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

January 23rd, 2013 | 3 min read

By Jeremy Mann

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.