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The affirmative action debate & collegiality – in academia

When California voters go to the polls on November 5, they will vote on Proposition 209 — the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative — the ballot measure that would essentially outlaw affirmative action in the state of California.

The opening sentence of the measure says, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

The initiative will not only eliminate admission and hiring affirmative action programs, but also outreach and recruitment programs for state or local public agencies in California.

I’ve written before about the follies of this ballot measure, and about the fact that this legislation has become a lightning rod for the fears and anxieties of the white middle class. The bottom line is that CCRI is bad legislation that has the potential for turning back the clock for people of color, and for increasing discrimination against women because it allows the reintroduction of “bona fide occupational qualifications” in the labor market.

But I wonder what effect this bad legislation has on daily collegial relationships on campus, and if Proposition 209 makes it more difficulty for faculty of color, who represent much less than 5 percent of all the faculty, to survive and thrive on campus.

In the typical academic department there are one or two African-American faculty members. Many already feel some isolation and manage to deal with both subtle and overt racism with some equanimity. In one of my first faculty assignments, I remember a colleague from another department mistaking me for a secretary, and then jumping on her feminist high horse (“well what’s wrong with being a secretary”) when I chided her about the assumption. I was later “counseled” that going off on folks would cost me when it came to tenure time. I don’t believe that any counseling was offered to the person who made a set of ignorant assumptions.

My set-to with a colleague happened a decade before affirmative action became a hot-button issue. With the efficacy of affirmative action being discussed almost hourly on California campuses, some faculty of color aren’t just managing racism, they are being assaulted by it.

A new Ph.D. who was just hired at a state university told me that a senior colleague took her aside and let her know, bluntly, that she would not have been hired if there had not been student pressure to bring on a minority faculty member. She said his comments were delivered without hostility, but that she now looks askance at her colleague whenever she sees him. “He didn’t come out and say he didn’t want me on the faculty, but he came close to implying it.” she said. “I know he is no ally.”

If a university is a marketplace of ideas, people ought to be able to register, pro or con, their thoughts about affirmative action. The problem is that there is a thin line between opposing affirmative action and telling someone they are unwelcome in a public space that you perceive to be yours.

There is an arrogance in the assumption that public agencies and state universities ought to be bastions of white power, but that arrogance is the basis of the measure on the ballot. It is the basis of some of the discussions that are taking place on campuses. And it is an arrogance that can, simply, erode an already shaky campus collegiality.

Arguments against affirmative action are ahistorical, given the general exclusion of women and people of color from some of the very state agencies that are covered by Proposition 209. The fact that outreach and recruitment programs (which even Republican candidate Bob Dole agrees are relatively benign) ate also attacked suggests a sick nostalgia for a racist past. When a state that is about to be majority minority still has all-white academic departments, all-white Offices in state agencies, and agencies that have never contracted with a person of color, it is clear there is a problem. Even if so-called “preferential treatment” (which, frankly, is distinct from affirmative action) was eliminated, why would anyone attempt to eliminate outreach except because they want to continue to enjoy a racially exclusive status quo.

These attitudes remind me of a piece of mail I received after a recent appearance on C-SPAN. During my segment, I noted that the Congressional Black Caucus Brain Trusts did not get the kind of media coverage that it deserved. The irate viewer wrote. “You are an American, stop talking all this Black stuff. It makes white people like me angry.” I am not sure why mention of the word “Black” makes white people angry, but African-American people will not disappear because we are not mentioned. But Proposition 209 seems an attempt to erode the labor market status of people of color and women to, in effect, make us disappear.

California isn’t the only state where ballot measures and legislative initiatives like Proposition 209 are being discussed, and in many workplaces people have agreed to disagree about affirmative action, to talk about sports and the weather at the water cooler. But because the campus is part of the battleground in the affirmative action issue, it is difficult for marry to contain their passions on either side of Proposition 209. Some discussions, though, add more heat than light and make light of the concept of collegiality.

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