Color-Blind or Color-Conscious?

Affirmative Action

by Bill Sasser
Too far or not far enough? The debate may be decades old, but it's taken on a new life as the controversy moves into the political arena--and to college campuses.
It's an issue that has been simmering across the country since its inception: affirmative action. And it surfaced again last September when Duke's Academic Council met to consider a motion by a group of faculty members to end the university's seven-year-old ini-tiative to hire more black faculty members.

Experimental psychology professor John Staddon, who called for the vote, spoke about the ideal that in America "race should not matter." Brenda Armstrong '70, one of thirteen tenured or tenure-track black faculty members at Duke's medical school, remarked that "it's sad there are still pockets of individuals who fail to see discrimination is part of the working ethos of our world." The tension in the Social Sciences auditorium was palpable, perhaps illustrating a clash over an issue in which the objectivity of ideals is inextricably entwined with--and often opposed to--the subjectivity of experience.

Reaffirming Duke's commitment to the initiative, the vote failed by 33 to 10. The mere fact that the vote was held, however, may reflect a growing ambivalence about such policies, both at Duke and nationwide. The effort to hire more black faculty members has in recent years been the main focus of the affirmative action debate at Duke. In a reaffirming speech last fall on the status of affirmative action policies on campus, Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane called racial divisions the major threat to the unity and prosperity of the nation; current admissions policies and the university's efforts to hire more black faculty members would continue.

While acknowledging the potential abuse of affirmative action, Keohane says the policy helps make up for historical injustices, guar-antees equal opportunity in the face of still existing prejudices, creates a "leavening mixture" of individuals from different races and backgrounds, and ensures the university meets its obligation to educate leaders in all parts of American society. She also characterized notions of "color-blind" hiring and admissions policies, often forwarded by critics as the true spirit of affirmative action, as a worthy but currently unattainable ideal. "It would be disingenuous for this university, historically a part of the American South, to claim that we can simply write off the past as though it didn't happen," said Keohane, adding that the policy is also a matter of conscience rather than solely a legality. "Some Duke faculty were here when black students and faculty couldn't attend."

The debate at Duke and other universities seems far from over. In the past two years, a host of books looking at race and affirmative action have appeared, including a number by minority academics taking both sides of the issue. Critics question whether current policies are going too far and, in fact, causing racial tensions. Defenders of affirmative action worry about a backlash against three decades of civil-rights advancement.

From the standpoint of universities, some have argued that affirmative action policies are particularly problematic when applied to educational meritocracies. The basis of such meritocracies are readily quantifiable grade point averages and standardized test scores for students and, for prospective professors, almost equally quantifiable pedigrees. Blacks as a group have historically scored lower on standardized tests and there is a limited pool of highly qualified black academics, a fact that proponents say reflects America's history of segregation and discrimination. (At the same time, college applicants historically have been judged by criteria that are far more subjective than measures of academic merit: demonstrated leadership skills, athletic ability, perserverance in the face of adversity, and alumni attachments, to a name a few.)

An issue with the power to polarize perhaps like no other, affirmative action has attached to it a thesaurus of politically charged phrases cross-linked to other issues, including concepts such as "diversity" and "multiculturalism" and the rhetorical fighting words "political correctness" and "angry white male." Opponents say affirmative action violates the true non-discriminatory spirit; proponents draw distinctions between policies that oppress a minority group and those that are meant to foster opportunity, and they laud diversity as a jus-tifiable goal in and of itself. Opponents are often labeled as white males attempting to hold on to power, except in uncomfortable situations when they happen to be black, in which case epithets can be more pointed. In between is a vast middle ground of opinion that sees both good and bad in affirmative action, that acknowledges the history of discrimination in this country but also perceives actual and po- tential harm in some of the remedies.

Over the past year, commentary in the national press has sometimes accused liberals of failing to make a strong case for affirmative action. But in recent months, proponents have launched a full-fledged counter offensive. One of the most outspoken proponents of affirmative action at Duke is Stanley Fish, an English and law professor who is also the executive editor of Duke Press. He supports quota systems if necessary as a means of addressing the nation's legacy of racism. Fish, who gives lectures to visiting alumni on the correctness of af-firmative action, unequivocally disputes all arguments against it, and dismisses real-life tales of reverse discrimination as anecdotes about "some friend's cousin's son who couldn't get in to Harvard."

"It's untrue that affirmative action has already broken the glass ceiling and helped integrate black Americans into white neighborhoods and workplaces," he says. "White males have for generations enjoyed the benefits of a racist and sexist culture that gave them power, wealth, and position. The white males who complain about affirmative action didn't earn the privileges they now enjoy by birth, and any unfairness they experience is less than the unfairness that smooths their life path, irrespective of their merit."

Those who make claims of reverse racism, Fish says, are not only morally wrong but intellectually suspect, following a "bizarre logic" that equates the inequities of affirmative action to the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. He agrees with opponents that affirmative action policies often constitute a quota system, but argues that the history of black Americans justifies quotas. "Fairness in the form of a resolution to no longer discriminate is hardly an adequate remedy for the deep disadvantages that a prior and massive discrimination has produced," says Fish. "It makes sense to define black Americans as a group because, historically, they were enslaved, exploited, and discriminated against as a group. Without affirmative action, the inequalities and inequities produced by massive legal and cultural racism would not be remedied."

Fish holds out his own experience as head of Duke's English department as an example of how affirmative action policies can lead to good results. From 1986 to 1989, he oversaw a hiring policy that favored qualified women and that has since quadrupled their number in the English department. The result is a more diverse and enriching academic environment in which gender is no longer an issue, he says. "Even twenty years ago at any English department in the country, your chances of getting a job if you were a man were infinitely better than a woman's. Here, the absence of women in the English department had meant an absence of certain intellectual and experiential perceptions, so that the culture of a meeting or a panel was qualitatively different when women were represented. They brought different questions and a different body of work. The entire feel of the enterprise changed, and changed for the better. It went from a 'good ole boys' club to something more like a healthy cosmopolitan environment. Now, we don't think about it anymore--it's no longer a question in the English department."

The department also uses race as a "plus factor" in hiring decisions, Fish says. More than simply conscience-driven affirmative action, these policies are also a response to changes in the focus of humanities scholarship and in student demographics, reflecting current emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism. "Given equally qualified candidates, tipping the balance is okay, as long as we didn't say, 'go down to the mall and find ten brown faces,'" says Fish. "These choices are often market decisions, as well as being based on past history."

As with Stanley Fish, the answers on affirmative action for John Staddon are clear cut. Staddon believes current discussions at Duke reflect a wider national fixation on group rights that he says is unhealthy and should not be a part of university life. "I just think non-discrimination means non-discrimination, and I think it's wrong to discriminate on a basis of gender or race, period. Duke is a teaching institution, and you have to ask what you are teaching students by endorsing such policies. You're teaching them that their membership in a certain category of people over which they have no control is of most importance," he says.

Declaring that ideas have no color or gender, Staddon holds up a recent edition of The Chronicle that featured a story on a Duke panel group defending women's studies as an academic major and a wire-service article on recent developments in gay adoption rights. "Students are being taught that what is important about them is who they are when they come to Duke --black, white, male, female," he says. "I think this view is antithetical to the role of education--poisonous. It drives students back to themselves when they should be thinking of going beyond themselves."

Citing affirmative action for promoting resegregation, group consciousness, and resentment between the races, Staddon says the main rationale for the policy is the notion of "social justice," which he questions as a proper motivation for a university. "Who determines conflicts between social justice and individual justice?" he asks. "All too often 'social justice' is not justice at all--it's about power relationships that have little to do with justice. Because it has benevolent motives doesn't mean it will produce positive results. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition thought their program was benevolent--they were saving people's souls from burning for eternity. I think history can show that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Calls for group rights are antithetical to the American Constitution and American ideals."

Many faculty members seem much more ambivalent in their views than both Fish and Staddon. William Raspberry, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Communications and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, agrees with the general necessity of affirmative action policies, but he's much less certain about both their means and their ultimate outcome. "The problem with the debate over affirmative action is there's no definition of what affirmative action means," he says. "We often launch into a heated debate without defining what we're talking about. It seems reasonable to be both for it and against it, like I am."

Raspberry, who is black, says he sees wide consensus for mandates to "cast a wider net" so that prospective job applicants represent the qualified labor pool, a method that also creates a more diverse work force. He cites historical cases of blatant discrimination--such as the Alabama highway patrol's long-standing fail-ure to hire a single black trooper--in support of affirmative action. But he acknowledges uneasiness about a recent Colorado case, which involved a government contract awarded to a minority contractor despite the fact that a white competitor had submitted a lower bid. "People start feeling discomfort if you set goals for re-presentation in the work force--that looks like quotas," Raspberry says. "Some aspects of affirmative action seem reasonable to most people if you don't have an identifiable victim."

