Today we celebrate the birthday of the man who spoke movingly of his dream that one day his children would be judged not by the content of their character, but by whether they were underrepresented or not.
No, wait, I must have been having a bad dream. Let me explain.
Last March, my eye was caught by a story in which a Yale official bragged about how his school is doing great things when it comes to improving the numbers of “underrepresented minorities” there. In April, the James Irvine Foundation issued a report, “The Revolving Door for Underrepresented Minority Faculty in Higher Education,” lamenting the high turnover rate for these “URM” teachers. In May, an article in UMass Magazine talked about the efforts there “to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.” In June, Duke noted that a research fellows program it runs, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “specifically targets women and underrepresented minorities.” In July, a camp for high-school students was held at the University of Texas’s Arlington School of Nursing; it was “made possible by a … grant that aims to recruit traditionally underrepresented minorities into nursing education.” In August, I received an e-mail from my alma mater, Rice University, about a high-school program it has designed “to convince underrepresented minority students that math isn’t something to be feared or avoided.” And finally, in September and just in time for the beginning of the current academic year, we were back to Yale, with a story that alludes to a separate fund that it maintains just for hiring women and “underrepresented minorities.”
But those are just a few examples: The phrase “underrepresented minority” is everywhere. And this is a good day to talk about it.
You have to hand it to the Left when it comes to rhetorical subterfuge in the service of racial discrimination. Its facility with words puts one in mind of Animal Farm’s pig Squealer, another clever defender of the indefensible.
Using the phrase “affirmative action” — which originally meant taking positive steps, proactive measures (just what it sounds like it ought to mean, right?) — to cloak affirmative discrimination (Nathan Glazer’s apter phrase) was sly. Even more resourceful was turning the innocent word “diversity” into a synonym for “Let’s put a ceiling on the number of whites (and, usually, Asians),” as documented by Peter Wood in his wonderful book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. But insufficient credit has been given to an equally ingenious and now ubiquitous term: “underrepresented minority.”
As with “affirmative action” and “diversity,” much of the genius lies in the fact that it seems so hard to be in the opposition. Thus, whatever the opposite of “affirmative action” is — “passive inaction”? “negative action”? — who could favor it? And, likewise with respect to “diversity,” who in a multiethnic society could favor — let alone fight for — “monochromism,” or even “homogeneity” or “uniformity”?
Similarly, who can want minorities to be “underrepresented”? Deep in our republican — small “r” — psyches is a sympathy with and commitment to representation. How can it be fair, therefore, that any group be underrepresented?
And it’s not just that the opposites seem so untenable, but that being supportive seems so, well, correct. Doesn’t taking affirmative action sound like the bold, energetic, right thing to do? Isn’t diversity smart, like when you’re putting together an investment portfolio? And representation — why, our country is built on that, after all!
Well, perhaps the rebuttal starts with the observation that, if it is bad for groups to be underrepresented, it must follow as night follows day that it is bad as well for groups to be overrepresented. This is not just the opposite side of the same coin: It is the same side of the same coin.
So, you know, we must not judge too harshly those WASPs who, back in the day, took steps to ensure that those overachieving, overrepresented Jews did not take over the Ivy League, right? And there really wasn’t anything wrong with Bill Clinton’s ominous 1995 warning that “there are universities that could fill their entire freshman classes nothing but Asian-Americans,” was there?
Squirming yet? But obviously that’s what the adjective “underrepresented” is there for: to make sure that some minorities, the overrepresented ones, get discriminated against just like the WASP kids.
The fact is that, in this country at least, we do not “represent” a color. We represent only our individual selves. There is no reason that our qualifications should be judged differently just because more or fewer of those already chosen happen to share or not share our particular melanin content.
One can almost have some sympathy with the Left. It must constantly dream up and promulgate new euphemisms since sooner or later the old ones always wear gossamer thin and it becomes all too easy to see what it is trying to cover up.
You can call it “affirmative action” or you can celebrate “diversity” or you can set goals for “underrepresented minorities,” but when you consider a person’s skin color in deciding whether to award her an admissions slot, or a contract, or a job — then you are engaging in racial discrimination.
It’s spinach, and to hell with it.
— Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia. Today the Center for Equal Opportunity is announcing a new location for its website for those folks to visit who think they may have been illegally judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character: www.affirmativeactionwatch.net .