So, You Like Affirmative Action?

Editor’s note: This post is obvious satire. If you can’t see that, then shame on you.

I have no objection to affirmative action (AA) in principle. Often candidates will be pretty much the same with respect to any objectively measurable traits relevant to the job. People make these decisions on grounds over and above strict meritocratic criteria, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. So I have no objection to hiring the person who has an unemployed spouse or children or elderly parents to support rather than some childless unmarried twenty-something with some inherited money—a fairly common kind of candidate in philosophy. Likewise, I’d hire A over B if A is a decent normal person and B is a resentful leftist who despises ordinary people and thinks they all need him to scold them about their ‘privilege’. We have enough halfwit leftist ideologues and traitors in our institutions. Ordinary people who don’t hate themselves and their families are paying for all of this, after all.

So in my ideal world, there’d be some AA. Or, better yet, there’d be informal common sense judgments about hiring and admissions and so on, without parasitic Human Resources bureaucracies subjecting these decisions to their insane micro-managerial bullshit. But actual AA policies are indifferent to the common sense moral considerations that I’ve just laid out. Is there anything we could do to make actual AA somewhat more reasonable and morally defensible?

Let’s grant any of the (absurd) justifications that the establishment takes to support actual AA. For example, it’s needed because we need ‘diversity’. Mere racial or ethnic or cultural difference—among other kinds of mere difference—is valuable somehow, and actual AA is the best or only way to bring it about. Or it’s needed because we have to ‘represent’ every group in society. If 1% of the US population are disabled lesbians, we should have at least a few of those in academic philosophy. Or it’s needed because it’s a matter of justice. Some groups are ‘under-represented’ in philosophy (or whatever) because there’s some kind of ‘systemic’ oppression working against them, and actual AA serves to counteract this horrible (invisible) oppression. Now one problem that immediately arises is that there are so many groups that could reasonably claim preferences under any of these justifications. Not just blacks and native Indians and so-called ‘hispanics’ but also gays and women, Pacific Islanders and Puerto Ricans, Muslims and Arabs—and don’t you dare forget that not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs! So many groups, but only a very small number of positions open, especially in this dismal economy and especially in a field like philosophy.

Here is one solution. Within the class C against whom we are going to discriminate with our AA policies, identify some sub-class C1 such that our discrimination would be far better justified under the usual justifications than it would be for some other sub-class C2. Keep on discriminating as before against C1 as before, but discriminate much more harshly against C2. Keep doing this until we’ve run out of relevant comparisons between sub-classes. (Another and perhaps better solution would be to start firing or forcing into early retirement most of those straight white males who still hold so many positions and, interestingly, tend to favor very aggressive AA against people like themselves. But I’m thinking here of what is realistically possible.)

Are there actually any such pairs of sub-classes within the non-preferred class? Indeed there are. Obviously, I am proposing far harsher discrimination against Straight Male White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (SMWASPs). (Or those who don’t think they’re women and don’t have any disabilities, or whatever exactly makes you a bad privileged person at this point. You get the idea.) Those guys are so clearly the most privileged and over-represented. They run everything. Our whole society is based on worship of their culture and their heroes and their historical narrative. Everyone knows that if you criticize them your career is in danger. Every movie and TV show is basically just propaganda for SMWASP hegemony. Another show about Davy Crockett? Yet another movie about those heroic early British colonists fighting off hostile savage Indians? Enough already. Our kids are already brainwashed by third grade. They’re only told about the achievements of SMWASPs. They never hear about The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, Doctor of Philosophy, for example. Isn’t it time to expose people to someone else’s experience and perspective and history? And within the discipline of philosophy, our canon and methodology are not just Euro-centric but, more specifically, SMWASP-centric. Seems like every second professor is a SMWASP. All those John Smiths and Peter Browns and Henry Joneses. What happened to everyone else?

