I was first introduced to the concept of a Protected Class, and the power of Affirmative Action, as a young engineer at Bell Labs in the late 1970s. Not long before I joined the company, AT&T signed a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that obligated the country’s then-largest private employer to hit specific goals and timetables for hiring women in traditionally male jobs, men in traditionally female jobs, and minorities in jobs in which they had been traditionally underrepresented. This consent decree became a template for subsequent Affirmative Action programs that exist to this day in employment, education, housing, banking, and other sectors of our economy.
To get the largely white male engineers at Bell Labs to accommodate themselves to the program, the company required us to attend what became known as “white male guilt sessions,” where a paid professional activist would berate us for our sins. Not our sins, actually — after all, most of us were fresh out of school — but past sins of people who looked like us, not against the women and minorities employed alongside us, but against people who looked like them in days gone by.
I shrugged off any personal concerns about competing under an imposed handicap, even as people in protected categories got special consideration for promotions and pay raises. But I did find one aspect of the program incomprehensible. The criteria for checking the box for female or African American (save some mixed race colleagues) was perfectly clear. But how did one qualify as Hispanic? The answer we got was that you had to have a Hispanic surname. So if your last name was Rodriguez, you got Protected Class status. It didn’t matter if you were a blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP who could trace his lineage back to the founding fathers. All that mattered was your name.
Fast forward 40 years. The number of Protected Classes under various state and federal antidiscrimination programs have not declined even as society has grown more tolerant and inclusive. Instead, the list has swelled to include all sorts of designated categories of people who government insists deserve special treatment from private parties. For various programs and purposes, these reasons include being over 40, having certain disabilities (including alcoholism), practicing certain religious creeds, having a foreign national origin, harboring non heteronormative sexual preferences, and proclaiming yourself to be of certain gender not determined by your chromosomes. That last one is quite fascinating. Take a look at the 58 most recent self-declared genders, a field of fervent academic study generating new gender designations at a pretty steady clip.
For a while, falsely pretending to be a member of a Protected Class to gain benefits was widely considered cheating. An expose by an Indian American who got admitted to medical school despite low grades by shaving his head and pretending to be African American recently became a media sensation. And then there’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s unsubstantiated claim of being Native American when applying for a faculty position at Harvard.
Examples of outright cheating are hardly arguments that a system itself is broken, but what happens when it becomes obvious that anyone can obtain Protected Class status by self-affirmation? One no longer needs to claim remote ancestry that can’t be easily disproven. Under our postmodern understanding of gender and sexuality, who is to say whether my professed gender identity and sexual preferences are or are not genuine? It reminds me of the days you could beat the draft by claiming to be homosexual. Who could prove otherwise?
If the trend of increasing the number of Protected Classes continues – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t as more identity groups lobby for inclusion – perhaps the system will finally break down. At some point, doesn’t it get easier just to identify the groups not designated to get special treatment?