My Word's Worth - Affirmative Action
a weekly column by
vol. 1, #24, January, 1996
I watched a discouraging program on C-SPAN the other day. Roy Wilkins, a
prominent black law professor, was talking with a group of the best and
the brightest high school seniors. And the white guys were totally hung
up on the issue of affirmative action. No matter where the conversation
was taken by the other participants, they kept dragging it back
to "reverse discrimination." Why, they insisted, should anything other
than "merit" be taken into account when the goodies of life are being
divvied up? THEY had never owned slaves; THEY had never
persecuted anybody; so why should they be pushed aside to give special
privileges to blacks and Hispanics and Indians?
Wilkins was patient with them. He explained to them that society has
never in history operated solely on the basis of merit. People get into
exclusive colleges, for instance, because their parents are alums, or
because their parents are donors, or because they have extraordinary
musical talent or because they shoot hoops well or because they come from
Nebraska (schools like Harvard aim for geographic diversity).
He told them that he was an affirmative action beneficiary before there
was affirmative action, that the University of Michigan law school felt
an obligation to educate future leaders of the black community. Wilkins
did not have a splendid academic record as an undergraduate, because he
spent his time as a big man on campus, becoming president of the student
body in the early 1950's, despite being black. Clearly he had great
potential, and he was admitted. But once he was there, he had to do the
work or flunk out. Just as clearly, his career bore out their faith in him.
And he told them that, as a professor, he not only believed, he KNEW that
the differing life experiences and viewpoints in the classroom were as
important in the educational experience as the lectures and books, that
people saw different ways of looking at problems, and different kinds of
solutions than they would have if they associated only with people
exactly like them.
And the white guys didn't hear a word he said. They said that, if his
academic record wasn't that good, then some person with a better record
was not allowed in, in order to make room for Wilkins, and wasn't that a
The girls and the blacks and Hispanics were very patient, explaining to
them how their experiences helped them
contribute unique viewpoints to the academic dialogue.
And the white guys said, why should anything but merit be considered?
It did make me think of John Ciardi's poem, "The Shark"--
with his two bright eyes and his one dark thought
(he has only one, but he thinks it a lot.)
They were like four year olds being told, politely but firmly, that they
had to share their toys. And as far as they were concerned,
the government might be big enough and strong enough to force them to
share, but nobody was big enough to make them agree that it was a good idea.
Or that the toys weren't necessarily theirs by right.
There were other frustrating things about this conversation.
One was that nobody there except Wilkins had any sense of history. What
these young men failed to understand is they did not need to have been
slaveowners or Klan members to have nonetheless benefited from the
systematic exploitation of blacks and Latinos and Chinese laborers and
Indians. Throughout American history, the Germans, the Irish, the
Poles, the Czechs, and so on, have advanced from despised immigrant
status through honorable working class to striving middle class by
asserting their common whiteness (a legally beneficial condition). Once
they made some money and got some education, they were indistinguishable
from any other white American. And they intermarried freely. Not for
nothing is our most quintessential American name something like Kevin
Shapiro, or Kristin DiAngelo.
Not surprisingly, white men got into the habit of thinking that the good
things in life went to white men because they earned them; they
somehow failed to notice that other people were not invited to apply.
They missed the fact that job ads that were listed as
jobs for women and
jobs for men, or even jobs for whites and jobs for blacks. And somehow
didn't see a fairly startling salary gap between these sets of
ads. As Jim Hightower said about George Bush, "He was born on third base
and thinks he hit a triple."
Naturally, then, when blacks and Hispanics and women were allowed to
compete for "their" jobs, white guys were upset; the rules had been
changed on them. And so men became very testy about the issue of "merit"--
"unqualified" people were taking their jobs. (They apparently managed to erase from
their minds all memory of unqualified stupid white guys they worked with.)
And how did they know these people were unqualified? Because of tests.
Testing, of course, measures skills white men happen to be very good at,
spatial reasoning and verbal logic. So it was clear to these young men that merit
was, in fact, an objective, measurable reality, that our tests in fact
provide an excellent measure of merit, and that everything that counts
about a person is measured in these tests..
This is nonsense.
Firefighters take tests for promotion. And there are certainly objective
facts that one would want all firefighters to know. But firefighting
requires other qualities that no test could ever measure--bravery,
leadership, split-second decisionmaking. No city government in its right
mind would hire a fire chief who got the best test scores but who
dithered when decisions had to be made.
And if a police force is made up of white guys commuting in from the
suburbs to arrest black kids in the ghetto, it isn't a police force at
all. It's an army of occupation. Don't think the black kids don't
And if you're trying to market your products to Hispanics, and none of
your white marketing whiz kids speak Spanish or realize that Cuban
culture is different from Mexican culture or Puerto Rican culture, your
product won't make it.
And if you're trying to market a product to women, and the guys in
marketing think women's
chief goal is to please a man ("My wife. I think I'll keep her.") or have
a sparkling bathroom, you're not going to sell that product to me, I
assure you. Or to very many other women, either.
White men understand their own "merit." What they don't see is their
own limitations as people. We are ALL limited as people, because we see
and understand only what our cultural experiences allow us to see. We
don't even know what our gut-level assumptions about how the world works
are, until we run into people who do not share those assumptions. White
men seem so caught up in their own grievances, in the unfairnesses to
them, that they can't see unfairnesses to anyone else. And they can't
think about what is good for society as a whole.
Because if they insist that white men should forever keep on getting all
the good stuff, and no blacks (Hispanics, women) need apply, what we have
is a caste system. And social dynamite.
Social stability comes with a large middle class that believes in the
American dream--if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make a
good life, and a better life for your children. If that belief goes, if
large numbers of people begin to believe that they're living in a stacked
deck, that's when you'd better start getting ready for the revolution.
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