Monday, October 04, 2010

Opposition to Affirmative Action

Twice in the last year, I’ve heard some statements on campus against affirmative action that have helped me understand some of the opposition to it.

(Disclosure: though my politics aren’t conservative, my appearance is. Since I rarely talk politics at work, some people incorrectly assume from my appearance that I’m a conservative, and they tell me things that they might not otherwise. It’s an odd position to be in, but there it is.)

In two different searches over the past year, I’ve heard incumbent full-time faculty voice strong resistance to the college’s affirmative action procedures. When I asked why, the answers were the same in both cases:

“This is really [favorite long-time adjunct]’s job. I’d hate to see her/him lose out just because s/he’s white.”


If a college is in a relatively white part of the country -- unthinkable, I know, but bear with me -- then its adjunct pool will likely reflect that. If diversifying the faculty is an institutional priority, that will often require bringing people in from the outside. In this market, that means passing over some long-serving adjuncts.

Given a scarcity of jobs -- which is itself a function of a scarcity of dollars -- I don’t see how to get around this. A job that goes to candidate A does not go to candidate B. If we were to give the next few batches of jobs entirely to incumbent adjuncts, we’d actually lose ground on racial diversity.

My response to those disarmingly candid statements was to object to the idea that any search is a foregone conclusion. Nobody is owed a job. The premise that Jennifer stands to get cheated is false, only because there’s no guarantee that Jennifer would win anyway. If you don’t own something, it can’t be stolen from you. If she’s truly the standout that you say she is, she’ll win a fair fight anyway. If she isn’t, then I don’t see the argument.

Admittedly, that’s a bit evasive -- affirmative action won’t reverse a blowout, but it could tip a squeaker -- but it’s also true.

I had expected the opposition to be based on the usual arguments from meritocracy -- let the best candidate win, period. But it wasn’t. It was based on knowing someone who would stand to lose. I’m unpersuaded by that position, but it’s not really reducible to straight-up racism or naivete. And it’s not entirely false -- any given search is zero-sum, and any preference for one candidate is by definition a strike against another.

To me, the decisive point is that employment is not primarily for the benefit of the employee. It’s primarily for the benefit of the employer. If the employer needs to diversify its staff, then that’s what it needs to do. It hires to solve problems it has identified. One could take issue with the usefulness or desirability of diversity, but that’s not the argument I’ve heard.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an elegant way to address this particular objection on your campus?