« Keeping On Keeping On | Blog Main | Want to increase your hits? Don't do anything. »

Guest Post: Affirmative Action is no longer a useful term.

Thanks to FairerScience friend, Catherine N. Duckett for the following post:

I have recently had two experiences which lead me to believe that the academic community needs to discuss the term ‘Affirmative action’ and consider alternatives. I believe it is no longer a term that is universally comprehensible in its intended meaning and therefore not a useful term. Why is 'Affirmative Action' is not a useful phrase? It has clearly taken on the meaning that ‘that individual was hired because of race or gender and that they are not the most qualified’ or in some cases qualified at all. This has been clear in the public discussions of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the supreme court, Last night on the PBS Newshour David Brooks said something to the effect of ‘well she is clearly not a classical affirmative action candidate because of her high qualifications’. What I take from that statement is that classically ‘Affirmative Action ‘ candidates were not fully qualified.

However, it was clear that President Obama needed to pick a woman for the supreme court or a Latino, and this need was discussed widely in the press. Therefore, in the original sense of ‘Affirmative Action’ Judge Sotomayor is an affirmative action candidate in that she affirms the value of diversity in looking through all the diverse groups (with whom you may not be fully socially comfortable) to find a well-qualified candidate.

Pat offered me this guest post after I described to her an experience with a respected senior dean at a local community college, where the Dean (who is clearly one of the good guys) in describing some of their female engineering students who had recently gone on to good jobs told me “They were not affirmative action candidates! They were fully qualified”. I was shocked (naïve me) that he would consider affirmative action candidates as not fully qualified and consequently did not correct him. I missed an opportunity to engage in discussion of why we want diversity and how difficult it is for some individuals to choose people who are racially or socially different from them and they may not feel the most comfortable with in during the hiring process.

I think it is time to retire the term 'Affirmative Action' and come up with something that suggests ‘superbly qualified and just not your best friend’ got any good suggestions?
"Best role models?" "Excellent AND different'?

Catherine N. Duckett was trained as an entomologist, after eight years as a faculty member at University of Puerto Rico she returned to her native New Jersey, where she is currently a consultant and an adjunct professor at Rutgers. Her interests in 'Affirmative Action' developed from her own experiences interviewing for jobs and her recent work at the Office of Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics at Rutgers.


Great question. I've had several conversations recently with people my age who agree that affirmative action does not work.

As in, it neither helps the cause of minorities now, nor in the future. Because these token few who do get the benefit of what is apparently paranoia about diversity... are rarely willing or able to give back to the future generations to the extent that is needed. Even if they are willing, too much is needed for these few to do. And they usually arrive to find themselves completely isolated and relatively powerless, anyway. So it's not really such a great reward to get a job this way, plus they're always left wondering if they got it "only" to be a visible token, whether it's true or not.

As in, we need something that will induce more significant change, and we need it fast. But I'm not sure what that would be. I guess "diversity" is the new term now, at least where I live, but it's so vague as to be almost useless.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)