Although striking a middle ground in the debate, Raspberry bristles when recalling an article published in The New Republic last fall criticizing The Washington Post's own affirmative action policies. New Republic reporter Ruth Shalit quoted anonymous Post staffers who said that in its efforts to diversify, the Post is hiring under-qualified black journalists while bypassing other qualified, non-minority can-didates. The article also said that race is such a hyper-sensitive issue at the Post that the newspaper has consciously softened its coverage of the black community in the District of Co-lumbia. Raspberry refutes the article's contentions and asks what The New Republic's own efforts have been to create a diverse organization. "They have never had a single black person on their staff in their entire history," he says. "I find it hard to believe that there are no black journalists out there qualified to work for The New Republic."

Racism continues to be a problem for black Americans, Raspberry continues, citing as an example social-science research in which two perfectly matched job candidates, one white, one black, apply for the same job and the black candidate invariably receives far fewer callbacks. Similar outcomes have been found concerning housing, bank loans, and other common features of everyday life. The most productive response, he says, is to make the state of race relations the focus of public debate. "It's no good talking exclusively about what's wrong with the remedy. Much of the argument over affirmative action has become focused on what's wrong with the remedies, rather than on the fact that there is still a disease."

Like Raspberry, William Van Alstyne, a Duke law professor and expert in constitutional law, points out that de-bate surrounding affirmative action too often takes place without a definition of terms. "The phrase affirmative action is no longer descriptive of any one thing in particular," he says. "If you talk about racial discrimination, I do not approve of acts of racial discrimination."

Using university initiatives to hire minority faculty members as an example, he separates the broad idea of affirmative action as currently practiced into three distinct categories of implementation: the notion of "casting a wide net" in the recruiting process, with the final selection based on qualifications rather than minority status; creation of a university affirmative action office charged with ensuring that discrimination is not being practiced in hiring decisions; and recruitment plans focused on increasing "diversity."

The first two are absolutely legal in public and private spheres, Van Alstyne says, as long as they focus on expanding pools of applicants and do not use discriminatory standards in selecting final applicants. Potential problems arise in the quest for diversity--particularly if minority status overshadows other qualifications as a criterion. Van Alstyne adds, however, that he believes greater diversity in both curriculum and student bodies are in themselves appropriate goals for universities. "Any sen-sible faculty will do this kind of thing," he says. "Things change in society and academe must respond. In law in the 1960s, Duke and other schools began teaching things like consumer protection and civil rights instead of just tax and corporations. The nature of such a new curriculum will attract talented people to teach that curriculum and will also change the gender and race profile of the institution. There's not a trace of racial discrimination in this, although it will change the composition and nature of the student body."

If less rigorous standards for admissions and hiring decisions are consciously used to promote diversity, "this is a formula for great misgivings, even for the person who is taken in under those circumstances," in Van Alstyne's view. The pursuit of diversity runs the risk of reinforcing the stereotypes and preconceptions it is intended to fight, he says.

"We need to ask if it tutors students that they should have expectations about this professor different from other faculty members. It may be the case that the woman in front of the classroom doesn't want to be perceived as a gender spokesperson. What are we talking about when we talk about diversity? Black people who act like someone's idea of how black people should act? Labeling people in categories may very well continue stereotypes. I believe one of the lessons of history is that governments, institutions, and individuals should refuse to use the methods of racism in any way. It leads to racial Balkanization and, inevitably, tragedy. In my own life, I try to act in an affirmative way with everyone I come in contact with, making no assumptions, engaging in no stereotyping."

Until the fall semester of 1995, discussion on campus about affirmative action had been carried out almost solely by faculty members. Students, however, have recently joined the debate: In November the Black Student Alliance and the Duke Review, a conservative student newspaper, spon-sored the first open student discussion on the issue in the university's history. The centerpiece of the event was a debate between Errol Smith, a black California businessman and vice-chair of the upcoming California voter initiative that would ban state-sponsored affirmative action programs, and Myrna Adams, Duke vice president for institutional equity. Smith argued that in addition to perpetuating stereotypes, affirmative action policies have in fact hurt blacks and women by creating a psychology in which they look toward institutional policies and programs as their means for advancement rather than their own ener-gy and entrepreneurial skills.

"What you will find when you that there is a lingering presumption of inferiority due at least in part to the fact that leaders in this nation have made the country think that people like me are disadvantaged and in need of programs," said Smith, quoted in The Chronicle. Adams countered by arguing that Americans are not capable of making bias-free decisions on their own because their actions take place in a free market driven by self-interest. Affirmative action, she said, is an antidote to nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism, a policy that helps all Americans by ensuring equal opportunity for all. "Affirmative action should be a temporary solution, but it is the only mechanism I know for evening the playing field," said Adams, who came to Duke in the fall. "A color-blind approach would be wonderful in an ideal world, but we need to know if we're making progress. Let me add, however, that I don't know any solid scholar who wants to be brought in solely because he's black. That's a set-up for failure."

