Affirmative Action And Stigma: Cose And Effect?

I have criticized the race writing of Newsweek’s Ellis Cose several times, such as here, here, and especially here. A large, hard to miss target in his work is his pooh-poohing of the idea that race preferences brand their intended beneficiaries with a stigma, often inducing anger or self-doubt or both. (I would say that hitting that target is like shooting fish in a barrel, but readers might then think this post is simply another criticism of Stanley Fish.)

Here, for example, I noted that when someone asked Cose how minorities can “combat the idea that they got their jobs, school acceptance letters, etc. through affirmative action and hence aren’t really worth being there?” he replied:

In my experience, people tend to believe what they want to believe. An unfortunate reality of life is that many people of color who have achieved much are suspected by certain other people of having only gotten by on the basis of race. That is, as I said, unfortunate.

To which I responded:

Unless I’m missing something here, Cose has acknowledged that “a number of people” get accepted because of affirmative action who would not have been accepted without it, but then for some reason he finds it “unfortunate” that it is “suspected” that “many people of color” have “only gotten by on the basis of race.”

Well, yes. As long as some people get ahead because of their race, there will certainly be others who say, not just “suspect,” they got ahead because of their race. And, sadly, they will also say that about minorities who did not receive any special preferences, or who did not need them.

Similarly, here I quoted him commenting on California’s Prop. 209, the first state constitutional amendment that outlawed racial preferences:

Before the proposition’s passage, its proponents were fond of arguing that minority students would benefit because they would finally be free of the “stigma” associated with affirmative action. California’s experience seems to say that assumption is not necessarily true – at least not yet. For example, Kimberly Griffin, a black UCLA graduate student in higher education, says she routinely encounters students who assume that she met some lower standard to get in.

And also similarly, I responded:

Excuse me, but is one graduate student’s comment (dated when?) sufficient evidence for this assertion about “California’s experience.” Does Cose actually believe that lowering the bar for minority admissions does not produce the quite reasonable (because it is accurate) assumption that many minorities were admitted who would not have been admitted without the preferences given them? Or, correspondingly, does he really want to argue that evaluating all applicants based on their qualifications without regard to their race will not make the assumption of undeserved admission of minorities unreasonable, because it will be inaccurate? If he wants to argue either of those propositions he’ll need to produce more evidence than the word of one UCLA graduate student in education.

Finally (for this post), here, in discussing a long tendentious report on affirmative action written by Cose, I quoted the following passage from that report:

Prior to its passage, proponents of the proposition [209] were fond of arguing that minority students would benefit because they would finally be free of the “stigma” associated with affirmative action. They would be accepted as equal to their white peers, went the argument, since they had met the same standards. California’s experience seems to say that assumption is not necessarily true — at least not yet. The stigma seems to linger, as any number of students told me and as Evan Caminker discovered. “While I was associate dean [at Michigan] in 2002, maybe it was early 2003,” he said, “I was part of the legal team representing the law school in the Grutter case. My former students at UCLA — who wanted to write an amicus brief in the case — and I had many conversations …about what they wanted to say. And one of the most important, and I thought really poignant, messages that [the students communicated] was …to the extent that they felt there was still a stigma associated with being black or being Hispanic…that feeling [had not gone away]

And (this will now be familiar) I commented:

Does Cose believe that admission preferences stigmatize the preferees or not? Hard to tell from the discussion above, which implies, by the quotes around the initial “stigma,” that it doesn’t exist, but then goes on to cite evidence that it is so pervasive it doesn’t disappear even when its source (racial preference) is removed. In any event, what is the point of Caminker’s observation? Presumably one wouldn’t oppose the abolition of slavery because the effects of slavery on the slave did not disappear as quickly as some abolitionists predicted.

In short (appearances to the contrary, this was short; I could have quoted more), Cose dismisses the idea that affirmative action stigmatizes recipients of racial preference as so much right-wing propaganda.

O.K., you say. Fine. But why rehash all this? Because of his article, “Black and Blue at the Times,” about the experience of Gerard Boyd at the New York Times, that appeared online yesterday and will appear in print in the Feb. 22 issue of Newsweek.

In September 2001, Boyd became the Times’s managing editor — the first African-American to have soared to such heights. And then along came a plagiarist named Jayson Blair, whose sins set in motion a series of events that, in summer 2003, left Boyd jobless and disgraced. Three years later, Boyd died of cancer at the age of 56, never having recovered from his very public humiliation….

Boyd’s posthumous book, My Times in Black and White, is the occasion for Cose’s article. “Boyd,” Cose writes,

was a poor boy from St. Louis who lost his mother as a toddler, was abandoned by his father, and was raised by his paternal grandmother. Thanks to an antipoverty program called Upward Bound and a scholarship to the University of Missouri, Boyd escaped the poverty of his childhood and began his journalistic ascent. He became a star at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was later seduced by the Times, where he became a White House correspondent and held a series of management jobs, culminating with the managing editorship.

It is not clear from this summary that Boyd ever received preferential treatment based on his race. Indeed, it would appear that he did not need it to succeed. But nevertheless Cose writes (and here you will see the purpose, I hope, of my rehash of Cose on stigma):

Boyd was a symbol—of either racial progress or affirmative action run amok, depending on how one viewed his achievement. Boyd understood that. Writing about Howell Raines, his boss and benefactor, Boyd asks, “Could his decision to name me managing editor be rooted in nothing more than white guilt over four centuries of oppression?”

Cose, as usual, remains clueless about the implications of this poignant question on his repeated denials that affirmative action stigmatizes and produces festering doubts, of self and others.

Say What?