Affirmative Action for . . . Italian Americans

by Roger Clegg

There’s a front-page story today in theNew York Times about complaints against the City University of New York for failing to get its numbers right in hiring minority faculty. Now, such complaints would not normally be news — though the Times would still publish a breathless story about them, of course — but what’s unusual is the minority group at issue here: Italian Americans.

Perhaps the complaints are dubious, but really they are no more dubious than those made by African Americans, Latino Americans, female Americans, etc. The claims are that this group is “still stereotyped” (and what group isn’t?), that one can be an inauthentic Italian American (an “Uncle Tony” — cf. Uncle Tom), that there are data that the group is “underrepresented,” and that we are to reject the notion that the group’s political success belies that possibility of debilitating discrimination against it (having “had an Italian-American governor” is no more relevant than, say, having an African-American president). So there must be a focus on numbers, on “benchmarks,” on goals and timetables — oh, but these are not “hiring quotas,” because that would be illegal of course.

True, keeping a correct tally can be tricky, since what do we do with someone like the example given in the article of a woman who has not only Italian, but also — horrors! — Irish blood? But, please, such problems and the fact that “Chancellor Goldstein does not have a discriminatory bone is his body against Italian-Americans” is no answer to the scourge of institutional racism, I mean, institutional anti-Italianism. (The school has made a commitment, not just to improving its numbers, but also to providing special counseling for students of Italian heritage, and special research about “the Italian American experience.”) 

So it all sounds very familiar. But the obvious conclusion is that it’s hopeless, foolish, and unfair for a school to try to achieve a particular racial, ethnic, and gender mix for any group or combination of groups, since there are so many groups that can make plausible claims of underrepresentation, stereotyping, and so forth. Rather, the only approach that is workable in a multiracial, multiethnic society is hiring the best-qualified people, without regard to race, ethnicity, or sex, and regardless of whether some groups end up being “underrepresented” or “overrepresented.” Oh, and in my humble opinion, this is not just common sense and fairness — it’s the law.

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