The end of affirmative action

Posted: Nov 06, 2006 12:33 PM

For years, people have asked me why I switched from being a left-wing Democrat to a right-wing Republican. When I'm not in the mood to talk, I give a one-word response: reality. When I'm feeling more verbose, I give a two-word response: affirmative action.

Affirmative action in theory bears no resemblance to affirmative action in reality. The theory part was taught to me as a doctoral student in a sociology department in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the academic rhetoric focused on what affirmative action isn't.

But sometimes my professors would calm lingering doubts by saying what affirmative action is; namely, that it is both temporary and a tie-breaker. Those are really the only affirmative statements I've ever heard about affirmative action.

But then I graduated from college and finally had an opportunity to experience affirmative action in reality. Those early experiences, like the later ones, were uniformly negative.

As a young Ph.D. student, I was told by a department chair at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) that, due to race, I had no chance in a head-to-head contest with the only other interviewee, a black male. He was honest enough to say that they were under too much pressure from human resources to give me a fair shake.

So I withdrew from that interview only to learn a year later that I couldn't fully escape the overt racial discrimination of affirmative action. In my first informal recruitment meeting as a professor in the University of North Carolina system, I listened to a social worker object to an applicant on the grounds that he was a "little too white male."

Of course, it should come as no surprise that people engage in racial discrimination in hiring when they are specifically asked to do so by human resources. But what is surprising about affirmative action is the extent to which it encourages discrimination along the lines of other variables not classified as "allowable" under official policies.

I have simply lost count of the number of times over the years that my colleagues have brought factors such as political affiliation and religion into discussions of job applicants.