Sunday, August 24, 2008

Qualified Success

(Update - Good grief this post was riddled with typos! These have been corrected throughout.)

This is the third post in my series looking at affirmative action. This one is looking at the ways in which affirmative action is failing on its own terms and provides grist for the political mill.

As discussed in the previous two posts, AFAC is aimed at disrupting formal and informal institutionalized practices that have the effect of preventing classes of people from accessing the goods and benefits that accrue to the members of the institution. It is aimed at two institutions in particular, higher education and businesses. Education is targeted because of its gatekeeper role on credentialing individuals for entry into positions of wealth and power in the society. If being a doctor requires medical school training and no one who is female is allowed entry into such a school, then women are not able to be licensed doctors with all of the socio-economic benefits attached to that position. Employment is targeted because that's where you make your living and gain status in the larger community. If Hispanics are only allowed to drive dump trucks and not allowed to fill any other job niche in an environmental services department, that class of person is being institutionally relegated to a narrow range of career opportunities regardless of what he or she is competent to do. AFAC does not guarantee socioeconomic mobility, but it breaks down the institutional barriers that, left unchallenged, create conditions comparable to castes - your life opportunities are dictated at birth, attached to biological qualities you have little or no control over.

It also has the cultural effect of reducing casual or habitual bigotry. Using slurs to talk about classes of people gets a little more difficult when members of that class (women, AAs, handicapped, gays) are standing next to you in the workplace - or are your boss in that workplace. It makes people think about their words in private conversations. It sets standards for how classes of people should be portrayed in mass media. It creates discomfort for those who want to cling to institutionally supported modes of discrimination and preferential treatment. It introduces greater risk into the life prospects of those classes previously insulated by institutional constructs, such as the way the Ivy League colleges until relatively recently were off limits to anyone who was not a WASP male.

The arguments put forward by its opponents seek to minimize the effect it has on institutions and focus on the "reverse discrimination" forced upon the allegedly qualified job or college applicant who was denied access in favor of an allegedly unqualified rival for that slot. There is also the quieter (but probably more honest) argument that if an institution and its members wish to discriminate, they should be able to do so and not be forced to associate with people they don't wish to encounter. The existence of colleges for women, AAs, the deaf, and religious groups is used to bolster this argument - if they can "discriminate" why can't we? It ignores the fact that these parallel institutions arose because of the exclusionary practices of the original institutions.

Equal opportunity in employment gets less media attention than that in college admittance. It gets mentioned in stories, but the examples offered to show how horrible it is are overwhelmingly taken from academia. The employment examples in the news (and this is my own observation, not a scientific poll) tend to be either complaints against EEOC enforcement in the public sector or people successfully suing employers over EEOC violations in the private sector. This latter group also tends to be less about hiring (getting in the door) than about advancement up the employment ladder. I see a few reasons for why employment is less of a sore spot than education.

First, there's a lot more places of employment than educational institutions, so more employment opportunities. Less hinges on getting that particular job than on getting into that particular school. Next, there really is a business advantage to most work places to be diverse. This is emphatically so in public service employment, such as local government, police and safety operations and the military. Wes Clark and Colin Powell are in accord on the necessity of affirmative action to sustain military readiness and cohesion. Third, I make the cynical observation that it is far easier for companies to avoid actually enforcing AFAC because there are so many companies and there is no good way to check up on them. Public service entities have reporting and records transparency requirements, so they are less likely to duck the law. To be less critical of employers, it is also the case that they may need to fill a job and they do not get any job applicants who can perform the job satisfactorily except the upper-middle class white male. The question of how they know who can do a satisfactory job and who cannot based on a resume and a job interview is incredibly subjective. Finally, amidst all the talk of being forced to hire people who are unqualified, businesses are silent about their persistent discrimination against older (+45) job applicants. The simple explanation for this, one I heard many times from different employers as we were evaluating the resumes and deciding who to call in for an interview, was that the older applicants with the longer resumes would be too expensive to hire. My current employer is the only place I have worked that does not consistently penalize older applicants.

My experience and the experiences related to me by friends and co-workers tend to be that AFAC is used as an excuse for why someone was turned down for a job to avoid having to say the real reason. "Hey, we wish we could have brought you on, but this position was designated an affirmative action hire by HR, sorry," rather than "Hey, you applied for a job where you didn't have relevant training and your former employers all say you are a deadbeat." It is also used by a rejected applicant to explain away why they weren't chosen. I know several people who have crappy resumes and/or who interview badly who always blame not getting what they want to "some [insert slur here] took my job away from me." Employment decisions are simply not as cut and dried as you think. In almost 20 years of conducting interviews and ranking applicants, I have NEVER encountered a situation where anyone directly or obliquely presented an argument that an unqualified woman or minority be hired because that person was female or a minority. I have seen less qualified candidates get the nod because they presented themselves very well in an interview, or because the person was pretty/handsome. I have seen numerous cases of gender, race and age discrimination, some of them delivered with breathtaking crudeness.

