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Let's Talk About Affirmative Action

Wanna make a room full of academics uncomfortable? Well, there are many ways to go about doing this, but among the most enjoyable and educational methods is to be the lone Black guy and say something like, "So let's talk about affirmative action!" Cue squirming and foot staring.

Well, that's basically what we at the Women in Astronomy blog were doing last week. Here's a lineup of the most recent posts:

- Joan Schmelz argues against affirmative action, with a fun plot twist!
What did I think of affirmative action? Did I think it had a place in modern academia? I answered that the physics and astronomy communities have suffered for too long under the yoke of affirmative action policies. (Not the answer you were expecting from the chair of CSWA? Please don’t stop reading here! There is a point to be made.) If policies give precedence to one gender over the other or one ethnic group over the others, then all science suffers. 
- I respond to arguments against brought forth by WiA blog readers
I certainly won't pretend that there is zero cost. There are cost-benefit considerations in any hire at any level of academia. Sometimes a department needs a radio astronomer, and this programatic consideration influences their final hiring decision. This may result in the dept. passing up a truly outstanding theorist in order to hire a radio observer. This is very unfair to theorists seeking faculty positions that year. It also means that the department didn't hire that really amazing theorist. That's a real cost. But the benefit may well outweigh that cost in the minds of the faculty in that particular department...
I think that this is one of the more important science policy issues to discuss in todays academy. My views on the subject have evolved back and forth rapidly over the past two decades. In high school, all of my friends and family were conservatives, so I was most certainly against affirmative action. Then, in college I was fairly ambivalent at first, and then I felt forced into a position of pushing it away when my campus' Minority Engineering Program director try to include me in the group. 

The reasons I was uncomfortable about joining MEP were complicated. One is that I was used to not really being accepted as a Black person, primarily because I, "talk white." Then again, I didn't have the easiest time fitting in among white people generally, because I am, in fact, Black. The other major reason is that I chafed at the idea that people thought I needed help just because I was Black, and being part of the Physics-boy culture, I didn't want people to see me as weak. In the end, I wore the African colors over my graduation robe, but I never really felt like I was a part of MEP.

Then in grad school I benefitted from a diversity program called the Chancellor's Opportunity Fellowship program, which provided me with 4 years of tuition and stipend. Again, I was afraid of being seen as weak and in need of special help because of my skin color. But then again, I wasn't about to give back four years of grad school support. I decided the best way to deal was to excel in my studies, which put extra pressure on me compared to my white peers, and I also made an effort to give back. For six years I participated in the MEP Pre-freshman science training workshop, and for four years I worked for Upward Bound. If I was going to benefit from it, I was going to give back some of my time and effort to help others, too. 

Eventually, I started recognizing the differences in my grad school experience and those of others around me. To be sure, we shared many of the same struggles. But I had additional struggles due to a constant awareness of my differentness and the social contingencies attached to my skin. Nothing like overt or institutionalized racism. But certainly a large injury caused by lots of little cuts (the concepts of microaggression and unconscious bias). 

Today, I'm a staunch defender of affirmative action policies, in their many forms. I've seen and experienced the detrimental effects of having a monochromatic field of science. I recognize how our science suffers when only a fraction of the talent pool is in play. I also recognize that I pursue my science at the pleasure of a society who lends a portion of their tax dollars to my exploration of the Universe. Black folk, latinos and women pay taxes, too. As a result, they have every bit the same right to participate as do white males. And once they do, we'll start solving long-standing scientific problems by bringing innovative approaches to bear. We'll also improve the academic work environment in the process, which will improve everyone's science. 


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