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Affirmative action is a good idea

Sherman Alexie got burned, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right

September 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

Sherman Alexie, a poet and writer of Native American heritage, shocked readers with his descriptions of engaging in affirmative action in a nuanced report about editing the latest “Best American Poetry” collection. But besides a few grumbles from poets who didn’t make the cut, no one would have heard anything about this process if a white guy named Michael Derrick Hudson hadn’t submitted a poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou, hoping to game a system that he thought treated him unfairly.

Hudson won the battle (and inclusion in the anthology), but lost the reputation war; he will, perhaps fittingly, need a third name if he wants to continue publishing. But the debate over affirmative action will outlast this particular controversy, and Alexie’s honesty gives us a starting place for rethinking it.

Alexie does not play dumb in his explanation. He admits exactly what many whites have long feared: “Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American.” “Aha!” say the Michael Derrick Hudsons of the world, who believe they’ve caught someone doing something wrong: discriminating on the basis of race.

But this reaction represents a huge misunderstanding about what affirmative action is for, how it works and why it’s a good idea for everyone. White supremacy and patriarchy are wrong not just because they’re unfair or mean or deleterious; they’re also incorrect in their premises that whites and men (and white men in particular) are by nature any better at anything than anyone else. Starting with this simple (albeit political) fact, affirmative action doesn’t even seem radical; it seems obvious.

Taste in poetry is by definition subjective, so it’s hard to argue that Alexie’s volume of “Best American Poetry” (60 percent women, 40 percent nonwhite) is conclusively better than it would have been without affirmative action. There’s also no reason to believe Alexie’s weighted selection hurt the overall product, though; in fact, there’s good reason to believe it helped.

Comparing poets is difficult, but comparing professors is a little easier, and from Alexie’s accounting, we know that 99 percent of the writers included in “Best American Poetry 2015” teach. There is a lot of quantitative research into diversity in the academy, and all of it points to the fact that being a professor in any field is easier for white men. Racial minorities are largely underpromoted on the path from associate to full professor, but it’s not for lack of effort; a study at the University of Massachusetts found white male associate professors spent the least amount of time on service to their school and profession and student mentoring, by a substantial margin.

If you don’t want to engage in affirmative action, then you’re just adopting white male mediocrity as your standard of excellence.

Affirmative action seeks to take these realities into consideration. Whereas opponents caricature diverse hiring practices as cosmetic or tokenist, anyone should be able to conclude that an easy shortcut to improving the quality of college teaching would be to stop hiring so many white men. Affirmative action isn’t an act of kindness; it’s a smart management decision — and not just in academia.

In a study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, investors were less likely to want to fund a pitch by female entrepreneurs, even under controlled settings in which the pitches were the same. For investors who employ sophisticated data models to find the smallest advantage in a highly competitive market, this is a huge blind spot. The study suggests not only that there’s bias among overwhelmingly white male investors (no shock there) but also that the market is undervaluing women’s ideas and work. (Another way to phrase that information is that the market is overvaluing men’s ideas and work.)

Jayy Dodd teased out this unavoidable conclusion last month in a piece for Medium, titled “White men are unimpressive.” In arts, entertainment and public commentary, the bar is higher for women and people of color and especially women of color, he wrote; in the liberal public sphere, this is no longer disputed much. Hudson’s fraud, then, wasn’t just to lend an Asian contrast to his poem; it was for putting an unearned asterisk next to his name that implied he worked harder and faced longer odds and put up with more adversity and was undervalued.

The implication that the bar is lower for white men is a lot more anxiety-inducing than accepting that women and people of color have to work more. We’re willing to accept that systematic bias structures our culture but do so less readily when we have to confront what that means for someone like Michael Derrick Hudson.

Like any other judgment criteria, race- and gender-based affirmative action isn’t error-proof, nor is it impervious to the occasional knave like Hudson who tries to work it. But data from all sorts of different fields suggest that it makes our perception of reality more accurate. Affirmative action is an improvement on American judgment.

In our Big Data–driven society, in which competition is supposed to filter for merit, why aren’t smart managers and owners practicing aggressive affirmative action above and beyond proportional representation? There is, in effect, a cartel of white men agreeing not to compete to employ the talents and abilities of people who don’t look like them — the very existence of which calls into question the whole labor system’s supposedly competitive structure. The fact remains that if you don’t want to engage in affirmative action, then you’re just adopting white male mediocrity as your standard of excellence.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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