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COLUMN

Affirmative Action and Human Psychology

Nicholas Baldasaro

Affirmative action was created years ago as a way to integrate the minorities of the United States into its educational and economic infrastructure, and despite its warts, affirmative action has done some of exactly what is was created to do. I find, however, that one of the most negative consequences of the institution is rarely spoken of and poorly understood, to the cause of great mischief. The consequence I speak of is the doubt that greets the talents of minorities who eventually integrate into the non-affirmative action world of employment, a doubt that can be summed up in the thought “How good are you, really?” I propose that despite its positive effects, affirmative action curses all its recipients with the negative stigma of being both untested and less skilled compared to those who did not benefit from affirmative action.

If you will allow me that affirmative action enables some natural percentage, no matter how small, of low talent individuals (whom I define as those who even were they a non-minority of average educational and economic means would still be of less than average performance at school or on the job) to achieve equal educational or job status with those who did not benefit from affirmative action, then I will show you how the abilities of all minorities are undercut in people’s minds.

Let’s start small. I taught myself how to play tennis with my friends at age 13. I was terrible. My serves were always wild, so wild that in order to play against others with better experience, I was given a handicap: I could miss three times, rather than once like everyone else. With this leg up, I could play about as well as the others.

As time went on, I got better with experience, and started to win more than half my matches. It became evident to me that I was as good a player as anyone else. As long as I had my serving handicap though, I got zero respect. If I won, even by good stroke play and not by good serves, it was because I had an advantage. No opponent would give me credit, and no friend wanted me on his team in doubles. My handicap had scared away the success it was supposed to enable. I ditched it before I was really ready to, and lost much more often, but at least when I won or lost, it was awarded to my talent, and not to my advantage from the past. It was dignity rather than none.

My childhood experiences have clear explanations. Handicaps are meant to give people time to catch up entirely to compensate for a tough beginning, bad luck, or unfair prejudice. The problem is that human nature rarely allows us the time, will, or cleverness to consider or appreciate a stranger’s life so objectively. It was not that I had a handicap that made me unwanted as a teammate; it was that my true abilities were obscured. The tragedy of a handicap is that it casts doubt on results from the proving grounds. Here is why:

When we first meet a person whose skills are tied to our success (teammate, co-worker, etc.), we look for signs that they are competent. This is complex and difficult; however, if we believe they have been given no resources that we ourselves lack, then we will at least not start them at a deficit. Affirmative action breaks this symmetry. If you allowed me that affirmative action allows some percentage of low talent minorities to advance, more on the basis of being a minority than having useful talents, then all minorities become suspect in the eyes of non-minorities, as a simple matter of prudence. Each minority must now prove himself or herself time and time again to each new person, to dispel the suspicions that naturally arise against those who are not yet proven -- is it the handicap or talent that has gotten them this far? This is bad for all.

No clear way exists to both provide the benefits of a system so intrinsically based on handicapping without causing all the harm of which I have spoken. Yet gutting it wholesale and abruptly might cause such bitterness as to defeat good intentions. I propose the following middle ground -- allow affirmative action, diversity outreach programs, and other government mandated racial or gender related handicaps to persist where competitive stakes are lower and reduce or remove it entirely where competition is much more important, like the workplace. Suspicion of one’s talents in college is annoying; in one’s workplace, the same suspicions can ruin a career. Additionally, the removal of such programs after a finite deadline, that of education, would send a strong message to everyone -- that at the end of the day, personal merit is all that can be relied upon to advance oneself. This act of turning a permanent crutch into a temporary one would do well to decrease all the suspicions, ill wills, and negative attitudes mentioned previously -- both in the minds of non-recipients, and eventually, in the recipients themselves, who when they succeed, will never wonder why it happened.

Suspicion can be used judiciously, and one may remained unprejudiced even in the face of requiring others to prove themselves. Those with ability will prove so in time. But as long as social handicapping exists, every woman, African American, or Hispanic must live with the unfortunate but inevitable thoughts that dance behind the eyes of white men who last time I checked, were still in most positions of authority. These things are not for the world that I want, either for a daughter, or for my friends.

Nicholas Baldasaro is a member of the Class of 2005.