Overall, students say last fall's debate turned out to be an evening of thoughtful discussion and give-and-take between both sides. "For such an emotionally charged issue, I thought people handled themselves very well," says Dana Elliott, a senior who is chair of academic affairs for the Black Student Alliance. "Despite the diversity of the group, we came to a consensus that affirmative action has done a lot of good, has brought equality to minority groups, and that change has taken place that likely wouldn't have happened without affirmative action."

Despite the divergent views of both faculty and students, she says she believes most undergraduates are moderates on the issue. "People get an emotional charge out of all the rhetoric and it gets discussions started, but not many people--pro or con--expect a radical positionto work," says Elliott, who served as a Central Campus representative to the Duke Student Government in 1994. "That's not how public policy and the real world works. I don't think the Duke community is on the fringe; we can discuss and see aspects of others' views." African Americans often have divergent views on the issue, she says, as Errol Smith's appearance demonstrated. "The black community is much more diverse than having one opinion on issues, and affirmative action is not just a black issue." She would like to continue student discussions this spring, she says, through small discussion groups sponsored on different parts of campus.

Nick Felten, a senior who is editor of the Duke Review, agrees that the student-sponsored debate was a model of good manners but disagrees on the status of affirmative action among students, saying his own perception is that more students are starting to question its wisdom. In his own view, rather than pro-moting racial harmony, diversity efforts are encouraging racial separatism, evidenced by the prevalence of student groups on campus whose memberships are based on race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. "Race relations are not good at Duke, and I'd attribute that to the race-based policies we have," Felten says. "People look at themselves in terms of which group they belong to and until we get by that, race relations are going to be bad."

While now seemingly on the periphery of discussions about race, Duke students in another era were at the forefront of changing the image of the university, widely perceived as a Southern gentlemen's school. Understanding current race relations at Duke in part requires understanding its tumultuous history in the 1960s. On a pleasant afternoon on Duke's main quad, where students of every race representing nationalities from around the world walk to class together and share quad benches, the state of affairs that existed on campus just a generation ago is difficult to imagine. Until 1962, Duke was a segregated, all-white campus and, through the 1960s, only small numbers of black students were enrolled. If one incident can be claimed as the point where the struggle for desegregation at Duke was won, it was in the Allen Building in February 1969, just a few dozen yards from the Social Sciences building where the vote on the black faculty initiative was taken in September. A group of sixty black Duke students, protesting overt discrimination on campus based on black enrollment and faculty hiring, as well as university officials' membership in segregated organizations such as the Hope Valley Country Club, took over the Allen building. They issued a list of thirteen demands to establish equality at Duke.

Among the students was Brenda Armstrong, now a pediatric cardiologist at Duke Medical Center and associate dean of the medical school. "The difference between students then and now has to do with the fact that most of us had experienced segregation and open discrimination for all of our lives before we came to Duke," she says. "Duke as an institution was not prepared culturally, socially, or politically. Professors as well as students had stereotypes about black students, who were brought in to compete in an ac-celerated academic program. And we were people who had lived segregated for most of our lives and were then told to live like everyone else. They thought being here alone would enhance us, but instead we found a hostile environment."

The demands included the establishment of a black studies department, dormitory, and student union; representation of black students proportional to the black population of the region, then 29 percent; the use of grades alone in admissions decisions for black students, waiving requirements for standardized tests; reinstatement of black students who had left the university due to poor grades; and an end of grading for black students. In part a reflection of the heady mood of student activism of the period, the demands--some of which were wholly or in part implemented by the university--were also a direct response to the treatment black students were subjected to at Duke, Armstrong says. Racism and discrimination--including notes left on dorm room doors and epithets yelled across campus--were part of everyday life in their dorms, in classrooms, and on campus. Their treatment caused many academically gifted black students to do poorly in their course work and, as a consequence, lose their scholarship funding, forcing them to leave school, Armstrong says. While the campus was officially desegregated, in fact, just ninety black students were enrolled at Duke at the time of the Allen Building takeover.

Observing that Duke has changed dramatically in the past twenty-five years, Armstrong says stereotypes still exist on campus and racism is still a prevalent problem in American culture. "Society at large has not advanced far enough to see people just as people. To say we should all be treated the same ignores the past 300 years."

Institutions such as Duke, she maintains, have the responsibility to change things "Children are not born understanding color; they're taught to see differences between people because of color. The only way we can get to a point of treating each other as mutual equals is to give students the chance to look at others who are different and see them as equal. Although we're still evolving in this process, the people who will benefit the most are Duke students who are being prepared to go out in the world and live and work."

The Roots of the Debate

Sasser is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.
Illustrations by Raul Colon

Copyright 1996 Duke University. All rights reserved.
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