Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Affirmative Action Reaction

"I'm sorry," said the voice. "We selected someone else."

The call came more than twenty years ago on an ordinary morning several weeks after the interview for a teaching job. This was far from my first rejection and certainly not my last. I rebounded from the initial blow quickly, but the inevitable awkward pause led to equally awkward words to fill the silence.

"We had to give the job to a minority," the conspiratorial voice whispered, as if to assure me that they were on my side, the defenseless, put-upon white man. I hung up, stunned and angered, not by some imagined unfairness against me, but by the ignorant assumption behind the comment. How could someone in a position of authority at an educational institution be so confused about hiring practices?

Like many people, I was appalled by the recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action. Though the decision focused on college admission, some are hailing it as a death blow to affirmative action in general. Still others have even said that the decision is a rebuke to "whiny" minorities who simply want special rights that they don't deserve.

That view is even more ignorant than the whispering telephone voice.

Not long after that rejection call, I received a much happier call for my current teaching job. I eventually met an administrator just months from retirement who told me in confidence that affirmative action policies forced him to hire "dozens of unqualified minorities." He had coordinator many hiring committees before I arrived. I looked around at my wonderful new colleagues and had no idea what he was talking about.

He called affirmative action "discriminatory social engineering," forgetting about the decades of actual systematic discriminatory social engineering that led to minorities and women being denied educational and career opportunities.

His rant struck me as absurd because nothing about affirmative action leads to bad hiring decisions. If followed correctly, the basic tenets of affirmative action involve recruiting and considering a diversity of applicants who would otherwise have been shut out of the process.

When I became a Department Chair, I served on dozens of hiring committees and took affirmative action efforts seriously. We've never hired anyone unqualified, minority or not. Many qualified people have been turned down, as I was when I received that rejection call. That's unavoidable with so many talented applicants for every job.

Sometimes bad hires happen for many reasons, none of which are the fault of affirmative action. At any place of employment, a variety of people aren’t good at their jobs. All of these folks made it through a hiring process of some kind or another. Blaming affirmative action for bad hiring decisions is like blaming sour milk on UFOs.

The recent Supreme Court decision seems to be based on the conservative claim that racism no longer exists. If true, that would be wonderful, but the evidence against that claim is abundant. For example, how many witch doctor photos of the president or shots of watermelons growing on the White House lawn have been circulated since 2008? Enough to be shocking.

Recently, a freeloading rancher elevated to hero status by conservative media blurted out his views on "the Negro" perhaps being better off under slavery when they were taught to pick cotton so they didn't have to loaf the days away on concrete porches. Everyone acted stunned, but those comments aren’t much different in content from Paul Ryan's absurd claim that "urban culture" has no work ethic or Mitt Romney's "47%" condemnations.

The main difference is that politicians usually appeal to racist attitudes through the use of "dog whistle" code words to send their message, as Romney and Ryan did. Most prejudice is subtle. A young white student recently came to me to question his instructor's qualifications. He actually asked me if she was "an affirmative action hire." What had this young man been learning in his home to make him believe that a fully qualified teacher with strong work experience and excellent educational background was somehow only chosen to teach his class because of the color of her skin?

I'm fortunate that I've never had to live with that kind of prejudice. My worst worry as a white male instructor came when I first entered the profession. Only a few years older than the students, I fretted that they would misjudge me for my youth. Now I have the opposite worry. But these concerns are inconsequential compared to racial biases.

Author and basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently responded to a team owner's racist comments by saying that white people are more likely to believe in ghosts than in racism. That's an exaggeration, but he has a point. Some people's racial attitudes haven't changed much since I heard, "we had to give the job to a minority" more than two decades ago. Five conservative, white, male Supreme Court justices may believe racism is less tangible than ghosts, but that doesn't make it true.

We've made progress on racial issues in this nation, no doubt, but there's still much work to be done. Because I've never had to face racial prejudice doesn't give me any excuse to assume that racism no longer exists. I'll keep fighting for equal opportunity every chance I get.


Originally published in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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