The Corner

Affirmative Action in the News

Maureen Dowd recently preened that Obama “didn’t even tell Harvard Law School that he was black on his application.” To the extent that her own research led her to believe this, or she would know accurately, one should still wonder why in the world Barack Obama, the child of a white woman and African father, would check the affirmative action box? When he applied to law school, there was nothing in the circumstances of his birth or even his upbringing up to then that located him in the African-American experience.

Obama’s recent evocation of some sort of reparations, the resurgence in talk about affirmative action, current ballot measures, etc. should remind us of how unworkable a system it has become. As a veteran of two decades on hiring committees in the CSU system, I can attest that the rules and regulations of affirmative action were Byzantine, and not always based on the presumption of a past American history of racist oppression.

Hispanic elites from Chile and Argentina often qualified, whether officially or not. Meanwhile, Mexican-Americans felt that foreigners with work visas were accenting their names and simply piling on, despite their prior privileged lives back home in Santiago or Buenos Aires. Despite Hispanic-sounding last names, no one knew what to with the Portuguese and the Basques; both groups were usually seen as more affluent than the so-called ‘white’ minority. A student called Joe Smith could be the son a Mexican illegal alien and still seem far less a minority than Jose Castillo, a fifth-generation Chilean alien who was schooled in the US and decided to stay on.

We had a variety of recent immigrants from the Caribbean as professors and students, almost all from affluent families. One can imagine the problems of others supposedly with 3/4, 1/2, 1/8 black or Hispanic ancestry. What qualifies as a minority, and who ascertains it in the post-Ward Churchill era? Many of our white students with parents from the Oklahoma diaspora rightly claimed American-Indian heritage, albeit in the 1/16th to 1/8th range. The Asian problem was even weirder — 3rd-generation affluent Japanese, no? But the Hmong immigrant of 10 years, yes? The recent Taiwanese arrival, no? More likely, there were de facto Asian quotas — given the ability of such minorities in many fields to outperform almost everyone else and thereby become “overrepresented” in the UC system.

Bumper-sticker identification was unfortunate. The half-Hispanic student with Wilson as his surname never could obtain the authenticity that his counterpart with a Hispanic father received. Accented and hyphenated names, and renaming, were common, in addition to occasional ethnic dress. By the 2004, I think any original justification that groups whose ancestors had suffered historical discrimination qualified for redress was dropped, and informally it became a spoils system based on faulty perceptions of race — sort of a counterpart to the legacy system of the Ivy League that helps the offspring of wealthy alumni (which oddly, or rather logically, became a ‘they do it too’ argument by affirmative action’s desperate adherents).

The corollary argument that someone of African or Caribbean ancestry, without ancestral claim to America’s purported racist past, deserves some sort of compensation in the here and now on the basis of present public racism and discrimination fails utterly. There is a variety of other “people of color” — Arabs or Punjabis for example — who may, in fact, be more readily identifiable in the public domain as non-white and yet qualify for no such exemptions. One could go on, but here we are again in another racial absurdity of suggesting that Obama at some point in his career nobly chose not to suggest he was deserving of affirmative action, when in fact there would be no logical or ethical reason why he should.

In short, the entire Affirmative Action industry, however well-intended its origins, has gone the way of the Soviet bureaucracy as a sort of arbitrary racial nomenklatura that benefits mostly elites — self-contradictory, hypocritical, illogical, and finally unworkable.

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