Just kidding. I am thinking, of course, of Jews. (Especially the ones who are male, able-bodied, don’t think they’re women, etc.) And since so many of them are also Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) I assume they’ll readily agree with my proposal once I lay out the reasoning. Within the generic class of the non-preferred, there is no other sub-class so astoundingly ‘privileged’ and ‘over-represented’ in positions of power and prestige and influence both within our larger society and within the discipline of philosophy. Jews are maybe 2% of the US population but almost 50% of all US billionaires. If Obama gets his way, they’ll be almost half of the Supreme Court justices. Jews really do have a greatly disproportionate power over the media and the banks. The Chairman (Chairperson?) of the Federal Reserve is always Jewish. Look at who owns the big media companies and networks. On my desk I have some typical introductory anthology for a class in ethics, and almost half of the essays by contemporary philosophers are written by Jews. In the history of the discipline in the last century, for example, we find that Jews make up an absurd proportion of the Great Philosophers. Jewish perspectives and interests tend to be given far greater importance than others, both in the larger culture and in philosophy. How many movies and TV shows and books and university courses have there been about the Holocaust as compared with the Holodomor? Why do we have the term ‘anti-semitism’ as a completely familiar and ordinary thing in our language, when the term ‘anti-gentilism’ sounds weird and fake? (Is it because there’s never been much anti-gentile prejudice or animosity within Jewish religion or culture, or it’s never had any important effects on society?) Finally, if we have any worries about ‘systemic’ bias and unfairness, it seems hard to deny that the massive over-representation of Jews tends to create a ‘chilly climate’ for people whose interests conflict with theirs, that Jews may tend to be a little nepotistic or even hostile to non-Jewish groups, and that this may tend to operate in the form of ‘systemic’ and often implicit bias against others. At least, if we accept the arguments along these lines meant to support claims of ‘systemic’ bias or oppression in support of generic white hegemony, similar and equally compelling arguments hold with respect to Jewish hegemony.

Thus, in deciding who to hire, the committee should always prefer any other kind of candidate over the Jew. If you’re stuck with a short list of straight white males—a bunch of SMWASPs, for example—and just one Jewish guy you should either cancel the search or, if that’s not feasible, you should throw the Jewish guy’s application in the trash without even looking at it. Maybe there should be a freeze on all hiring of Jews, or Jewish men, at least, for the next 30 years. That would open up a lot of positions for other kinds of people, even if we kept on discriminating against non-Jewish straight white males. In fact, depending on some number-crunching we have yet to do, we might well find that discrimination against the non-Jewish whites was not warranted, or that it should be much less intense than it currently is. Anyway, at the very least we should always strongly prefer the non-Jewish straight white male over the Jewish one in those regrettable cases where those are the only two options available to us.

I don’t endorse this line of thought myself. It depends on those really bad arguments that are supposed to justify actual AA policies in place of the more reasonable ones I like. I suspect that Jews are ‘privileged’ and ‘over-represented’ at least in part because they tend to have certain abilities and motivations that are less common and less pronounced in some other groups. But that’s crazy talk. After all, if that were true about Jews, something similar might be true about non-Jewish white people. And, as many prominent Jewish intellectuals have pointed out, that kind of thinking—about non-Jewish white people—leads inevitably to anti-semitism and genocide. So never mind my crazy idea. All those sensible people who accept the arguments I reject should be open to my proposal. As far as I know it hasn’t received much attention yet. I hope this little essay may open up one of those edifying and important ‘dialogues’ about race and ethnicity and privilege we’ve so often been told we need.

Henry Fowler

Henry Fowler teaches philosophy in a Celtic land, and believes we are probably living in the End Times.

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  1. Your version of AA is really freedom of contract — the freedom to hire the persons you choose to hire for your own reasons, and not to be coerced by government into hiring them for other reasons. As a former executive who was involved in AA audits by the Lilliputian minions of the government, I can tell you that it is a big waste of time and money to be forced to justify in great detail the failure to have enough black employees. This is especially true when the obvious answer, which the Lilliputians won’t accept, is that finding a qualified black employee for anything more than manual labor almost always pits a black against better-qualified whites.

  2. You’ve just given an explanation for how Jews aren’t underdogs, and the whole point is to discriminate in favor of the underdogs/oppressed/disadvantaged. You could try to bring up an argument for discriminating against Asians in academia as well, but you run into the same problem. The point is to level the playing field. After adjusting for systemic racism, oppression, disadvantage (lack of privilege), etc., the underdogs are just as qualified for the jobs as the privileged are. (If you say that the qualifications of the underdogs need to be improved, that BRIXISHly implies that they’re underqualified.) This is the best argument I know of for AA.

    • (I think I just justified making pro sports populated more by white/Jewish/Asian athletes, once the appropriate adjustments for physical disadvantage and whatnot are made? Is this politically correct? Adjusting for height, strength, Big-Aristotle wisdom, and time/practice/understanding put into the job of playing Center, I’m sure we can find plenty of whites/Jews/Asians just as qualified as Shaq for that job/position. Then again, Shaq wasn’t a marginal NBA player and the case for reverse discrimination seems to hinge on what to do at the margins. Surely we wouldn’t want to get so ridiculous as to suggest that just anyone is as qualified as he was to play Center in the NBA? Maybe we should reserve such arguments for other NBA centers – e.g., Tristan Thompson (you’ve heard of him, yes?) might be just as qualified as Shaq after the adjustments. Think of “NBA Team” – an elite organization – as a rough subsitute for “Top 32 Philosophy Department,” so that these departments can reverse discriminate appropriately.)

