The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We can draw lessons from the past, but we cannot live in it."...  ...Lyndon B. Johnson.

Commentary of the Day - June 9, 2001: Two Views of Affirmative Action.  Guest commentary by Russell Eisenman with a response from the Irascible Professor.

There is a major reason for hostility to minorities that, regrettably, often occurs on college campuses.  This reason is seldom mentioned as a cause of hatred: affirmative action quotas.  I have long supported civil rights.  So, too, did my dad.  Because of his support, a cross was burned on our lawn in Savannah, Georgia in the late 1950ís, and he received death threats.  But, as a group known as Individual Feminists points out on their web page, "Equality means neither privilege nor oppression."  However, affirmative action is not the same as equality or equal opportunity.  Affirmative action is usually about privilege -- reverse discrimination in action.  No wonder so many people resent it.  Yet, those who resent it are termed "conservatives", or "angry white males", or some other term that is meant as a negative term.

Our federal government's civil rights policies are mostly about affirmative action quotas -- privileges for certain groups -- and not equal opportunity.  Failure to recognize this results in policies that generate much racial separation or hatred.  Even without this there would be the usual prejudice and separation.  I taught at a college in the deep South, and blacks and whites usually sat at separate tables in the dining room.  This was their choice.  Also, there was prejudice, of the kind I have fought against all my life.  But, both the irrational hatred by some whites, and the rational objections to affirmative action, are often related to quota policies.  The civil rights policies in the United States primarily involve a quota system, although its defenders dishonestly deny it.  Almost all of affirmative action, both that I read about and that I have personally been involved in, is a quota system, in which the best qualified person is not chosen.  It is not politically correct to talk about this, but it needs to be said, for at least two reasons.

First, we need to see reality as it is.  I have long supported rights of women and minorities, and, years ago, I fought to have more of them hired by the university at which I worked.  But, I wanted to get more women and minorities in the pipeline, so that they might be considered.  I was not favoring a quota system that we have today.  But, quotas were right on the horizon.  My efforts led to the hiring of a candidate who performed poorly in his interview, and seemed not even to understand his own doctoral dissertation.  When I questioned his hiring, a colleague shouted at me "What's wrong with you?  The Dean says we have to hire a black."  He was hired.  Incidentally, he never published anything at our Carnegie I research university, and was let go after three years.

 Second, we need to understand that the quota systems are often responsible for the animosity against women and minority groups.  In this regard, I have had a fantasy -- not fulfilled -- in which I write a fiction story about how the Ku Klux Klan invented affirmative action (in its present quota system sense) to make whites hate blacks.  Women have also profited from affirmative action, more than any other group according to the Wall Street Journal and other sources.  So, a discussion of hatred against minorities, due to quotas, also needs to mention women, as they, too, are subject to resentment based on affirmative action preferences.

You read about how companies are forced to hire a certain percentage of people from some protected group.  That is a quota system.  Likewise, when a university hiring committee says that the next person will be, say, African American, that is a quota.  My personal experiences come from academia.  I have been on university selection committees, and when it is decided we should hire a minority or a woman, we have always -- at different schools -- ended up hiring someone who would have not been the top candidate.  The same thing goes on in college admissions and scholarships.  Students know this.  Much of their distance from some other students, or their over acts against them, is motivated by knowledge that the others got breaks they did not get.  Faculty know about the selection process.  This knowledge leads to outrage, and often to negative feelings about racial minorities or about women.  For some immature students, it leads to overt prejudiced acts against the favored group.  This overt prejudice is not justifiable, but it is certainly understandable.  By the way, it may be that some elite schools can do their affirmative action hiring and hire the top candidate.  But, this is certainly not the case for most schools.  In my experiences, and in that of colleagues I have discussed this with, when affirmative action hiring is done, the dilemma is always that there are better qualified candidates not within the quota category.  Sometimes, the person hired because they have the right skin color or sex is markedly less qualified than some of the other applicants.  No wonder we are a nation divided by race.  We have all the usual problems of prejudice, and now, added on, is the knowledge that many people get admissions or jobs via quota preferences.  Instead of thinking of your colleague as a unique, individual human being, it is almost impossible not to think "If he or she is from the protected group, I wonder if he/she only got hired because of skin color/sex."

It should be pointed out that the discussions about diversity or multiculturalism lead to narrow standards.  Only the officially protected minorities and women (who are a slight majority) get favorable treatment.  Other groups -- Jews, Irish, often Asians, Greeks, Italians, working class, religious fundamentalists, polygamists, etc. -- get no preferences, regardless of how much they may have been discriminated against in American history. So, there is really not a desire for true multiculturalism or diversity; just for those groups that the federal government currently supports.  Until we face these issues and get rid of affirmative action quotas, we will continue to be a nation still divided by race.  Giving preference to less qualified persons is basically un-American, and leads to resentment.  We need a better way to help those who have been discriminated against.
Russell Eisenman teaches psychology at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edenberg, Texas.

