Thursday, July 30, 2009

How was Affirmative Action supposed to work?

I was listening to an NPR article the other day, and the subject of Affirmative Action came up. To my surprise the person described it as meaning giving opportunities to people who because they did not have the same means or advantages may lack some of the skills of more qualified candidates. I know when I’ve heard objections to Affirmative Action, this is typically what I’ve heard complained about as unfair.

I guess I had never seen it that way. I had always felt the idea behind Affirmative Action was to push toward hiring woman or minority candidates when they were equivalently qualified for a position. The reason to do this was because what had been happening was even better qualified women and minority candidates were losing out to less qualified white men. It's hard to gain ground if you're not even given a fair shake. And so to my mind the purpose of Affirmative Action was to counter-balance this problem.

Although it's much less likely now, this very thing happened to me in the past. I had been working at a fast food restaurant for more than a year. I did night maintenance on the weekends, and had been doing so for some time. I had done night maintenance during a national inspection and my areas of responsibility for that inspection passed.

So then an opportunity to do night maintenance full-time came up. It was better pay and I should have been in line for the job. They gave the job to a man who had been working there only 2 months and had no experience in night maintenance. Why? I asked. The explanation I got was that he had a family to support, and "anyway we wanted a man for the job." I remember that phone call like it was yesterday.

I experienced enough of this kind of discrimination to last a lifetime, and the reality is I've probably taken a huge financial hit due to what happened to me back in the 70s that I will never overcome - basically a 9 year delay in going to college. But once I did go back to school I did well, and at the end of undergrad applied for and won a national fellowship to graduate school for women and minorities.

I've had at least one guy tell me that he thinks it's unfair that there are scholarships for women/minorities, and I’ve heard others say the same on the news and such. The reality is men who feel this is unfair have no idea what it's like to walk into a room and have people instantly assume you're probably not very good at what you do due to your sex/skin color and have that work against you your entire life. (I have more stories of what this is like if you need more examples.) My feeling was getting a women/minorities fellowship seemed only fair to make up for all that I had endured. And the reality is many others had it much worse than me!

I guess ultimately the way I pictured Affirmative Action working was to ensure that women/minorities get hired at least part of the time when it's fair. Most certainly limitations on what women and in particular minorities could qualify for were caused by socio-economic circumstances and other factors, but given time it should equalize as long as the bias against them is mitigated. Over time more and more women and minorities would be able to compete in areas where they couldn't reach before. And I think we’ve seen this progress over the past 30 years. But the bottom line is until that bias of rejecting women/minorities was counteracted that change could not start.

I think it's easy now for many to claim that such bias against women/minorities no longer exists, but it's still there, just much, much more subtle and often, I believe, not even conscious. But at this point there are probably enough anti-discrimination laws to protect people in the work place. And the more subtle form of bias will slowly die out since it has virtually vanished in younger generations in my experience.

Ultimately I think the term Affirmative Action has gotten loaded with so many different meanings and negative connotations that we should just dispense with the term. What are the problems we’re really trying to solve? Let’s get those well defined with supporting evidence and develop solutions that are fair and equitable and go from there.

But I’m thankful that people worked to make things better, and thankful that less and less people will run into this in their lives even if the solutions were controversial at the time, and perhaps not always the best, things have changed for the better. I think the biggest challenge now is improving education at public schools in poorer areas. I feel like it's the biggest factor inhibiting opportunity for minorities in particular.

For a great look at how much things have changed check out the story of Percy Julian, recently shown on Nova.