Deconstructing Affirmative Action

James M. McPherson, April 2003

The case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law school admissions criteria is the most serious challenge to affirmative action since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). The Bush administration and dozens of organizations have filed amicus curiae briefs supporting the plaintiffs; more than three hundred academic institutions, corporations, labor unions, and former military officials (including General Norman Schwartzkopf) have signed on to at least 60 briefs supporting the University of Michigan.

In Bakke the Court opposed quotas in admissions but permitted academic institutions to consider race as one among several factors in admissions decisions. In the current case, the plaintiffs maintain that the University of Michigan's bonus of 20 points (on a scale of 150 points) for black, Latino/Latina, and Native American applicants amounts to a de facto quota. The plaintiffs might also have challenged (but did not) the added points given to applicants who are potential varsity athletes or the children of alumni—long-standing affirmative action categories that seem to arouse little public hostility.

The outcome of this case will have profound implications for historians, especially those of us who teach in the academy. Most in our guild have probably supported efforts during the past three or four decades to broaden and diversify the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of our classes and our faculties. When I first came to Princeton and taught courses on an era of American history that included the abolitionist and women's rights movements, westward expansion onto land claimed by Native Americans and Mexicans, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and Reconstruction with its 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, there were no women or Latinos/Latinas or Native Americans and almost no African Americans in my classes. Things are different now, and the perspectives offered by members of these groups have vastly enriched the intellectual experience for all students. The admission of women to Princeton (and other formerly all-male institutions) was not, strictly speaking, a form of affirmative action. But it certainly took vigorous affirmative effort to accomplish it against initially strong resistance. Without the kinds of policies now being challenged in the Michigan case, however, we would not have benefited from the degree of racial and ethnic diversity among students and faculties that we now have.

The social and legal complexities of this question are difficult and controversial. I do not pretend to have clear, crisp answers. I can empathize with the white plaintiffs who believe they were denied undergraduate or law school admission in order to make room for less qualified minority applicants. I have known undergraduates who believed the same about their own failed quest for admission to a particular graduate or professional school. And I have had PhD students who felt similarly about their failure to get a particular teaching position. Although most of them believed in the principle of affirmative action, its practice had a bittersweet quality.

If one looks at a longer perspective of time, however—which we as historians of course should do—there is more than one side to the affirmative action puzzle. I offer myself as a case study. I was born into a middle-class family of WASP ancestry. My parents prized education and sent all of their children to college. During my undergraduate years in the 1950s, American culture encouraged female students to look toward schoolteaching, nursing, or marriage as their careers. Many of my male classmates, on the other hand, received a great deal of support from faculty and families to aspire to a career in business, or as lawyers, medical doctors, clergymen, or college professors. As for African American, Hispanic, or Native American classmates—I had virtually none. And the same was true of most mainstream colleges and universities a half century ago. The cultural environment that encouraged white males to hope for careers at the top of the professional and business pyramid but discouraged, inhibited, or prohibited women and minorities from doing the same was a more powerful form of affirmative action than anything we have more recently experienced in the other direction.

I continued to benefit from that form of affirmative action in graduate school and beyond. At Johns Hopkins from 1958 to 1962 there were no minority graduate students in history and very few women. The latter were circumscribed in their possibilities for employment. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Williams, Notre Dame, and many other institutions were out of the question. Even coeducational colleges and universities sometimes silently vetoed women applicants (for teaching positions) who were married or intended to marry.

My own path to Ivy League employment, by contrast, was ridiculously easy. One day in 1962 the chairman of the history department at Princeton phoned my Hopkins adviser, C. Vann Woodward, and asked him if he had a "young man" to recommend for an instructorship (then the first rung on the tenure-track ladder). Woodward recommended me—I don't know if he even had to put it in writing—and Princeton offered me the job, without a real interview and without having seen any dissertation chapters. This was the infamous "old boy network," surely the most powerful instrument of affirmative action ever devised.

Most of my male Hopkins classmates also nailed down good jobs with minimal effort. We were beneficiaries of a sort of demographic affirmative action. Having been born during the trough of the Depression-era birth rate, we were coming onto the job market at the cusp of the baby-boom expansion in college enrollments. The supply/demand ratio of new PhDs and job openings was more favorable for us than for anyone since the 1960s. We did not have to go through the exhausting, discouraging, and sometimes demeaning round of applications and interviews that candidates for academic appointments—even those who might qualify for "affirmative action" status—must endure today. The jobs sought us, not vice versa.

Having benefited in so many ways from these older forms of affirmative action that favored white males, I cannot feel censorious about the newer version that may seem to disadvantage this same category—either in faculty recruitment or student admissions. And in the area of faculty promotions, if not recruitment, white males still dominate the senior ranks in many departments of history. The consequences of the older kind of affirmative action have not yet been neutralized by the newer version. The injustices of the old form were greater than those of the new. And while there have been losers in the contemporary operations of affirmative action who deserve our empathy—including the plaintiffs in the University of Michigan case—on balance the process has enriched higher education at all levels.

—James M. McPherson (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA. He welcomes responses to his presidential column essays through e-mail addressed to jmcphers@princeton.edu.