In the Fall of 1996 my feelings regarding the discrimination and unfairness of affirmative action had reached the breaking point.
The Department was forming a committee to interview applicants for a new psychology instructor. After participating on every psychology hiring committee since I joined the Grossmont College faculty (27 years earlier), I decided I could no longer take part in an immoral hiring process.
This was a difficult decision, because it meant that I would no longer have a say in who joined me as a teaching colleague. After sharing my ideas with an African American counselor, the Department Chair, the Division Dean, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and the President of the College, I wrote the accompanying letter to the members of the Behavioral Sciences Department (names are disguised by pseudonyms).
August 26, 1996
After nearly two weeks of troubled thought and conversation, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot, in good conscience, participate on the hiring committee or in the hiring process for the open psychology position. I'm truly sorry to have burdened you to this point with my opinions, only to drop out when we appear to have reached some resolution on the composition of the committee. I haven't come to this decision casually or with haste but only after careful consideration and prolonged introspection.
Over this period of time I've spoken with several people regarding my concerns. I talked a great deal with Randy, the Chair, to include a three-hour telephone conversation. I had a friendly hour and a half chat with Emma, a counselor who struck me as wonderfully sensitive and warm. I spoke for an hour and a half with our Dean, Norma. Norma was more than a supervisor—a thoughtful, fair, caring, and empathic listener. We related, in my mind, as friends. I spoke for an hour and a half with the College President, Jorge. Having never before talked with him at length, I was pleased to find Jorge to be attentive to my feelings, considerate, warm, and refreshingly absent of overbearingness. I've talked with some really nice people....
As you each know, intertwined with this issue has been that of affirmative action. Were this solely to mean a concerted effort to advertise the position fairly, to include whatever minority institutions and publications we can identify, I would have no reluctance and in fact would wholeheartedly insist that we do so. I would eagerly seek assistance. I have seen affirmative action, however, in practice at Grossmont College under prior College presidents. I have witnessed firsthand that it means hiring minorities and women—disregarding the hundreds of hours of work of the faculty in objectifying criteria, reading college transcripts, vitae, and letters of reference, evaluating interviews and sample lectures, and meticulously blinding ourselves to skin color and gender—with a firm, authoritarian slap of the hand.
In my conversations I've become convinced that each of us seeks the same goal: an egalitarian, open society in which our students see role models and professionals who demonstrate that people of any ethnicity, color, gender, or other factor irrelevant to teaching and academia can participate. I see none of us as having a racist or sexist agenda. Where we differ is on how to get to the goal.
What have been the effects of affirmative action? I can no longer tolerate hearing my minority or female colleagues ask (as I've heard them) or imply, “Gosh, I hope you people wanted me. I hope I'm not here because of my skin color or because I'm a female.” I can no longer bear the pain this brings, the awkward silence, the embarrassed turns of the head, the anxious attempts at consolation, and in the end, the bitterness. I can no longer endure conversations outside the classroom door with my white, male students in which they say, “I'd like to teach, but I know the odds are against me because I'm white and male.” This state of affairs is not right.
Those of us who would participate on the hiring committee have strong and divergent views on this matter. As morally repugnant as I would find excluding an individual from hiring because of his or her black, brown, or olive skin, or because the candidate is a female—to that same extent do I find it morally repugnant to favor a candidate by these criteria. Accidents of DNA irrelevant to teaching must no longer remain as hiring criteria. Some on the committee have repeatedly and firmly reminded me that their position—and not mine—is the law, is directed by the state, and is College policy. There is a moral law that runs deeper than the whims of the state and the heavy fist of authority. I must heed that law as I sense it. As much as those of you now supported in your views by the powers of the state believe that you are behaving morally—to that degree and more do I find your actions immoral. I cannot participate in them.
In my conversation with the President I discovered that the top three candidates of the hiring committee are to be submitted (unranked) to him, to be interviewed by the President, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the Dean, and the Chair. Together this group is to make the final decision. I asked: What are the criteria you use in making this decision? To my best understanding the answer is: quality of teaching above all else, “balance” in the department, and, as an additional factor, “diversity.” It is these buzzwords that disturb me, because I know that they mean that the candidate's skin color and gender are to be “a factor” in the decision-making. The College President assures me that he must look at the campus as a whole, seeing the “big picture,” and this requires a search for “diversity.”
I've heard all this before, from persons lacking the sensitivity and warmth of Jorge. I've watched as affirmative action required that we hire a minority person or female in order to “balance” our department. Later we were told that we must “balance” the entire College. Let me be clear. I have no fear of being overwhelmed by minorities or females. If every teacher were hired because he or she is the best in academic rigor, in a passionate love of students, in ability and enthusiasm for teaching, and in fair-mindedness and honesty, I wouldn't care if I were the only white male or the only male or the only white person in the department. I do not feel threatened by “diversity.” I simply seek the best—not the “qualified,” not the “qualifiable,” and not the “diverse,” but the “best.” As I've told you, I want the best brain surgeon, not the most diverse; the best Space Shuttle pilot, not the most diverse; the best teachers, not the most diverse. Our students deserve nothing less. We owe this to them.
