If Affirmative Action is effective, it will put itself out of business.
Dean Briar was over an hour late for our appointment. I had just flown in from Miami. I sat nervously in his suite at the Atlantic Hilton, uncomfortable in my blue suit and tie, and reviewed my notes for the job interview. I was an eager applicant for a vacant faculty position. As the Dean of the University of Washington’s School of Social work, Briar was the man I had to convince that I was the best new PhD for his program.
When Briar finally walked into the room, I was relieved.
“Dean Briar. A pleasure to meet you.” I began. “I’m glad you’re here for our appointment.”
Without hesitation and without a hint of apology Briar turned half-way toward me and said, “I’m not going to interview you. I’m late as it is. Now, I need to get to my next appointment.”
I was three years past completion of my PhD from one of the top social work schools in the country. My resume boasted four years of teaching experience and several articles in prestigious refereed journals. That should have placed me among the top candidates. Why had Dean Briar brushed me off?
That year I applied to join the faculty at a dozen schools. They all turned me down.
Academic social work is a small community so I was able to talk to colleagues at a few of the schools that had rejected me. Every time I did, I received the same answer as to why I was not wanted: “We’ve got to hire a minority” or in the case of Dean Briar’s program, “We have to hire a woman this year.”
After a while I figured it out. Briar’s school, like all the others, encouraged me to apply even though they had no intention of considering me for the advertised position. I was there to show that the school had done a wide national search before selecting their candidate. This was a “cover-your-ass” move to forestall accusations of failing to follow standards.
I was a victim of the Affirmative Action Wars. This post is my Affirmative Reaction.
I don’t know if the notoriously liberal field of academic social work is worse than others. But it was clear to me that in my chosen field, identity politics had triumphed over merit. It was something I was to see again and again in my academic social work career.
Affirmative Action in Action
Dean Briar was a warrior in the Affirmative Action Wars. What exactly is Affirmative Action?
According to Wikipedia it is “a set of laws, policies, guidelines, and administrative practices intended to end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination.”1 The purpose of Affirmative Action is two-fold: first, to redress past and present discrimination against women and minorities, and second, to ensure that public institutions are representative of the populations they serve. These public institutions include schools, courts, police and fire departments, and many others.
As a Jew I have not benefited from Affirmative Action, and, as the above episode illustrated, I suffered by it. I imagine that many of my fellow Jews are in the same boat. But I, like other American Jews, are not uniformly against Affirmative Action. Rather, we Jews have an ambivalent attitude towards it. On one hand, most of us are socially liberal and sensitive to issues of unfairness toward minorities. On the other hand, Jews understand that because we are never included in groups covered by Affirmative Action, its policies often disadvantage us.
Our history in this country makes us doubly skeptical. Until the 1920s, America’s colleges and universities routinely excluded Jews. When they opened their doors to Jewish admission they faced an unanticipated dilemma: Jews quickly became a large and growing segment of students—-a segment too large for the comfort of the white Christians who ran these universities. To solve the problem, admissions departments instituted “anti-Jewish quotas.” That is, by design, the number of Jewish students accepted for admission was severely limited. These policies endured openly for decades.2
After the 1950s, admissions quotas could no longer be sustained in light of changing social values and federal civil rights legislation. Even after the anti-Jewish quotas were officially ended, they persisted by other means. For example, Columbia University in New York City has limited the number of students accepted into its program from the New York area. Ostensibly this is to promote a diverse student body. In practice, it creates an admission barrier for Jewish students who, by and large, live in large cities, especially New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, the state had a tuition reciprocity program with Minnesota, but not with Illinois. This practice dated back to the early twentieth century. It was implemented by state legislators “to keep Chicago Jews out of UW.”3
Affirmative Action had its origins in well-meaning efforts to address the fact that blacks and other minorities routinely suffered discrimination in housing, employment, education and public services. It began with discussion about eliminating discrimination based on race. The first efforts were executive orders or government agency policies that prohibited discrimination. These efforts culminated in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, still the centerpiece of anti-discrimination policy in this country—albeit with many additions and modifications over the years.
When these efforts were not sufficient to bring about equality, policy makers turned to Affirmative Action. Unlike the earlier civil rights policies that aimed for color-blindness in decision-making, Affirmative Action proactively sought to provide advantage to disadvantaged groups. Affirmative Action policies ranged from improved outreach to minority communities to more aggressive policies that allowed decision makers to favor minority candidates even when those candidates had lower standards of achievement or performance. So for example, some universities used point-based admissions criteria, which gave an advantage to minorities by granting them additional points qualifying toward admission.
These policies were widely effective in education and in the larger economy. But in recent years, some of these policies, especially in education, have been reduced or eliminated. Some states, like California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska now have prohibited Affirmative Action.
