Affirmative Action: Too Little, Too Much, and on the Wrong Track

The recent debate in the Supreme Court is reinvigorating analysis of affirmative action; Justices Sotomayor and Thomas have both weighed in on the extent to which they felt their achievements were invalidated by others’ assumptions of unfair advantage. What remains, among other sobering statistics, is an enormous gap in wealth between whites and blacks. In part because of the housing crisis, the median net worth of white households is 20 times that of black households. (The mean net worth of whites is 3.7 times that of blacks.)

That ratio, 20 to 1, has stuck with me. Partly because I currently receive a scholarship that pays all the tuition costs of four years of seminary. I am thankful for what this scholarship allows me to do: I can study long hours without the distraction of needing to find a part-time job, I can preach on Sundays at a nursing home for free, and I can find encouragement in the fact that someone I don’t know supports my goal of becoming a pastor. At my seminary, there are 20 other students receiving this scholarship. All of them are white. 20 to 0.

I’m no expert on the subject, but the broad principles of political liberty and subsidiarity make me suspicious of aggressive governmental intervention on matters of race. At the same time, the heinous and enduring effects of racism in America endure. The most vivid for me are the exploitation of black Chicago homebuyers in 1950-1970 described here, the enduring inability of members of all races to associate the word “good” with images of blacks as compared to whites described here, and the perception toddlers grasp of beauty-as-whiteness portrayed here. Christians, who recognize that every person is made in God’s dignifying image, know that things should be different. Even more than mere acknowledgement of the problem, Christians believe that before any federal and state agency, we ought to be on the vanguard of helping the poor and the marginalized. Many in fact are, bearing living witness to the fact that we were all exiles, far from God, and that we have no attachment to this world beyond its reflection of the one to come—this is not our home. But how to bring about change on more systemic levels? Is affirmative action useful? Is it a dead end?

It’s a small lesson, but while working at Teach For America, I observed an approach I found helpful, at least with respect to staffing. Interviewers and managers were trained to ignore race in hiring decisions. Unconscious bias was acknowledged and actively avoided, but black or Latino candidates received no special advantage in the application process. At the same time, the organization knew that candidates who identified with the background of the students we taught had a unique opportunity for impact, both with their students and as spokespersons for the movement as a whole. More than many other groups, the long-term health of the organization genuinely depended on a diverse staff from top to bottom. So, to increase the likelihood of a diverse team, TFA talent recruiters proactively sought out candidates of color. They devoted resources to finding and attracting them, and they developed promising candidates who weren’t yet ready for a position. For every white candidate considered for a role, at least one candidate of color was also interviewed. And once on staff, TFA monitored each employee’s satisfaction to ensure that retention of employees of color was as high as white employees.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. It eliminates the general suspicion of an unequal standard as well as any temptation to think this or that employee isn’t really qualified for the job. At the same time, this policy takes the fact of inequality of opportunity seriously. Could something like this be instituted by the committee that awards the scholarship I receive? Probably not, given the limited scope and capacity of such a body. For all I know they earnestly wish they could do something like this but can’t.

Whatever the feasibility of individual implementation, for the broader Church to take such an intentional orientation toward race would require a steady and sincere recognition of its importance. I think to get there, it can’t just be about diversity, which can remain quite superficial—the agenda has to be driven by reconciliation.

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  • Bryan

    I really enjoyed this. I am convinced that the government will not provide the truly transformational structures and cultural perception change to overcome some deeply embedded aspects of our country. I am taking a course on socio-cultural exegesis that dives into embedded forms of racism within our culture. After reading some of the books (one being Wilson’s More than Just Race) I have really been challenged to rethink how I perceive these problems and how to handle them.

    One of my best friends is a Hispanic/black guy and has torn it up at a liberal arts school and will do some great things with his life. He was very anti-anything affirmative action at first because he wanted to prove himself and then he became more open to it. Another black woman I know thought the problems were primarily cultural and not structural and so was against anything that had hints of affirmative action.

