No Time for an Ideal
I'M WHITE. I'm a male. I'm even from the South. If an employer hires a minority less qualified than I to fill a job I've applied for, I will be angry.
But I still favor affirmative action.
I do not favor quotas. Employers often consider implementing a system of quotas for women and minorities in order to show their compliance with affirmative action laws. Such a system helps avoid messy and expensive lawsuits. Such a system also flies in the face of the discrimination that affirmative action is supposed to prevent.
But affirmative action itself is not wrong.
The idea of affirmative action is that employers should take the time to actively seek out qualified minorities for jobs. This does not mean refusing to hire a qualified white in order to fill a quota. It means acknowledging that minorities who are just as qualified may be more difficult to find. It means investing the time in an extended job search to find them. It means recognizing that changing longstanding inequality in society takes work.
IN THE RECENTLY formed Winthrop House Pre-Law Resident Tutor Selection Committee, however, facing such difficulty, spending extra time and doing more work to fight inequality are too much to ask.
Two weeks ago, I was asked to join this seven-person selection committee (I was one of only two men; two Blacks also served on the committee) to find a new resident tutor for pre-law advising. The director of the search, a house administrator who was not a voting committee member, submitted four applicants' names and resumes for the committee's review interviews were conducted, and the committee made its recommendations. But that was all.
Among the four applicants for the job were no women. One Black male and one Asian-American male applied, as did two white males. All were Harvard Law School students currently serving as non-resident pre-law tutors.
The Committee's top recommendation for the post went to one of the white men. He was clearly the most qualified; I cast my vote with him as well. Some committee members also expressed support for one of the minorities interviewed, and he became the committee's second choice. Later, he dropped out of the running, leaving the other white male to take his place as the backup.
FOR WINTHROP, the repercussions are serious: Minority representation among Winthrop's resident tutors has been low and will virtually disappear next year since a current minority tutor--who also serves as the designated race relations tutor-plans to leave following Spring Term. Only one minority, a South Asian woman, will be left. This poses a problem for three reasons.
Harvard's ugly history. For most of its history, Harvard was exclusively white and male. None of us would doubt the economic advantages open to Harvard graduates--these advantages should not be reserved for a select, WASPy few. While the admissions policy has become much more inclusive in the last 10 years, the University still has far to go in hiring minorities for academic posts from tutorships to professorships.
We must acknowledge that minorities who are just as qualified may be more difficult to find.
Widespread discrimination. While the last few years have seen advances in hiring, a huge disparity in income persists for most minorities (average Black family income in 1987 was 56 percent of average white family income). In addition, the number of minorities entering academia is drastically low. Harvard can do much to change this--tutor posts offer a first step in academic careers, and minority tutors can serve as role models for minority students considering such careers.
That diversity thing. Only one minority resident tutor in Winthrop House will mean fewer opportunities for students to interact both academically and socially with those from different ethnic backgrounds. And the University's commitment to a diverse student body seems hypocritical in light of the serious lack minorities among its academic ranks.
THE REAL TRAGEDY here is that the selection committee could have done something about the dearth of minority resident tutors in Winthrop. Of course, it should not have voted to dump the qualified white males whom it will recommend, but the committee should have extended the search--made an extra effort to find minorities who might be just as qualified for the position. This is the spirit of affirmative action. No quotas. No reverse discrimination. Just a fair solution.
But when this idea was raised, the committee voted no. The reason? "I don't have time," one committee member said. "And when Reading Period comes, I really won't have time." Other committee members agreed. No one voiced ideological opposition to extending the search. They simply said they have no time.
I understand that people are busy. But time is not the issue. An ideological commitment to equality means little if no one is willing to make the sacrifices required to implement that equality. And these sacrifices would be minimal--perhaps just one more set of interviews. I'm not asking for weeks of commitment.
I also understand an aversion to quota systems and reverse discrimination. In fact, such aversion has prompted the Supreme Court to weaken many affirmative action laws. That is why it is incumbent on employers to hire in the Spirit of affirmative action--a spirit which rejects reverse discrimination, but encourages an extra effort in finding qualified minorities. If Harvard students refuse to take the lead in such cases, inequality will persist beyond a resident tutor post.
Unless plans change, winthrop House will have just one minority resident tutor next year. Winthrop students will suffer, but the ideal of affirmative action will be the greater casualty. Perhaps no qualified minorities would have been found if the committee had voted to extend the search. Perhaps our time would have been wasted. We'll never know.