The Irascible Professor responds:  As many of you know the IP has been on the faculty at Krispy Kreme U. for more than 30 years (in the eyes of some that makes him an elder statesman of sorts, while in they eyes of others he is just a superannuated old fogey who should have been turned out to pasture long ago).  What may be less well known is that the IP also has been a department Chair for ten of the last 12 years.  In that role he has learned to read folks pretty well.  One of those things that he has learned along the way is to be especially leery of anyone who starts his spiel with "...I have nothing against ____________, and some of my best friends are _____________.  I don't know Dr. Eisenman personally, but his introductory paragraph causes my antennae to twitch a bit.

However, giving him the benefit of the doubt, the IP still thinks Mr. Eisenman is way off base in his criticisms of present-day affirmative action programs.  During the past forty years the IP has seen a lot of change in this country -- much of it for the better.

Affirmative action has been around for a long time in different guises.  Before the civil rights movement of the sixties, most of the really good jobs were open only to white males with the appropriate sectarian credentials.  That certainly was a form of affirmative action -- in this case affirmative action for WASP males.  In addition, some groups were given preferences.  For example, people who were veterans received an extra five or ten points credit on federal civil service tests in those days.  In the glow that followed World War II there were few complaints about this practice, even though it helped to wipe out the progress that women had made in the workforce during the war.

Once folks woke up to the fact that the playing field was far from level for large numbers of Americans, efforts to correct the situation did include some examination of percentages.  These early policies did force some employers to hire folks that they might not otherwise have considered.  And, indeed, they may have had to accept some people who superficially at least were not as "qualified" as some other folks.  However, the upshot was that we found out that most of the people who were hired under those "quotas" were able to do the job more than adequately.  The end result is that today we are much more likely to consider people on their merits than we were in an earlier time.

Implicit in Eisenman's comments is a notion that is worthy of some additional attention.  Namely, that a person's qualifications for a job can somehow be measured with precision before the fact.  In other words, that somehow "the best qualified" applicant out of a large applicant pool can be identified with certainty.  To a large extent this is a myth.  For example, when the IP needed to make some money to pay for his first year at college, he took a federal civil service exam for a job as a seasonal firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.  Like most civil service exams of the day this was not much more than an IQ test in disguise.  The IP is more than a bit smarter than the average bear, so he had no trouble with the exam and got a job with Forest Service fire engine crew.  If the exam was the criterion, he certainly was one of the "best qualified" for the job.  In reality, however, was he more qualified than the rest of the members of the crew of the Big Dalton Canyon tanker who probably had scored a lot lower on that exam?  Not hardly!  The IP found out pretty quickly that there was a lot more to being a firefighter than being able to solve an algebraic equation or two, and most of those skills weren't measured by the test.

Believe it or not, the same holds true for academic jobs.  The most brilliant candidate, in fact, may not be the person most qualified for the position.  On more than one occasion we have interviewed a person whose credentials were impeccable, only to find that the individual could not deliver a coherent lecture if his or her life depended on it.  We have also run into a few candidates whose affect was such that it would have been a disaster to turn them loose on undergraduate students.  In other words, qualifications cannot be judged in the abstract.  They have to be judged in relation to the requirements of the position.  Unfortunately, most selection committees don't spend enough time trying to figure out what qualities are needed most for a particular position.  Instead, they decide to look for the "best" physicist or historian or whatever and end up hiring a brilliant misfit.

Over the past thirty years the IP has been involved in a fair number of searches for faculty, staff, and even administrators.  During most of that time the State of California had relatively strong affirmative action programs.  However, not once was he told by any official of the university that anyone of a particular ethnicity or gender had to be selected.  What the affirmative action programs did require (and still do for the most part) was that we had to be able to demonstrate that we had cast a wide net in our search for candidates, and that we had considered all candidates fairly.

It's that casting of a wide net and fair consideration of all candidates that makes affirmative action work.  Although in the early seventies there were faculty members in our department who made no qualms about their disdain for female applicants, they were forced to actually look at their qualifications in some detail.  What they found was that many of these candidates were indeed well qualified for the job.  At a time when the department was growing offers were made to a number of very well-qualified women.  Many turned us down, but some accepted.  In the long run, they turned out to be just as good faculty members as the males.  Did affirmative action force us to hire the women?  No, not by a long shot.  However, it did force us to give them fair considerations, and once that was done the choices were obvious.

It is easy to use "affirmative action" to justify hostility towards women and minorities, particularly when jobs are scarce as they often are in academia.  The usual criticism is that affirmative action allows "less qualified" individuals to be chosen in order to meet a "quota".  In most cases there are no quotas, and all affirmative action has done is to make the playing field a bit more level and to guarantee that a wide range of candidates are considered.

President Bush's recent cabinet choices are a good example of affirmative action in operation.  The faces of the cabinet members reflect the broad diversity of the United States.  Even though the IP does not share the political viewpoints of many of Mr. Bush's choices, he would readily agree that all are "qualified" for their jobs.  In fact, most are exceptionally well qualified.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.