I read with interest the blog by Myles Brand yesterday about the astounding lack of African-American head football coaches in intercollegiate athletics. In reading over the comments, it is telling that so many immediately focus on affirmative action. Never once did Brand mention affirmative action. How did white men suddenly become the victims here?
The issue Brand is presenting -- and what should be the focus of discussion -- is the obvious discrimination in the hiring process and the privilege experienced by white candidates. Clearly emphasizing that merit and qualifications are not the issue, Brand asks: "If African-American coaches can take NFL teams to the Super Bowl and win, why are there not the same opportunities in college football?" Yet this question is ignored by many respondents, eschewed in favor of attacks against affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination. The discussion immediately shifted from discrimination against African American men to the imagined problem of reverse discrimination against white men.
A number of tired old myths are trotted out in the discussion of Brand's blog. But they are just that, myths.
Myth 1: Jobs and college admissions should be based purely on merit.
Reality: In the workplace, few hiring decisions have ever been based on merit only. For most of our nation's history, we had, in effect, de facto affirmative action for white men. White women and people of color were excluded from many careers, especially high status, high paying jobs, despite merit. Even today, most open positions are never advertised and open to the public, but are filled by word of mouth to personal or political friends and relatives. While this may not constitute conscious discrimination, the end result is the same. 80% of job openings are filled without advertising the position.
Reality: In college admissions, factors other than merit are commonly considered. Colleges take many factors into consideration, including region of the country/state that applicants come from; athletic ability; other extra-curricular talents and abilities; and class and parents status. Many children of alumni are given preferential treatment by colleges and universities, especially the most prestigious ivy league schools. The overwhelmingly white, upper-class offspring of legacies are more two to three times more likely to be accepted to Harvard and Yale than those whose parents did not attend. Why don't we ever hear anyone complaining about that form of affirmative action? Admission to these exclusive ivy league schools guarantees high status jobs and high income careers, providing upper-class white adolescents, like our current President, with a huge head start denied to others.
Myth 2: Affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination:
Reality: Relatively few whites experience job discrimination based on their race. Only 5-12% of whites believe their race has cost them a job or promotion, compared to 36% of African-Americans; only 3% of whites report they have experienced discrimination in pay or promotion, versus 16% of African-American and 8% of Latinos; Of discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC, only a very small minority charge reverse discrimination, and only a fraction have been found credible upon investigation. Whites are much less likely to experience discrimination than people of color are.
This leads me to wonder why so many white folks are so quick to protest discrimination against whites, but do not speak out against discrimination against people of color? If these people protested and fought against the discrimination being practiced against people of color on a daily basis with nearly as much energy, we could perhaps seriously tackle the problem Brand is trying to highlight in the first place.
Myth 3: Affirmative Action is no longer necessary.
Reality: Affirmative Action is still necessary to dismantle past and ongoing discrimination.
In states where affirmative action programs in higher education have been eliminated, we have witnessed a dramatic drop in the number of black, Latina/o, and Native American students. Affirmative action plans have been in place only since the 1960s. Over 200 years of legal, government sanctioned discrimination can hardly be remedied with 30 years of modest, limited, hiring goals and timetables. At every educational level, there is a racial unemployment gap, income/wage gap, and poverty gap. The reality is that discrimination against people of color is still widespread and electing a black President does not change that. The discussion around Brand's blog starkly reveals just why we are unable to solve the underlying problem he is trying to address; we cannot possibly work to end racism until we are willing to see it.
Sources: "Why Are droves of Unqualified, Unprepared Kids Getting Into Our Top Colleges? Because their Dads are Alumni" by John Larew, in Privilege: A Reader, edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, Westview, 2003; The Realities of Affirmative Action in Employment, by Barbara Reskin, American Sociological Association, 1998; Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth, by Fred L. Pincus, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003