Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Right" and Wrong in Affirmative Action Debates

It's not often that I really disagree hard core with the folks at BlackProf. Sure, we have our quibbles, but for the most part I feel like I'm in line with their intellectual and social mission.

This post, however, from guest-blogger Terry Smith, I must register my strident dissent from. Basically, the thesis is that often times, "Affirmative Action" hires aren't the type of minority progressives and radicals representative of the community of color at large, but rather are persons who are rather apolitical about race, or even (gasp) political conservatives. This, we can't have:
Attend a regional People of Color Legal Scholarship conference and you will not fail to hear the side chatter about racial betrayal-the white who expediently emphasized his Spanish surname when applying for a teaching job, then had nothing to do with people of color once in the academy; the black "conservative" who used race as his distinction to enter the academy but for whom race is now irrelevant; the "raceless" Asian whose ethnicity is taken into account for diversity purposes, but whose a-politicism is perceived as an inherent characteristic of a model minority.

The exchange between my two colleagues and the conversations at these conferences raise hard, discomforting questions about diversity and affirmative action. What is the value of a Spanish surname? Does the black conservative provide a type of intellectual diversity even if he has relied on his race as the active agent in his mobility? If so, why should the academy have an especial interest in black conservatives, given the under-representation--relative to the general population--of black progressives and radicals? Finally, if race and ethnicity are unimportant to a candidate personally, why should the academy--or any employer--count them as attributes in the hiring process?

First, note the rhetoric here: "race betrayal." I leave it without comment, only to say that I for one find such language to be quite frightening regardless of the source.

Second, I think the attack echoes eerily of the conservative "diversity of the crayon box" response to Affirmative Action--with all the implications. Conservatives use this to undermine the credibility of any disfavored minority professor. Smith, for his part, displays this same hostility to minority conservatives--they're only there to provide checkbox diversity, but they aren't actually offering anything of value to the university (or, at least, aren't offering optimal value--which is the same dodge conservatives use to get out of explicitly saying minority profs are underqualified).

Third, I'm not sure about the "under-representation" point as it applies internally to the Black community. That is, I know that there are disproportionately fewer Black professors than there should be given the Black population. But, within the subgroup, are minority progressives and radicals over- or under-represented compared to minority conservatives? This, at best, is an open question.

Fourth, I'm rather surprised that Smith seems to feel that the race and ethnicity of a minority candidate--any minority candidate--can be so easily boxed off and put away. One of the major premises of the CRT movement is that this analysis is unavoidable and that affirmative action serves as a check against internalized racism. Moreover, Smith gives little proof that these minorities are deliberately playing on their race to get their position--since most minority conservatives claim to oppose affirmative action, I think they would say they got their position (or that they hope they would get their position) without its benefits. Minority professors get justifiably angry when people say "you wouldn't have gotten hired if it weren't for affirmative action." Is the same not true for minority conservatives?

Smith continues to dig the hole yet deeper:
The frustration of a senior black professor at an elite law school underscores the point. She complained to a friend that her institution hired a black candidate for a tenure-track position. This decision by a premiere institution, one would expect, should have elated her. But she noted that she had not even been consulted about the hire, a slight in her eyes. Moreover, she feared that, left to its own devices, her institution had selected a black candidate whose own identification with blacks as a collective people was unclear at best and who would probably have few or no relations with black students. Although she fumed privately, the senior black scholar did not suggest that she might make a public issue of the matter. Instead, hers was the voice of resignation, a concession that if her institution was to hire people of color at all, they would fit the profile of the black they had just hired.

Minority scholars' quest to save affirmative action will be pyrrhic if the end-result is this kind of check-box, bean-counting affirmative action. We have as much right, ability and vision to define for our institutions what affirmative action should be as do the institutions themselves. Some of our prescriptions are certainly not without complication and risk. For instance, in questioning the authenticity of a minority candidate, are we insisting on an essentialism among people of color that requires uniformity of thought and politics that is itself inconsistent with academic freedom? Would our opposition to inauthentic minority candidates simply leave us with the arguably greater evil of fewer people of color in the academy? Is this a preferable result?

I'm a bit surprised at the "gatekeeper" mentality this professor had about her role in the university: "there is no way through the gates of the university but through me." Especially when we talk in such vague terms like "authentic," the prospect that such a world would lead to "an essentialism among people of color that requires uniformity of thought and politics" is not just a risk but a virtual certainty. The rhetoric itself is what's doing the essentializing--I'm relatively confident that Clarence Thomas would object strenuously if someone declared that he was not "authentically" Black. This language of authenticity is a mere dressing up of "who's a normal and who's an outsider, and the marginalizing effect is unavoidable.

Furthermore, the undertones of absolute authority within one's own fiefdom are extremely disturbing to me. From how the story was presented, it appears this professor did not know one way or the other if the new minority hire would establish links into his or her community--she just assumed that "left to its own devices," the academic establishment wouldn't hire such a person. But that isn't an assumption we can just fiat into existence. If she was just acknowledging the risk, that would be one thing, but she seems to be already resigned that her prediction is the reality. Smith signs onto this presupposition at the end of his description: "if her institution was to hire people of color at all, they would fit the profile of the black they had just hired," a profile which we technically don't even know about. "Defining your own reality" is all well and good, but shouldn't this new professor get a chance to define hers without having to get it validated first?

Put bluntly, while an external group should give significant leeway for a minority group to undertake its own affairs, that leeway shouldn't extend to permitting exclusivist policies targeted at internal subminorities. This is not a place where deference is due. As I wrote in a previous post:
Acting as if this was just folks debating ("free speech"?) blinds us to the realities of power and forces us to pretend that Blacks do all agree on the terms and conditions regarding opposition to racism--and moreover, we have to play that role by accepting the very controversy that is under dispute--that black leftists are "right" in how they frame the racism debate and the conservatives are "wrong."

Conservative minorities aren't irrational loons who need to be cooped up lest they scare the children. They have a story too, and it's vital that we hear it. The university system has no obligation to abet their marginalization.

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