Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote:
There is, of course, a lot of pretense or self-delusion (you can take your choice) in all that pertains to affirmative action.
Those words came to mind this morning when I received an EEO/AA Program Policy Statement from my employer:
The University … is an equal employment opportunity employer. The University does not discriminate or tolerate harassment on any basis prohibited by applicable Federal and/or State law including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, citizenship status, Vietnam era or special disabled veteran status in recruitment, employment, promotion, compensation, benefits, or training….
The University … remains committed to seeking the best-qualified person to fill each available position and will reward each employee based on his or her job performance. As President, I reaffirm our pledge to base decisions on employment and promotion on the principle of equal employment opportunity. In addition, the University will ensure that all personnel actions will be administered without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, citizenship status, Vietnam era or special disabled veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
This Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action policy shall be implemented throughout the University. It is the responsibility of all departments and personnel to ensure the University’s compliance.
To quote Scalia, “This is, quite literally, incredible.” Affirmative action policies give preferences to members of some groups—in a university setting, generally, preferences in favor of blacks, Hispanics, and especially women. But preferences favoring members of some groups invariably disfavor members of others—typically, whites, Asians, Jews, and men. Setting two different standards for hiring, raises, promotion, and the like, and applying one or the other based on race, color, sex, and national origin certainly sounds like discrimination.
Advocates point out that the bar hasn’t been raised for the disfavored groups; it’s simply been lowered for others. In some sense that’s true. Given that budgets are finite, however, the response is specious. A position that goes to a minority group member doesn’t go to someone else. Higher raises for women inevitably mean lower raises for men. Advocates again try to make it appear that this isn’t so; they set aside special positions for “targets of opportunity”—as a former colleague once said, “Why are minorities always targets?”—and special raise pools for special groups. But surely no one would find similar practices acceptable in reverse. “You’re free to compete for positions here on an equal basis. Of course, we’ve set aside certain positions for whites only.” No one would think that makes an employer immune from charges of racism.
I don’t mean to pick on my own employer here. Similar statements are made throughout the United States by organizations of all kinds. They’re legally required. And people have to pretend they make sense. But they’re blatantly self-contradictory.
Their contradictory nature doesn’t prevent them from communicating a policy: You mustn’t discriminate, except, of course, in favor of certain preferred groups. Even then you mustn’t be too obvious about it.
What counts as obvious nevertheless varies. Publish or perish? I know of a number of minority group members who have been tenured at major research universities without a single published article in their academic fields. Raises? About once a decade my university performs a “gender equity study” that finds women underpaid relative to men. Large raises suddenly go to all female faculty members. The study never takes into account data that might be relevant—things like publications, citations, teaching evaluations, and all the other things departments review when assigning raises—nor does it consider differences among academic fields. Again, no one would find these actions acceptable in reverse.
The policies are supposedly temporary. But they’ve been in place for more than forty years and show no sign of going away. Indeed, there is now an entire cohort of people whose professional positions and advancement have depended on these programs. There is also a cohort of people in personnel offices and legal departments whose positions consist in administering them. It’s hard to see how the pretense or self-delusion will ever end.