Education is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish. In education, the “who you will get to know” is pretty much as important as the “what you will get to learn”. The battles over access to education are really of two types: lack of financial support for economically disadvantaged white males in comparison to that available to other classes of applicants, and aggressive jockeying for limited slots in elite institutions, conducted mostly between socio-economic elites. The latter battle is the one that grabs the headlines, though it is presented in a disingenuous way. This is a battle about reinstituting privilege and is conducted among elites for the sake of elites. They have already agreed on keeping the doors closed to the "undeserving" and are now contesting with each other for the precious resource of admittance to the networks of wealth, power and privilege.

There are two pre-college educational systems in the US today: The regular public school curriculum which varies in sophistication and effectiveness with the tax base of the surrounding community, and the pumped up upper-middle class college-track curriculum. The first is simply there, allowing students to meander (or battle) their way through as best they can, with little time for more than the basics. A really bright student might luck out and find a mentor who helps them use the education system for their own benefit, but most students (even really bright ones) are just kids who don't think that far ahead and most teachers are overwhelmed with duties to provide the attention necessary to get the kid to focus. This is the world of the girls in my post Dreams of Our Daughters. This is not something limited to poor or working class neighborhoods, though the percentage is higher there. It has always been the case that most students are in school because that's where they have to be, and that most schooling is just to convey basic literacy and numeracy. If you have an economy where manual trades can provide decent wages and living standards, such that basic education combined with targeted vocational training (whether from a training class or on the job) is sufficient for this purpose, then you don't need to put such a premium on "higher" education.

The second educational track, people who understand the long-term effects of getting into the right college, make a project of achieving that goal for their kids. They want UCLA, not Cal State Long Beach, for their kid. They know all about college rankings, which alumni get into the best companies, which law schools are the recruiting grounds for the best firms, the fine distinctions between this business school and that one. They are keenly aware of the privilege and status that accrues to those who can get into these elite locations, and do not share the same concerns as the family sending their kids to Cal State San Marcos. What was once a reasonably local phenomenon - the elites of a region had institutions of higher education where their sons went to rub elbows with the sons of fellow elites and establish the social, political and economic relations needed to maintain their elite status - has gone national and mobile. If you are an ambitious family from Minnesota, you can train up the kid to get into the Ivies and not just settle for U of MN (No slam against that fine institution, btw, where I applied to and was accepted, but did not attend). They are now competing against a larger pool of applicants from all over the country (indeed, the world) where the probability of their acceptance has dropped and they are in danger of losing their access to the upper echelons of society. Of course they are fighting tooth and nail to knock their competitors out, and if destroying AFAC will improve their chances, then out it goes. The high profile cases of "reverse discrimination" are being fought within this tribe to ensure their lackluster offspring can bully their not terribly talented way into Harvard, Yale, UCLA, etc. Training to standardized tests and having professionally ghost written "personal essays" are just more tools of the trade. The argument at this level isn't about "unqualified" applicants - it is about removing the poor and working class from any consideration whatsoever.

But what about those families with kids who are part of the ordinary education system? Here, I think the argument about AFAC, that the result if not the intent is to handicap individual white male applicants in relation to other applicants, has some merit. Why should someone named Joe Smith who is a first generation college applicant from a working class family in Fresno not benefit from affirmative action more than someone named Joe Sanchez who is a third generation college applicant from a professional family in La Jolla? But what if Joe Smith's grades are only OK and Joe Sanchez's are great? Or Mr. Smith wrote his own personal essay while Mr. Sanchez had his reviewed, edited, revised, and rewritten by his UC San Diego professor parent? Or, what if Joe Smith is up against Joe Murphy who has all the advantages of Joe Sanchez? What should the choice be then? And if it is Joe Sanchez from Fresno (identical to Joe Smith) up against Joe Murphy of La Jolla, should Mr. Sanchez's ethnicity trump Mr. Murphy's stronger academic record? We won't even get into the application by Josephine Jones... The point here is that there are too many disparate measurement considerations for who gets access, all heaped on an admissions office that is expected to exercise the wisdom of Solomon and never admit an "undeserving" applicant. The applicants need to have enough academic standing that they can be expected to complete their degree, but that leaves a large applicant pool. The kids that are coming out of the ordinary educational system are the ones who need the more attention to economic background and degree of educational acculturation. It is not the case that flunk-out Black kids from South Central are taking away prime slots at UCLA from "innocent" white working class guys from Simi Valley. It is more the case that working class white guys from Simi Valley can get into UC Riverside, but are not getting decent financial aid packages.

And none of this addresses the fundamental problem of the loss of decent paying jobs for people who do not have college educations.

