When Affirmative Action Is A Quota System

Years ago I worked in a clinical psychology division of a university psychology department.  In our division we had ten white males as faculty, with no women or minorities.  I advocated considering women and minority candidates for possible hire, although I did not advocate that we must hire specific individuals.  I currently teach in a Hispanic-serving university, and care greatly about my Hispanic students.

The supporters of affirmative action often deny that the hiring or award of a position in a university was a quota, but if they were honest they would have to admit that a quota system was involved in  many cases, when it was decided in advance that the job will only go to a minority, or a promotion, tenure, or resources will only go to a woman.  These examples involve a quota system: the next person hired will be Black or there will be X number or percentage of women with tenure, etc. This is what a quota is all about.

According to dictionary.com, a quota is a required amount.  One of the several definitions given was "A number or percentage, especially of people, constituting a required or targeted minimum: a system of quotas for hiring minority applicants. " (Italics in original.)

Affirmative action is not the same thing as equality or equal opportunity.  Hiring and civil rights policies are often about affirmative action quotas -- privileges for certain groups -- and not equal opportunity, which would be everyone having a fair chance to compete for the position. Failure to recognize the difference between equal opportunity and quotas results in policies that can generate much racial separation or hatred.

It is not politically correct to talk about affirmative action as often being a quota system, but it needs to be said, for at least two reasons. 

1. We need to see reality as it is. I have long supported rights of women and minorities, and, years ago, I fought to have more of them hired by the university at which I worked.  But, I wanted to get more women and minorities in the pipeline, so that they might be considered. I was not in favor of the quota system that we have today.

But, quotas were right on the horizon.  My efforts led to the hiring of a candidate who performed poorly in his interview, and seemed not even to understand his own doctoral dissertation.  When I questioned his hiring, a colleague shouted at me "What's wrong with you?  The Dean says we have to hire a Black." The candidate was hired.  Incidentally, he never published anything at our research university, and was let go after three years.

2. We need to understand that the quota systems are often responsible for the animosity against women and minority groups. The Ku Klux Klan might as well have invented affirmative action (in its present quota system sense) as a vehicle to make Whites hate Blacks.  Women have profited from affirmative action more than any other group according to the Wall Street Journal, by the way.  So, a discussion of hatred against minorities, due to quotas, also needs to mention women, as they, too, are possibly subject to resentment based on getting affirmative action preferences.

Sometimes companies are forced to hire a certain percentage of people from some protected group.  That is a quota system. Likewise, when a university hiring committee says that the next person will be, say, African American, that is a quota. My personal experiences come from academia. I have been on university selection committees, and when it is decided in advance that we would hire a minority or a woman, we have typically -- at different schools -- ended up hiring someone who would have not been the top candidate.

The same thing goes on in college admissions and scholarships.  Students know this.  Much of the racial distance between students is motivated by knowledge that some classmates got breaks because of the color of their skin.

By the way, it may be that some elite schools can do their affirmative action hiring and hire a top candidate. But, this is certainly not the case for most schools.  In my experiences, and in that of colleagues I have discussed this with, when affirmative action hiring is done, the dilemma is always that there are better qualified candidates not within the quota category.  Sometimes, the person hired, because they have the right skin color or sex, is markedly less qualified than some of the other applicants. 

It should be pointed out that the discussions about diversity or multiculturalism lead to narrow standards.  Only the officially protected minorities and women get favorable treatment.  Other groups -- Jews, Irish, Asians, Greeks, Italians, white working class, etc. -- get no preferences, regardless of how much they may have been discriminated against in our past history.  So, there is really not a desire for true multiculturalism or diversity; just preferences for those groups that the federal government currently supports.

Colleges are afraid of what the federal government can do to them, especially related to finance.  So, if the federal government declares affirmative action quotas the "right thing" to do, many schools blindly obey -- and think they are doing the right thing.  As Richard Nixon is purported to have said, "When you've got them by the balls, the hearts and minds will follow."

Speaking of Nixon, I think he was one of the first to initiate affirmative action, and I agree with what he did.  My first job, after getting my Ph.D. in 1966, was in Philadelphia, and it was a very segregated city in many ways.  Blacks would not be hired for the good construction jobs, which were reserved for Whites.  Blacks were not allowed to join the union which prevented them from being hired for the many construction jobs.  Nixon came up with the Philadelphia Plan, which required a certain percentage of the construction workers to be Black. Given the unfair discrimination, I think this was appropriate.  Sometimes affirmative action is justified.

Giving preference to less qualified persons is basically un-American, and leads to resentment.  As one who supports creativity (and opposes prejudice) I see this assault on excellence as an assault on creativity and standards.  It will make things worse, in many ways, to give admission, privileges, and jobs to those who, otherwise, would not qualify.

If there is going to be some kind of affirmative action, it should best occur early, in kindergarten and elementary schools to assure that all people have effective schooling and learning. It is rather late to wait until someone has graduated from high school or college and give special admission to them.  By then, they may have fallen far behind in knowledge and skills, and may never catch up.  That is why many affirmative action recipients drop out, either from college or graduate school, because they are "overmatched" by other students, and they thus have trouble keeping up.  They are behind others because they never got the proper schooling early on.

Russell Eisenman is Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Texas-Pan American.  His most recent book Creativity, Mental Illness and Crime is published by Kendall/Hunt.
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