Almost 30 years ago, after claiming he had lost a teaching position to a woman of color, Thomas Wood turned his private frustration in to a public crusade in the form of Proposition 209, a California initiative that ultimately abolished affirmative action in education, employment and contracting in the state. At the time, Wood was a candidate for a job teaching philosophy at a California university and was convinced that he was the most qualified for the position. In my book “Racing for Innocence: Whiteness, Gender, and the Backlash Against Affirmative Action,” I write that Woods was told by a member of the search committee, “‘You know Tom, it sounds to me as though you’d probably just waltz into this job if you were the right race or right sex.’”
In my book, I indicate that when Woods told the media that he was the most qualified candidate for the job he didn’t get, he failed to mention the fact that he had not published articles in any academic journal in the first 15 years after receiving his doctorate — “a record of productivity that would disqualify him from employment in any serious research university.” Wood did not mention that he had never been employed in a permanent teaching position and that the actual job he held was as a computer programmer. He held only a part-time adjunct position as an instructor. In my book I say that “The television news program Dateline later revealed that of the five jobs Wood might have applied for, four went to white male candidates. The fifth went to a woman who was far superior to Wood in academic achievement.”
As my research on the print news media in the 1990s demonstrates, the story of a white man who claimed to have been injured by affirmative action became a dominant narrative, thereby reinforcing the notion that “reverse discrimination” was a common occurrence. Significantly, in my book I cite a 1995 government study conducted by the U.S. Labor Department that revealed that actual cases of reverse discrimination against white men were quite rare. Of the 300 cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “reverse discrimination was established in six cases, and the courts provided immediate relief in those cases.” The study concluded that many of the cases were “the result of a disappointed applicant failing to examine his or her own qualifications and erroneously assuming that when a woman or minority got a job it was because of their race or sex, not qualifications.”
As the Supreme Court considers the Fisher case, it must keep in mind that race is only one factor of many considered in admissions to the University of Texas at Austin. Equally important, many good students are denied admission to top schools like the University of Texas because their high school records are not exceptional enough. Fisher was not in the top 10 percent of her high school class and thus fell short of the standard for students admitted under the “Top Ten Percent plan.” She was then considered in a pool of students where academic achievement as well as personal performance measures such as talent, leadership, community service, family circumstance and race were among the many factors considered. Was Fisher a student body president or the editor of her school newspaper? Did she work part time to help support her family during an economic crisis? Was she a first-generation college student? These are some of the questions admissions officers consider along with thinking about creating a diverse student body. But this does not mean that race trumps merit. At selective universities, like UT Austin, all students admitted are meritorious.
At the same time, this means many good students aren’t accepted and may be disappointed. I too was a “disappointed applicant” in the late 1970s when I applied to an elite private university. Unlike Fisher, however, I assumed that my record was not exceptional enough for that school. Significantly, this was long before anti-affirmative action rhetoric became prominent — a set of arguments that pits race against merit when, in fact, the reality of elite university admissions is far more complex.
Jennifer Pierce received her doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley and is currently a professor at the University of Minnesota.
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