What the raging battles over affirmative action show is the creeping insecurity over the reversal of the socio-economic gains that reached their peak in the 70s. The advances for both manual and professional labor that came from the post-war boom is eroding (see just about everything Paul Krugman has written in the last 10 years). The antipathy towards AFAC has roots in simple bigotry against the Other, but it also points directly at the more fundamental problem - the reversal of gains in wealth, economic security and prospects for simply holding steady, let alone for advancement. It makes sense that people will fight for their individual interests when institutions are failing them on all sides.The

Democrats have been ineffective in fighting for the interests of the working class since the 70s. With this year's primaries, we watched the DNC's establishment choice candidate run a campaign based on demonizing the working class as a bunch of stupid, racist, worthless people who have only themselves to blame for not being members of Whole Foods Nation.

And this is why selecting affirmative action as the centerpiece of their assault on the Democrats was a master stroke by the Republicans.


Posts in this series:
Easy Come, Easy Go
Qualified Success


Anonymous said...

Yes, I remember back in the late 60s doing feminist organizing at the university. "Gee I'm sorry we can't do any more for women because we are reserving places for minorities." I'm sure minorities heard the same thing about women.

nihil obstet said...

Despite the number of factors that should enter into college admissions, there are putatively objective measures that the privileged can hang arguments on. SATs, reputation of secondary school, high school GPA, number of advanced placement courses, participation in trendy extra-curricular activities -- these all provide fodder for arguing that someone else isn't as qualified. The hiring process almost never involves tests or standardized, numerical measures, especially not for the better paying jobs. So you may point to statistical measures of the amount of discrimination, and if you didn't get the job, you can assert that it was discriminatory, but you can't point to your scores on whatever measure as proof that the hired were unqualified. I think that's a major reason for the focus on educational institutions. Besides which, the truly well connected can always be placed. We know that G.W. Bush was a legacy at Yale, but we couldn't have had the same information about his business failings prior to Arbusto. Like his brothers, he still got taken care of,

Anglachel said...

foxx - Yup. The use of affirmative action to divide groups that should be united will be a theme in the next post.

nihil - I think you are right about the "objective meansurement" angle. The truly wealthy don't bother with podunk shit like college. They just write a big enough check and the kid gets admitted to waste time and pick up a faux degree with gentleman's Cs. Where we get into idiocy is in the arguments about a 4.0 GPA showing some qualitative superiority of the student over another student who got a 3.85 GPA. Or how doing soccer *and* charity work is better than soccer alone. In truth, it becomes a presentation of which families were wealthy enough to have a stay-at-home parent to micro-manage the kid's prep to get into a top-tier school. It can't tell you whose imagination will be sparked once they reach college. I doubt my hay-seed grandfather would be accepted into a university these days. I doubt *I* would be accepted into a university today, given my proclivity to stay home with a good book rather than race around to piano, soccer, girl scouts, church volunteering, the debate club, pep squad, etc., etc.

Bob Harrison said...

I once was denied a job for an affirmative action hire-- a very low skill job but paying quite well. I know the guy who got the job; he just retired from the company after 30 years of pushing a button.

Me. I went to college. Now I make about the same amount of money with multiple degrees and am still working.

Point: affirmative action does work and I support it-- when all things are equal. Without affirmative action, that would probably be me today retiring from the factory instead of talking for a living.

However, my support for affirmative action does not extend to the White House.

Anonymous said...

I was a union president for 5 years from 1979 to 1984 and well remember going to the mat over affirmative action over and over as well as the inevitable savage fallout by POed white male employees & managers. It all seemed to peak with Carter & then seriously erode with Reagan.

Anonymous said...

I am no expert on hiring and firing in industry although I spend quite a few years working there. I have been in academia for the last 25 years and had my three kids go through academia as well. I believe my views differ from those of the post.

There is nothing we can do about the guys with the fat checks. Their number is not that high. (I relate to one of the comments.)

Finishing school with an undergraduate degree will not advance an Harvard graduate much higher than Cal State Disneyland (Fullerton). The real impact is felt on lawyers and physician. These are graduate degrees. Top law schools and medical schools don't rely just on the name of the undergraduate college. They look carefully at GPA's, recommendation letters and LSATs and MCATs. Good students San Diego State will get into good law or medical schools.

When it comes to other higher degrees, especially in precise and natural sciences, the sky is a limit. If you come from Cal State Chino but score very high on your GREs and your grades are high, MIT may accept you.

My parent had only elementary school education; a California university accepted me, gave me a scholarship and I did quite well.

All we have to do is to make undergraduate education cheap. Optimizing the measures seems impossible, but cheap school make that redundant. Of course only state schools can do that and this requires heavy state support. It will, however, reduce stratification in society and will piss off Republicans (another worthy cause).

As far as the Democrats are concerned, I start to understand, from religiously reading this blog, that Obama is not an aberration, rather the latest step in a long deterioration. We, rank and file, did nothing so far; now it's a little late now.