Friday, July 17, 2009

The double-edged sword that is affirmative action

I believe in affirmative action, absolutely. It is a policy that attempts to level a playing field that has been anything but fair, and opens opportunities to people of color that, were our country truly just, would be available to them anyway. It grants no special privileges. It grants access. It's as simple as that.

But the difficulty of affirmative action is how it can be so easily manipulated by the likes of Pat Buchanan to undermine the very people it is meant to help. Buchanan himself demonstrates this ugly (but, I fear, effective) technique in his critique of Sonia Sotomayor on the Rachel Maddow show. Buchanan suggests that Sotomayor is incompetent and unintelligent because she is a self-identified "affirmative action baby." Sotomayor got into Princeton, Buchanan argues, because she was Latina and she's a nominee to the Supreme Court because--you guessed it--she is Latina. Thus all of Sotomayor's accomplishments and achievements are dismissed in one fell swoop.

Of course what Buchanan is really mad about is what I would call the loss of his guarantee of undeniable privilege. (He calls it "discrimination against white men.") He is at least smart enough to understand that he can't count on getting absolutely everything he wants, just by virtue of being a white male. But he's also dumb as rocks not to realize that he retains enough damn privilege to do just fine. White men are not a threatened species, for better or for worse, and this myth of perilous "reverse discrimination" is absurd, but also dangerously insidious. I would feel less concerned if I didn't think that Buchanan represented a sizable number of white men misdirecting their anger.

But back to the absurd part, for a minute, and a bit of family history. My mother's side of the family is pretty WASPy, with a relatively long line of men who went to Harvard and Yale, and got advanced degrees, and had successful careers. My brother felt pressure to continue in this tradition, and though his grades and test scores were top-notch and he wrote a sweet and intelligent application essay, he just couldn't get into an Ivy League. And he was so disappointed. He encountered similar difficulty after graduating from college and looking for his dream job. He struggled and was depressed and felt like a failure. My mother grumbled about affirmative action--"he's a white man--that's the problem," she would say. And I just gave her the eye and shrugged my shoulders at the both of them. It made sense to me that affirmative action would displace white men (and maybe sometimes white women, too), and why not my brother? Why shouldn't he be displaced by someone who has had fewer privileges, benefits, opportunities? After all, my brother would still maintain all the other benefits he had as a result of being white and male and growing up in a family with some means.

It's at least ten years since my brother received his rejection letter from Harvard, and I can say with certainty that history has proved me right. My brother went to a perfectly good liberal arts college, graduated with honors, and finally found himself a the Council on Foreign Relations. And when he was ready, he applied to graduate school at Columbia, and was accepted. See, he didn't NEED Harvard. He didn't NEED Yale. (While, for someone like Sotomayor, Princeton may have made all of the difference in the world.) This is what Pat Buchanan fails to grasp: the "threat" of affirmative action to white males is entirely imaginary. And the outcome of affirmative action is not that incompetent people of color are thoughtlessly promoted. Rather, affirmative action allows competent people of color to rise beyond unfairly limiting circumstances not of their own making. That's the sort of progress our country could use more of.

Now, for a little comic relief (hat tip to Jennifer of Mixed Race America)


  1. Love the TWiB series- I too found them through "mixed race". I wanted to say the best explanation of affirmative action that I have ever read I found in the book, "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria." Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  2. Thanks, MM. I, too, love the explanation in the Tatum book. Maybe I'll dig it out and post it here, too.

  3. Your brother didn't need an ivy league education????

    I don't think "need" is the issue here - we can all make due without an ivy league education, after all. The question is had your brother earned it? Had the person who replaced him earned it? Was the person who got the spot more deserving based on their personal accomplishments, or was it based on the colour of their skin? And if it was the later, how is that not racism?

    Look, as a woman, I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman. I want to be hired because my employeer believes I'm the best person for the job due to character and competency. If I was hired because I'm a woman, that's sexism.

  4. Anonymous,
    My guess is that the person who "replaced" my brother was equally or more deserving based on their personal accomplishments.

    You are entitled to your opinion, but this blog is intended as a place for people who are interested in critically examining their beliefs. If what you are looking for is a fight, I suggest that you go elsewhere.