had a discussion in my group today about affirmative action. One of the guys comented that if we promoted women in male fields soon all groups on the fringes of society would ask for prefferential treatment. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me for a while, but wait a minute since when are women a fringe group. And this from a man that considers himself liberal and progressive. Poor Rachel, one day her eyes will open and she will see how much worse she is off as a woman. I’ll be there for her to come crying to.
No indeedy, 50% of the population does not constitute a “fringe” group. So what was our moron, our nice guy liberal progressive moron, actually thinking when he made his obviously factually incorrect statement? To understand his pronouncement, it is necessary to define a few terms and then translate what he said into language we can better understand.
Equality for women = Preferential treatment
Promoting women in “male” fields = Lowering “our” standards
“Male fields” ≠ male-dominated fields
“Male fields” = Science and engineering belong to us men
All groups on the fringes = non-whites and non-males
Ask for preferential treatment = unreasonably demanding what they do not deserve
Now, with these simple definitions in mind, we can translate the original statement:
If we promoted women in male fields soon all groups on the fringes of society would ask for preferential treatment.
If we lowered our standards, science and engineering, which belongs to us white men, would be overrun by hordes of non-white, non-male freakazoids who are unreasonable and demanding of things they don’t deserve. They would ruin everything, and western civilization as we know it would collapse. People ought to know their place and keep to it.
This incessant pouting of white men about the need to avoid preferential treatment and to remain colorblind is just the latest fashion in maintaining the status quo while appearing to be all for equality. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ian F. Haney Lopez writes, in Colorblind to the Reality of Race in America, about the conservative legal attack on civil rights using the trope of “color-blindness”:
We find ourselves now in the midst of a racial era marked by what I term “colorblind white dominance,” in which a public consensus committed to formal antiracism deters effective remediation of racial inequality, protecting the racial status quo while insulating new forms of racism and xenophobia.
Wielding the ideal of colorblindness as a sword, in the past three decades racial conservatives on the Supreme Court have increasingly refought the battles lost during the civil-rights era, cutting back on protections against racial discrimination as well as severely limiting race-conscious remedies. In several cases in the 1970s — including North Carolina State Board of Education v. Swann, upholding school-assignment plans, and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke — the court ruled that the need to redress the legacy of segregation made strict colorblindness impossible. But as the 1980s went on, in other cases — McCleskey v. Kemp, which upheld Georgia’s death penalty despite uncontroverted statistical evidence that African-Americans convicted of murder were 22 times as likely to be sentenced to death if their victims were white rather than black, and City of Richmond v. Croson, which rejected a city affirmative-action program steering some construction dollars to minority-owned companies despite the fact that otherwise only two-thirds of 1 percent of city contracts went to minority companies in a city 50 percent African-American — the court presented race as a phenomenon called into existence just when someone employed a racial term. Discrimination existed only but every time someone used racial language. Thus the court found no harm in Georgia’s penal system, because no evidence surfaced of a specific bad actor muttering racial epithets, while it espied racism in Richmond’s affirmative-action program because it set aside contracts for “minorities.”
Contemporary colorblindness is a set of understandings — buttressed by law and the courts, and reinforcing racial patterns of white dominance — that define how people comprehend, rationalize, and act on race. As applied, however much some people genuinely believe that the best way to get beyond racism is to get beyond race, colorblindness continues to retard racial progress. It does so for a simple reason: It focuses on the surface, on the bare fact of racial classification, rather than looking down into the nature of social practices. It gets racism and racial remediation exactly backward, and insulates new forms of race baiting.
White dominance continues with few open appeals to race. Consider the harms wrought by segregated schools today. Schools in predominantly white suburbs are far more likely to have adequate buildings, teachers, and books, while the schools serving mainly minority children are more commonly underfinanced, unsafe, and in a state of disrepair. Such harms acccumulate, encouraging white flight to avoid the expected deterioration in schools and the violence that is supposedly second nature to “them,” only to precipitate the collapse in the tax base that in fact ensures a decline not only in schools but also in a range of social services. Such material differences in turn buttress seemingly common-sense ideas about disparate groups, so that we tend to see pristine schools and suburbs as a testament to white accomplishment and values. When violence does erupt, it is laid at the feet of alienated and troubled teenagers, not a dysfunctional culture. Yet we see the metal detectors guarding entrances to minority schoolhouses (harbingers of the prison bars to come) as evidence not of the social dynamics of exclusion and privilege, but of innate pathologies. No one need talk about the dynamics of privilege and exclusion. No one need cite white-supremacist arguments nor openly refer to race — race exists in the concrete of our gated communities and barrios, in government policies and programs, in cultural norms and beliefs, and in the way Americans lead their lives.
Colorblindness badly errs when it excuses racially correlated inequality in our society as unproblematic so long as no one uses a racial epithet. It also egregiously fails when it tars every explicit reference to race. To break the interlocking patterns of racial hierarchy, there is no other way but to focus on, talk about, and put into effect constructive policies explicitly engaged with race.
These arguments hold true as well for gender in science and engineering as for race in society at large. I wish the Chronicle article did not require a subscription; it is very well written and contains much more than the quoted excerpts here can suggest. Get your hands on the print copy if you can.
The next time someone blah-blah-blahs to you about preferential treatment, ask him what he means, exactly. What is preferential about removing barriers that keep out over 50% of the population? Ask him if he really thinks “male careers” belong to men, or did he mean to say “male-dominated careers” and does he not agree that male-domination is not necessarily a good idea, since the talents of such a large proportion of the population are currently going untapped? Or does he actually think that women and non-white males are incapable of doing good science? Push him to admit to his prejudices.
But only if you have tenure. Or a lot of courage.
Without tenure, you might just inquire disingenuously for him to explain further what he means by preferential treatment. Keep pretending you don’t understand, and ask him to explain more and more, until he finally admits openly that he thinks women are no good. It can be fun to watch.