But the discussion of affirmative action should by no means focus on the bad results it produces for white males like me. The real tragedy is its negative impact on the groups it purports to help. The effect is one I describe with a phrase called the "Reverse Roger Bannister Effect."
When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, a whole class of people -- not a race but those who run them -- realized for the first time that a seemingly insurmountable goal could be achieved. So, naturally, others started breaking the four-minute barrier left and right just as soon as the bar of achievement was raised by Bannister.
That is precisely the opposite of what is happening with affirmative action. By lowering the bar and (in the short-term) making things easier for minorities, we guarantee persistent gaps in achievement. President Bush calls this the "soft bigotry" of low expectations. I prefer to call it the "hard reality" of low expectations.
Affirmative action is also an embarrassment for minorities who do not need or want to be measured by a lower standard. A black female student I taught in 1993 summed it up best by saying that although she had been admitted to college on the basis of outstanding grades and test scores, no one believed her. Whites just assumed she was there because of affirmative action. Once a class of people is given credit for something its members did not achieve, individuals in that class forfeit credit for the things they actually did.
I also look back on certain experiences and realize that affirmative action degrades whole institutions, not just individuals.
Twice, our department has flown in a white candidate under the mistaken belief that he or she was black. But we cannot accuse these candidates of lying about their race just to get an interview. In fact, we lie to them when we print "The UNC system does not discriminate on the basis of race" on every application. And I wonder how we still have the moral authority to punish students who plagiarize or cheat.
But maybe widespread lying is the best solution to the problem of affirmative action. If our students would all wake up one day and decide to start checking the box for "African American" on every university form, our affirmative action programs would break down altogether. Then maybe we could replace "race consciousness" with the colorblindness Martin Luther King envisioned.
My idea of lying about race to get ahead is really not original. In fact, it's one I plagiarized from Professor Ward Churchill.