Good, honest people can honestly disagree, can't they? For those in favor of “affirmative action” in its current garb, classifying, counting, and selecting is what we must do to correct centuries of racism and sexism. We have, after all, our state-mandated targets which we are not supposed to call “quotas” except behind closed doors. Without denying the history of bigotry, or its sad pervasiveness today, I simply cannot sanction racism and sexism in order to eliminate them. As I've said to each of you and in all my conversations over the past week and a half, in my eyes this thing called “affirmative action” is merely a euphemism for institutionalized racism and sexism. The state is now openly doing what the street bigot hopes to do in the dark. As much as the Right was accused of doublespeak during the Vietnam War (bombing innocent civilians was “defoliation”), the Left is today vulnerable to the same accusation in packaging racism and sexism under the sanitized labels of “affirmative action” and “diversity.”
In my talks during this time I've spoken with a white male, but his whiteness and his maleness were irrelevant to our discussion. I've spoken with an African American woman, but what made our conversation so warm was that we were just two people trying to get through this life and make the world better. I've spoken with a white female, and the warmth and honesty of our meeting went deeper than skin color or sex. I've spoken with a Latino male, but to me he was simply a kind and open fellow human. These meetings were special because we talked not as African-, Latino-, or Anglo-Americans, not as male or female, but as equal and fallible humans. How, then, can you expect me to participate in a process that at one point or another places our fellow human beings into artificial boxes so that we can “diversify?”
I know that it is popular now to fractionate ourselves into social and ethnic identities. This is a passing fad in which I can have no part. The onward moral tide flows against it. The slain, black hero who dreamed of the day when all of us would be judged by the content of our character was one of “my people,” and yet I am not “African-American.” The naked, brown Indian who stood in civil disobedience against the brute force of the British Empire was one of “my people,” and yet I am neither Hindu nor Indian. The courageous, olive-skinned student who faced the muzzle of a tank's gun outside Tiananmen Square was one of “my people,” and yet I am not “Asian.” These people—the great and courageous and good—they are “my people,” and we disown our “diversity” so that together we can be human. We defy the regional, ethnic, and genetic boundaries that mean so much to the proponent of affirmative action.
The whole idea of judging a person's qualifications by ethnicity, skin color, or gender is alien to me to the core. I look into the eyes of my students and see, not blocks of Asians, Africans, Native-Americans, Pacific Islanders, males, or females, but persons, each no better and no worse than I, each with unplumbed potential transcending ethnicity and sex. To invite them selectively into the classroom, using “diversity” as one among many criteria, would sicken me as much as it does to invite prospective faculty selectively into our College community on that same basis. Where some of you look at the chosen faculty member and compliment yourselves on his or her “diversity,” I recall the faces, the eyes, the hopes of the rejected candidates who do not join us simply because they failed the test of genetic “diversity.” Why don't we honestly tell these people, up front, that if they are not “diverse”—a variable entirely beyond their control and having nothing to do with effort or achievement—they are at a disadvantage? Haven't we yet learned that to discriminate for inevitably means to discriminate against?
When I was a boy of twelve, my twenty-year-old brother flattered me by asking my opinion about the woman he was about to marry. “Do you see anything wrong,” he asked, “in my marrying a Mexican-American?” This was before the days of Chicanos and Chicanas, Hispanics, Latinos and Latinas. “All that matters,” I answered, “is whether or not you love her.” Many years later, I am proud of myself for that youthful wisdom. I am proud of my brother that, unlike those who practice affirmative action, he ignored skin color. I regard my three nephews as my family and not as Latino, Hispanic, Chicano, Mexican, Anglo, or European. It will hurt me, as it will embitter them, when they apply for a job one day and are hired—even when the scale is only tipped ever so slightly—because their skin is darker than that of others.
It is easier to treat people unethically as a group than to do so one-on-one and face-to-face. I wish that you could meet two former students, E, a white male, and F, a black female. What a pleasure to have them in the classroom and to enjoy them now as friends. As a couple they've experienced the jeers of both white and black bigots when they hold hands or sit in a bar. They know firsthand the stupidity of those black and white who say they ought to “stick to your own kind.” Neither of them approves of affirmative action if it means favoritism, extra points, or special treatment. Should F apply to teach at our College, it must be someone other than I who tells her that skin color or gender tipped the balance so that she was hired rather than a white male. It must be someone other than I who informs E that his skin was too white, that someone of another color, ethnicity, or gender, equally or less “qualified,” was preferred so that we could achieve “diversity.” Our hard-working students are wiser than the rules we invent to bind them.
To those of you who differ with me on this matter, I respect the fact that like myself you too seek a better world. Can you respect me as well? Where we differ—and differ so sharply—is on the means. I maintain that when we sully ourselves by engaging in an immoral means we, and all that we touch, come out stained. I claim no superiority to you—neither by diplomas, nor publications, nor education, nor status, and certainly not by sex, ethnicity, or skin hue. We are equals, and this outer shell means nothing in the ultimate scheme of things. You know that as well as I. If only we could agree to judge our prospective faculty with that in mind. I know that some of you, because of my view, regard me as “rigid.” There are times when one man's or woman's rigidity is another's integrity. I suspect that some of you regard me as “naive.” I prefer naivet to prejudice.
I can no longer miss hours and nights of sleep over this. I can no longer jeopardize my health—both physical and spiritual—in the effort to come to an understanding with those whose outlook in this one fundamental area is so alien to mine. In previous years I've participated each time I was called on to hire. I tried to participate this time. I've sought contrary views. I've talked up and down the hierarchical ladder of the College. I've avoided campus-wide memos, politicized voting blocks, and clandestine meetings. I've waved no banners and recruited no cheering sections. I've spoken with some very thoughtful people, and I've formed or strengthened bonds with a few sensitive and caring colleagues. I've approached this in my way. But the water, by this time, has become too muddy, too foul, for wading.
I wish you each well.