than the desktop app developer can understand how to create stateless web apps, but how do I convince you that I wasn't just hiring the woman, especially because I am female?

Academic affirmative action debates are different because there is a fantasy that somehow the standardized tests are an accurate reflection of subject knowledge, and that high school GPAs can be compared. I hold myself up as the poster child of how fucked up the standardized test system is. I never took a single math class after my sophmore year in high school (and I had straight Ds on the classes I did take) and no science or math in college. My SATs were phenomenally good because I knew how to take a standardized test. My GRE was magnificent, even as I cheated on it and went back to finish up a math section I had not been able to complete the first time around. Guess what? Once you get into a school, nobody cares what your scores were. Nobody cares how you got them. How is anyone to know that my scores are simply being really good at standardized tests vs. actually knowing the subject? There isn't an admissions office in the country that doesn't know how fake this stuff is. Educational institutions themselves are deeply complicit in maintaining structures of advantage and wealth that have jack-shit to do with performance when they continue to prefer the children of alumni. They also know that accepting someone with ho-hum HS grades and foul SATs, who had only worked in menial jobs like driving a delivery truck and being a gardener at a golf course, but who is the first person in his family to attend college and who did a few years at a community college is worth taking a chance on.

How many people in Califonia today would look at my husband's Hispanic surname and scream that he was an undeserving minority taking away a place that rightly belonged to some rich white kid from a gated community in Silicon Valley, whose parents had paid out the kazoo to give little Johnny every educational advantage they could? "But he has great scores and a perfect personal essay and look at all those after school activities! How could you pick that slacker Portigee over our little Johnny? Why should our son be punished when he didn't discriminate against anyone? Reverse racism! "

This is an environment tailor made for political exploitation, which I will try to wrap my brain around in subsequent posts.


Posts in this series:
  1. Affirmation
  2. Easy Come, Easy Go
  3. Qualified Success

NOTE: I will publish some comments that come in on this post. The comments that are posted are representative of what is being submitted. They do not necessarily reflect my opinion, but do present a particular perspective or line of argumentation concerning Affirmative Action. If you mark your comment as private, I will not post it.


Anonymous said...

I really appreciated your thorough post on this complex topic.

As an AA in a decision making capacity regarding hiring, firing, and promotions, I find myself batting many preconceived notions of "non-traditional" candidates given by my team members. Regardless of my logic and rationale, the perception is that I am going to bat for them because they are Black.

The reality is that I am going to bat for them because I WAS them.

I was IN that chair one year ago, bustin my tail to GET this new position because no one on the hiring team saw my potential when i applied for the position that i currently occupy.

A position that was filled by a nephew of a personal friend of the GM.

I would be much more tolerant of animosity against Affirmative Action if animosity against legacy admissions and nepotism was as virulent.

show me said...

You could call your explanation of the Republican view,the Tucker Carlson rant. He has used it so many times.He never mentions of course that he grew up very,very priviledged.

Isn't it true that little Johnny will still get a good spot? Maybe not his first choice but he will not be denied entrance to a good school.

Early in my teaching career I worked with individuals who did not have the same skill set that others had (mostly because they had inferior primary and secondary educations) but they had the degree and got the job. My thinking was always good for them, and their children will do even better and its seems they have. Isn't that the point to start a bridge that others can cross?

Maybe the resentment would be less if we started bridges for poor white kids too. Some of it might come from parents who just can't come up with the money for college and see others get an advantage that they can't hook into for their kids.

Anonymous said...

My interpretation of the Republican opposition to affirmative action associated it with another shade of racism. After all, Republicans since Nixon have discovered huge political riches from ugly, open and in your face racism.

The American educational system from Kindergarten to colleges is the most democratic and egalitarian in the world in a certain respect. Schooling is available to every talent and every pocket. It is in particularly true for higher education. The community colleges allow both less qualified and poor students to built up their skill level on the cheap before they join, if so desired, the four years colleges. My university, with its ridiculously high tuition, basically waves the tuitions for the first year community colleges students in our metro get when they transfer to us.

The university itself is totally diverse, stipends for disadvantage students and minority students abound. Faculty, especially in sciences and engineering is both diverse and their is a strong emphasis on increasing the number of women (which is very important not only as a universal value but also socially and intellectually).

Our society, however, has a built in advantage for the affluent elementary, middle and high school students. Private schools that charge close to $20,000 annually per student have popped up all around us and target the rich. These school provide a boost for less than great students to get into our country's best colleges. This clearly is kind of the Whole Food Nation attempt to get a leg up on the poor and the disadvantaged. It's affirmative action in reverse.

The middle class, typically, is opposed to affirmative action. Kind of saying "we worked hard to get here and the bums get here without much effort." This feeling is not restricted to Republicans.

In some sense, Obama has been carried on the shoulders of the anti-affirmative action of the Whole Food Nation and he himself is the Democratic incarnation of Clarence Thomas.

Therefore, I am not surprised by abundance of anti AA comments.

Anonymous said...

The "mainstream" corporate owned newsmedia have spouted the same memes about "quotas" since the Reagan administration (they all kissed up and still kiss up to Reagan- no matter Reagan sent more people into poverty than any president since Hoover- they made big profits during the 80's so he was just the "bestest" president. It's rather telling that Obama praises Reagan as a great president and not so subtly slammed Bill Clinton- no matter that everyone's income rose during the Clinton administration- myself a prime example, from below the poverty line to lower middle class.

They use that against Title IX too- how dare the women's volleyball team "take money away from the men's football and basketball! We all know 'girls' don't like sports!" etc...

That mindset informs the attitude of all the "news media" but the small segment of pro Hillary bloggers like us. The rest use that mindset to dismiss both Hillary and her supporters (who they see as being all 40 and older white women- they aren't sure how to define what social class we belong to...Never mind all we really are more diverse than Obama supporters in every classification...)

Anonymous said...

This election is like a bad flashback from the nineties.

I spent most of the nineties as a "thirty-something" college student, majoring in history and minoring in poli-sci on my way to law school.

Besides being a political junkie, I had classes like "Simulated Supreme Court Decision Making" where we got to argue cases that were then pending before SCOTUS.

Affirmative Action was then under heavy attack both nationally and here in California.

IOW - As a flaming liberal I spent a lot of time defending AA in arguments with conservative teachers and students.

Now we have Obama, the poster child for everything conservatives claim is wrong with Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action is supposed to help qualified candidates get in the door, not push unqualified candidates to the front of the line.