    • “Tristan Thompson might be just as qualified as Shaq”

      Go home, Ultimate, yer drunk. Shaq could practically dunk flat-footed; Thompson is valuable only for his defense. The guy averages just 7 pts. a game.

      “the whole point is to discriminate in favor of the underdogs/oppressed/disadvantaged.”

      I’m not following. Henry is saying that you can discriminate in favor the underdog/oppressed by discriminating more against the WASPS/Jews/etc.

    • Nice reductio of the arbitrary logic of leftist identity politics. You are sounding a lot like Jacques.
      What happened to Jacques anyway?

  3. Hi Thomas,
    I like freedom of contract, but I also wouldn’t mind much if the government coerced employers into hiring some kinds of people provided these people really are basically equal with respect to all the relevant merit-based criteria. For example, if employers (or those receiving government funds, at least) were forced to hire poor people with young children over rich people with none. More generally, government enforced preferences aimed at real social goods (as opposed to garbage like ‘diversity’). That wouldn’t bother me, though I could be persuaded that some kind of libertarian principle trumps these considerations. But I didn’t make that clear enough in the post.

  4. Hi Ultimate Philosopher,
    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. In your first comment I think (?) you’re arguing that AA for non-Asian minorities (NAMs) can be justified because these minorities are underdogs who are just as well qualified as white people (or whatever), and AA merely serves to ‘level the playing field’ by correcting for the oppression and bias that they’ve encountered. (Is that the ‘best argument’ or the ‘same problem’ you’re referring to?)

    If this is what you’re saying, I don’t think the argument is very convincing as it stands. First of all, if NAMs have encountered so much oppression and bias, it’s likely (at least) that this would have been happening throughout their education and training, with the result that they would really be less qualified (though their less than equal qualifications would be the result of an injustice). For example, if blacks don’t have a ‘level playing field’ when it comes to applying for jobs because of ‘systemic racism’, they probably don’t have a ‘level playing field’ when it comes to getting an education. So their education was probably worse, and they probably are not as well educated as a result. But we don’t need to speculate. NAMs do worse on every measure of qualification or merit that we can come up with, in a wide range of areas. I guess proponents of AA could say that those measures are all biased–that grades and SAT scores and all the rest are racist. But then it’s hard to imagine how we could know that they are _equally_ qualified once we set aside the effects of racism. (How is that supposed to be measured?) And it’s worth noting that this kind of argument for AA won’t work for white women, who are among the main beneficiaries. It’s just not plausible that they are underdogs; or anyway, if they’re underdogs then a lot of poor and working-class white men are underdogs too, and they should also get AA. So as a defense of actual AA policies it won’t work.

    But in any case, I wasn’t really trying to object to AA. So if there are some good arguments for it, that’s fine. I just claim that any such argument will also imply that we should have AA discrimination against Jews and in favor of non-Jewish whites. So, if we adapt the argument that (I think) you’re making, it seems to be a good argument for that kind of discrimination. Non-Jewish whites really are underdogs by comparison with Jews. They are much less wealthy, much less powerful. And I suspect that if look into the numbers we’ll find that they are significantly _under_represented in positions of power and influence relative to their share of the general population, while Jews are significantly _over_represented. Why not level the playing field for them too? I guess it could be argued that non-Jewish whites just do not face any kind of bias or oppression, while NAMs really do, and that non-Jewish whites are not really underdogs (i.e., that their relative poverty and under-representation are just the results of an entirely fair process or system). But that would be a risky move for proponents of AA, since the only real evidence they offer for their view that NAMs are victims of bias and oppression consists in average differences in wealth, education, under-representation, etc.

    • Interesting and thoughtful comment, though keep in mind that my comment was more or less in line with the satirical tone of the original posting. I think it’s clear that given the usual rationale employed by advocates of AA, it makes plenty of sense (under such a rationale) to discount the credentials of particular sorta-arbitrarily-defined classes/categories of people deemed “advantaged”, and that means Jews and Asians especially. This discriminatory practice doesn’t seem so innocent and benign after all.

      And if there is some putatively compelling interest in achieving diversity, then the advocates of AA find themselves yet again on the ass end of their pseudo-righteousness: they should make much more effort to achieve ideological diversity (i.e., discount the credentials of left-wingers and amplify the credentials of conservatives and libertarians).

  5. In the spirit of looking after the needs of the oppressed and those who have natural defects, I say we take it easy on brain donor PZ Myers.

  6. Sorry, sort of off topic, but not completely, and I thought this post was the least off topic thread in which I might post.

    I read this article today, and while I disagree with much therein, I thought it was a pretty damaging “insider” expose. Sort of like ex-Scientologists and similar former cultists pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

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