The End of Affirmative Action

Posted: Nov 14, 2006 12:02 AM

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.

Objections such as "He's too religious" or "He's too much of a family man" or "Her husband plays too dominant a role in their marriage" are simply indefensible. And it is worth asking whether such criteria would be so casually considered if human resources did not open a Pandora's box by deeming some discrimination to be an "acceptable" means to a desirable end.

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.