I recently went on a road trip with my uncle, traveling from Boston to New York for my brother’s high school graduation. As we drove through western Massachusetts, our conversation eventually drifted to employment and the economy. In what would prove to be a fascinating discussion, my uncle began to recount his first job interview after college. He graduated from Northeastern University in the ‘70s—right around the time President Nixon institutionalized affirmative action and quotas served as the nation’s predominant employment policy. He had worked in Northeastern’s admissions office for a few years, so when a full-time position opened up at the University of Michigan’s admissions office, he made the 14 hour drive halfway across the country to interview for the job.
A funny thing happened during his interview, however. According to my uncle, his interviewer immediately apologized as he entered the room. ‘Look, I hate to say this,’ the interviewer said. ‘But there’s no way we’re going to be able to hire you. If you were a woman or black, I’d hire you on the spot. You are totally qualified, but we’ve got to fill our quotas.’ Naturally, my uncle was none too pleased, commenting plainly (but forcefully) that acts of “reverse discrimination” are unfair. I did my best to defend affirmative action policies, discussing their historical necessity, noting their negligible affect on white male employment, and even waxing philosophical about the entitlement associated with staking claim and ownership over falsely constructed “spots” in colleges or the workforce. It was all to no avail, though. Cliché as the phrase is, my uncle was “passed up” for the job, and there wasn’t much I could say.
We’d be naïve to trivialize my uncle’s experience or write it off as just another “reverse discrimination” fairytale. It happened. It’s a reality. The problem was not that this was an exaggeration; instead, it was that my uncle forgot about his lifetime of advantage as he harped on that one, single experience.
See, claiming reverse discrimination is a lot like recounting your golf score. It’s always the one or two bad rounds that leave the deepest, most painful impressions. You always remember the bogey on the 9th hole, but never the birdie on the 10th. Somehow, the abundance of good holes are taken for granted, while the one or two missteps are amplified and taken as indicative of the entire round. Sure, my uncle remembers getting passed up for the job with the University of Michigan—an event that (probably) happened the way he said it did. But, in the process of recounting this single experience, he forgot about a lifetime of job interviews in which he directly benefited from his whiteness or his gender. In all the jobs my uncle interviewed for, how many times were applicants immediately rejected for having “black” sounding names? How many women were turned away because employers didn’t think they could handle the stress of the job? How many times did my uncle’s employment prospects benefit from acts of statistical discrimination that weeded out potentially qualified minority applicants?
Still, many others that hide behind the “reverse discrimination” mantra often have few, if any, personal experiences to justify their outrage. But the golf analogy still fits. These folks are the ones that throw a fit over their buddy’s 10-stroke handicap. That’s not fair, they complain. But in their moral grandstanding, they forget all of their privileges that negate—and even surpass—their buddy’s handicap. These privileges may include the country club membership that afforded them hours of practice on the course, the childhood golf lessons their parents paid for, or the hand-me-down Callaways their father didn’t need anymore after he got his new set of clubs. Their buddy with the 10-stroke handicap was just allowed to join the country club recently, had parents that couldn’t afford to invest in clubs or other activities, and never inherited any valuable assets. In short, the two golfers didn’t begin the round on equal footing.
With some folks, claims of reverse discrimination are proxies for implicit assumptions of black or brown intellectual inferiority. The operative word here, however, is some. Other folks have had very real experiences with so-called “reverse discrimination”—it’s just that these isolated instances fill a disproportionate share of their memory. The real problem with the “reverse discrimination” debate (besides the logically incoherent label “reverse discrimination”—what is the reverse of discrimination anyway? Not discrimination?) is our inability to honestly discuss the issue. The question shouldn’t be whether or not this incident—or others like it—actually occurred. Instead, we need to ask ourselves, how often does this happen, and to what effect? Such acts rarely occur anymore, and the effect is almost always minor or marginal. And, of course, the folks that decry “reverse discrimination” have almost always benefited from other instances of privilege. They just tend to forget about them.