    I think the TFA approach is a good balance that gives everyone a chance while being mindful of the hurdles that are in place for some and not others. The Church could learn some things and hopefully set the pace for these reforms.

  • Ian Ridley-Smyth

    I believe your whole premise is incorrect. To begin with, you seem to assume no innate racial differences between people-groups (except that whites are always guilty of discrimination and non-whites are sinless). And also that the higher income of whites is not due to failure of African-Americans themselves, but because of injustices inflicted upon them by European-Americans.

    Have you ever considered that many whites are victims of ethnic minorities? Have you spent any time in predominately non-white neighbourhoods or sent your daughters to predominantly non-white schools? Have you ever been a victim of violent, racially-motivated crime perpetrated against you or a loved one? I hope you never will be, but it might give you a different perspective on these issues.

    In fact, discrimination today is in favour of people of colour and against those of European origin. This is especially true in college and university admissions departments (lower test scores are allowed for applicants from “historically disadvantaged” groups). Is that just or fair? No, it’s favouritism based on race.

    Reconciliation implies one group has been wronged by another group and therefore anyone of the “oppressor race” is somehow guilty of sins against the other race. You seem to be so race-conscious that you don’t consider individual responsibility for actual wrongs done between people. Instead you view everything in terms of group sins.

    You probably don’t even realise how unchristian and bigoted this whole world-view is. Maybe you should question it. Have you conformed to the intellectual boundaries set for you by “liberal” secular culture? If you want career advancement in the world of academia and theology I suppose you must go along with the prevailing collectivist, egalitarian ideology. I think some schools now offer a Masters of Divinity degree in “Black Theology”.

    • Brittany

      you seem to assume no innate racial differences between people-groups

      I expect he meant to assume this. What innate differences would you suggest?

      the higher income of whites is not due to failure of African-Americans themselves, but because of injustices inflicted upon them by European-Americans.
      Jeremy doesn’t seem to be focusing on contemporary income disparity, but on net worth, something that is collected and passed down through generations. It is actually a historical fact that the history of slavery and Jim Crow in this country made it impossible to collect wealth and own property, much less pass it on to future generations, facts that certainly influence present-day net worth disparities.

      In fact, discrimination today is in favour of people of colour and against those of European origin. This is especially true in college and university admissions departments (lower test scores are allowed for applicants from “historically disadvantaged” groups).

      This is actually a myth and is unsubstantiated by statistics. The only group that has benefited from any sort of AA program (much less as extreme as the one you describe) is white women. Perhaps you should check ‘facts’ before repeating them.

  • http://www.comebyyuh.com Afrofogey

    Interesting article. I think many of the premises are flawed and take on many assumptions. I see why these assumptions are made but still believe they are false either way especially in regards to racial reconciliation. Races need not to be combined and for certain not by some odd scientific method, which is simply unnatural. I think this push for “equality” especially in economics is the very reason black people have had such an enormous lost in wealth. Clinton hoping to pull Blacks into the American dream by pushing companies to give blacks more mortgages by expanding the qualifications led to untold amounts of blacks buying houses they cant afford, and eventually being foreclosed on.
    I general dislike Affirmative Action, but teaching(in public k-12 schools) is actually one of the few places in which I find it tolerable. But not in the unfortunate way you describe but more in the shifting the qualified black (potential)teachers to black districts and having a separate process for candidates who will be teaching in black schools.
    I think the narrative in which Brittaney is promoting is just that, narrative. Not sure how much of it substantive. Her and Ian’s interaction is odd mainly because they are clearly from two different nations, making their perspective a little off.

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  • Jeremy Mann

    Hi Ian,

    I’m curious about your questions, which suggest that if I don’t have experience with the challenges I describe I lack credibility (for what it’s worth, I have lived in low- to mixed-income neighborhoods where whites are in the minority for the last five years). I think experience matters a great deal, I don’t see how what I say here depends on such experience. What makes me curious is why you see such experience valuable, while also remaining skeptical about the reality of traditional racism. Based on your view, wouldn’t you need to have lived as a minority to deny the problem?