Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Elaine C. Ray, News Service (650) 723-7162;

Deborah Rhode defends affirmative action during Lyman lecture

"The claim that people should be treated on the basis of individual rather than group characteristics certainly sounds right, but it comes several generations too early and several centuries too late," said Deborah Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law. On Nov. 5, Rhode was the first speaker for this year's Jing Lyman Lecture Series, sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Rhode, author of Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality, which was recently published by Harvard University Press. The beneficiaries of legacy admissions and nepotism in the workplace rarely challenge those mechanisms as unfair. Yet the critics of affirmative action view offering opportunities to groups previously left out as contrary to the kind of equality its supporters seek to achieve.

Rhode recalled the opposition to President Clinton's efforts to create a government reflective of America's diversity. Clinton, critics said, violated the canons of fair play and equal opportunity by making positions of power open to women and persons of color. Rhode noted that in the past, administrators had parceled out positions to relatives or campaign contributors, and they balanced party tickets with "Irish Catholics and Episcopalian WASPs." Before Janet Reno, Rhode noted, the number of women attorneys general was 0-77. Clinton's widely publicized and criticized efforts to appoint women to his Cabinet resulted in only three of 14 positions actually going to women. Almost no White House advisory seats went to women, Rhode said.

"My point simply is that bean counting is not new. In American political life or in other employment and educational contexts, the things that are new have to do with the type of beans, the willingness to count out loud and the backlash that results. The hand-wringing over Clinton's commitment to diversity typifies our current dilemmas," Rhode said.

Given the persistence of racial and gender bias, Rhode added that without affirmative action many women and persons of color would never even be considered for desirable positions. "Without affirmative action, policies may be gender blind but people are not."

In her defense of affirmative action, Rhode attempted to counter arguments against it and to debunk some of the myths used to characterize it. For instance, many critics assert that affirmative action increases the likelihood that those hired under these programs will be incompetent. Rhode noted that research does not support such claims. "Affirmative action programs target basically people who are qualified," she said, "and researchers don't find declines in performance as a result of those programs."

But while those who benefit from affirmative action are grateful for the opportunities, Rhode acknowledged that those who are hired or gain admission as a result of affirmative action often must defend their credibility and their qualifications and their self-confidence is constantly undermined. Still, paying that price is preferable to being denied opportunities, Rhode said. She recalled the experience of her colleague Barbara Babcock, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, who was asked how she felt about gaining her position as assistant attorney general in the Carter administration because she was a woman. "Her response was: It's better than not getting the position because you're a woman," Rhode said, quoting Babcock, who was in the audience.

White males often use affirmative action as a target of "misdirected misogyny," Rhode said. "It's a socially acceptable way to rationalize their failures and vent their frustrations. It also gives employers and educators an acceptable excuse for rejecting applicants that they'd like to reject on other grounds." Rhode added that market forces are often the real reason many of those men fail to gain access to employment and admission. "It's a whole lot easier to blame preferential treatment," she said, using academic hiring as a case in point.

"Since the 1970s, white male applicants, particularly in the humanities, have been complaining about the loss of equal opportunities for them. In their view, jobs and promotions now are going only to 'black lesbians with a nose ring studying literature for the disabled,' " Rhode said, quoting from a recent survey. In fact, she said, available literature suggests that that mythical applicant "wouldn't exactly have a cushy experience either."

Academic institutions have a long and shameful history of undervaluing work by and about members of subordinated groups, Rhode said. In her own experience at Stanford, a dean implored her not to teach a course on gender lest she be "typed" as a woman. "Well, it's not going to come as a surprise to most people. What are my alternatives?" Rhode responded. That culture has changed quite a bit since Rhode was one of only two women on the law school faculty. "Now, being on the faculty that has quite a good representation of women, the conversations around what counts as scholarship and merit have very much changed," she said.

Such changes, however, should not be blamed when white men find themselves displaced in institutions. Declines in opportunities for them have more to do with shrinking resources in higher education, overproduction of doctoral candidates and limited faculty openings than they do with affirmative action. Rhode noted that some institutions receive more than 500 applications for a single opening. "It makes little sense for 499 disappointed applicants to begin targeting white women and minority competitors. The more appropriate targets would be the administrators and policy makers who are cutting university budgets or who are admitting graduate students in numbers far beyond projected faculty openings," she said.

Rhode agreed with some critics that affirmative action programs are a limited remedy for past discrimination. "Rather than address the root causes of underrepresentation, many decision makers have been willing to settle for a few token efforts at diversity. But if we hand out just a few, usually entry-level, positions to the best black or the best woman and call it a day, we haven't certainly solved the problem, we've simply masked it," she said.

But while affirmative action has its limitations, these shortcomings should not be used to justify its abandonment. Rhode scoffed at those who argue that affirmative action programs divert attention from bread and butter issues such as early childhood education, job training and family supports. "Whose attention? Theirs? Many of the opponents of affirmative action are the very ones who are working to dismantle those government programs that are aimed at the fundamental problems," she said.

Rhode asserted that programs that give preference based on economic need are appropriate in some contexts, but should not serve as a substitute for programs designed to redress race or gender discrimination. Nor should the academic achievement of Asians be used as an excuse to dismantle programs designed to aid other underrepresented groups. "A lot of Asian Americans rightly worry about getting tapped as the 'ideal' minority, the ones who show that you can make it in American society without special preference," Rhode said. "I think it would be ironic if their success is used to undermine the opportunities for other groups that haven't had the same kind of educational and family support to reach a position where they can perform at comparable levels."

Rhode ended her talk by encouraging affirmative action supporters to seek a political remedy to initiatives such as Proposition 209. She expressed little hope that these efforts will find support in the courts, but said that political and corporate leaders should take up the banner.

"To reduce gender and color consciousness in the long run, we can't live without it in the short run," Rhode said.

The theme of the 1997-98 Jing Lyman Lecture Series is "Women and Men: Public Policies and Private Lives." Hazel Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in Behavioral Sciences, will be the next speaker on Jan. 21.


By Elaine Ray

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints