Princeton professor James M. McPherson’s recent arguments for affirmative action, in a newsletter to members of the American Historical Association, makes many sweeping assertions and implicit assumptions that need not even be challenged to show the shakiness of his arguments. However, since we both belong to an organization devoted to history, let me make a few corrections of the history that Professor McPherson offers.
First of all, he mentions that his academic career began in 1962 at Princeton, as a result of what he now calls “the infamous ‘old boy network,’ ” which he characterizes as affirmative action for white males. Despite being black, my own academic career also began that very same year, 1962, just a few miles up the road from where McPherson’s career began, at Douglass College, Rutgers University.
I too received my appointment via the old boys’ network, being recommended by my mentors at the University of Chicago, just as McPherson was recommended by his mentor at Johns Hopkins. Women were hired the same way, out of the same “old boys’ network,” which was also an old girls’ network.
I was hired despite the fact that Douglass College was a college for young women and almost all these women were white. I was even hired despite having challenged and antagonized one of the senior members of the department during the job interview.
Incidentally, during my first semester of teaching, I received an unsolicited offer of another appointment, at the University of California at La Jolla. A signed contract arrived in the mail, requiring only my signature to make it official. So the idea that there were no academic opportunities for blacks in 1962 is not easy to sell to someone who was there. Save that one for guilty whites.
McPherson makes much of the fact that “virtually none” of his fellow students in graduate school were minorities or women. That was my experience as well, but Professor McPherson leaves the impression that absence means exclusion. Otherwise, why is that fact relevant to his discussion of affirmative action?
We need not rely on personal anecdotes, either his or mine. My research, using data from the American Council on Education, showed that black faculty members with the same degrees and publications as white faculty members were receiving higher pay than their white counterparts, as far back as 1969.
The real problem was that there were not nearly enough black faculty members with the same qualifications. There are still not enough. In some years, the total number of blacks in the entire country who receive Ph.D.s in mathematics is in single digits.
With women, the problem was different: Women became mothers and that was by no means the same as men becoming fathers, no matter what politically correct parallels we create today with words, such as “an expectant couple.”
Those academic women who never married — which, back in those days, had some relationship to becoming a mother — had higher incomes than academic men who never married. Apparently Professor McPherson’s “infamous ‘old boy network’ ” was not as powerful or as sinister as he depicts.
The fact that recommendations from established scholars in a field carry weight when hiring an unknown graduate student to become a faculty member has been made to seem like some exclusionary plot, if you believe defenders of affirmative action. Indeed, any reliance on any criterion of quality — test scores, publications, whatever — can be depicted as an exclusionary bias by those who want quotas.
White guilt may be fashionable in some quarters but the only people it helps are those whites who want to become saints on the cheap and those blacks who have learned to hustle guilty whites. What most blacks need is — first of all — the kind and quality of education that they do not get in most ghetto schools. Least of all do they get this education from those teachers who spend precious class time dredging up the past instead of preparing students for the future.
Professor McPherson’s defense of affirmative action to members of the American Historical Association invited comments via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). He did not say whether that included comments from people in the real world beyond the ivied walls.