Affirmative Action: Pro and Con
The U.S. is like every other country in one way: Our ideal version of ourselves is at odds with the way we really are. In our ideal, the U.S. is a country where success is won fairly, that is, by talent, brains and hard work, rather than by group membership. But in our history, ethnic and racial minorities, women and others, have taken a back seat to white men. In that sense, supporters of Affirmative Action see it as a redress that brings us closer to our ideal self. But Affirmative Action, by giving preference based on group membership, is inevitably at loggerheads with our ideal of individual fairness and equal opportunity.
This conflict in goals is irreconcilable. Still, it is useful to consider the advantages and disadvantages, the fairness and unfairness, of Affirmative Action.
What arguments can we make in defense of Affirmative Action? As I noted above, it redresses historical grievances and ensures that societal institutions mirror the people they serve. Affirmative Action has lifted the economic status of millions of people and solidified the black middle class. These are no small accomplishments.
On the other hand, criticisms of Affirmative Action are not without merit. According to Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell,
…….affirmative action policies encourage non-preferred groups to designate themselves as members of preferred groups [i.e., primary beneficiaries of affirmative action] to take advantage of group preference policies; that they tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g., upper and middle class blacks), often to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g., poor white or Asian); that they reduce the incentives of both the preferred and non-preferred to perform at their best – the former because doing so is unnecessary and the latter because it can prove futile – thereby resulting in net losses for society as a whole; and that they engender animosity toward preferred groups as well.4
Consider the case of a group of Italian-American professors at the City University of New York (CUNY), as an example of Thomas Sowell’s charge that Affirmative Action encourages non-preferred groups to insist they be considered members of a preferred group. In 1976 these professors declared themselves unhappy with the “under-representation of Italian Americans” among CUNY faculty. They asked that CUNY add the category “Italian American” to the school’s Affirmative Action policy for purposes of hiring and promotion.
Affirmative Action Reconsidered
This raises a broader question: What groups should be favored with Affirmative Action policies? Should these groups include: transgendered persons, gays and lesbians, people with foreign accents, undocumented persons, the disabled, the mentally ill, people from rural areas or poor neighborhoods, the chronically unemployed? And exactly how do we define membership in these groups? Would President Obama qualify because he is half-black or would he be disqualified because he is half-white? Would a lesbian faculty member be fired if she changed her mind and married a man? Affirmative Action policies, along with today’s identity politics that encourage sub-groups to demand redress, inevitably lead to this morass.
Some have argued that because of the gains of women and minorities in recent years, Affirmative Action is no longer needed. If that is true, Affirmative Action may do harm by favoring groups that no longer need a boost, while disadvantaging groups that do. The latter are likely to see themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination.”
I have never liked the term reverse discrimination. If an applicant or employee is discriminated against, for example, because he is white, that is discrimination of the same type as occurs when an applicant is discriminated against because his skin color is of any other variant. The term reverse discrimination implies the two are different, when they are not. It obscures the central point: people should be judged by their talent, hard work and achievement, and not by their group membership.
Critics claim that Affirmative Action violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Some educators complain that Affirmative Action college admissions policies have set minority students up for failure. These students are unable to compete with their peers and have higher failure rates. This can be damaging to the students’ self-esteem and self-confidence.
Affirmative Action has helped to create an ethos of victimization and entitlement in its recipients. It encourages the often-heard knee jerk reactions of apologists who cry “institutional racism” whenever a minority person fails to achieve. This cry does no favor to the individual who would do better to look to himself for his successes and failures. In this regard, it is no surprise that the Movement for Black Lives demands guaranteed college admission and free tuition for all blacks. Are these demands not just a logical extension of Affirmative Action?
A convincing argument has been made that the experience of Asians illustrates the inherent unfairness of Affirmative Action. For example:
In 2009, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford……examined data on students applying to college in 1997 and calculated that Asian-Americans needed nearly perfect SAT scores of 1550 to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1410 and African Americans who got 1100.5
Are the critics of Affirmative Action right? Or are the supporters right? One thing is for sure: Affirmative Action is always controversial. It has taken many forms and has had a profound impact on the socioeconomic status of millions of Americans. In recent years some states have abandoned Affirmative Action in favor of policies based completely on merit.
If Affirmative Action is effective it will put itself out of business, and that is as it should be. My dream is that no American will feel that he or she has been disadvantaged for any factor other than merit. We’re not there yet and we may never be. Still, it is time to ask whether a half-century of Affirmative Action has simply replaced one type of disadvantage with another, whether it has fostered a sense of victimhood among some and resentment among others, and whether its time has passed as an effective tool for bettering society.
- Affirmative Action in the US, Wikipedia. Retrieved July 10, 2017 from:
- Anti-Semitism in the U.S.: Harvard’s Jewish Problem. Jewish Virtual Library. American Jewish Historical Society, 2012. Retrieved July 11, 2017 from:
- Today the University of Wisconsin has tuition reciprocity agreements with schools in Minnesota, Illinois and other states.
- Affirmative Action in the US, Wikipedia.
- Espenshade, T. J., Walton Radford, A. No longer separate, not yet equal: Race and class in elite college admission and campus life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780691141602.