All things being equal … I don’t think things are equal yet.

By Ashley Bean Thornton

The United States Supreme Court recently reversed its stance on affirmative action, here’s an article that explains what happened: Supreme Court reverses affirmative action, gutting race-conscious admissions : NPR .   

I am White.  Which has meant, among other things, that I don’t have to think much about race if I don’t want to.   And so, I didn’t for most of my life.  I am 62 years old.  About the time I turned 38 or 40, I made some friends – one friend in particular – who “friended” me into thinking more about race. For the last twenty years or so I have tried to pay more attention and tried to educate myself some about this extremely complicated topic. I still have a long way to go, but I am much farther along than I might have been.

I can understand why some people do not like the idea of “affirmative action.”  Preferential treatment based on race?  We believe in merit!   We want the best and brightest at our universities and workplaces regardless of race!  Do you want to have a heart surgeon working on you who was only let into med school because he/she was Black?  Of course not!  You want the best!  Sure, we should do whatever we can to make sure people aren’t rejected because they are Black, but preferential treatment because you are Black is bad too.  That is going too far! (I’m using the Black/White example because that is what I grew up with, and arguments framed in those terms are most familiar to me.)

I might not have said it out loud, but that’s basically what I thought about affirmative action, when I thought about it at all.  As I gained more experience and paid more attention, I began to notice some things that called that way of thinking into question for me.

Most of my experience has been in hiring, not in college admissions, but I think the principles apply to both.

I have learned through the years that when it comes to hiring someone, we talk about hiring the “best” person, but who is “best” is rarely obvious. Many times, the differences in competency are almost indistinguishable – especially with the limited information you have when you are making a hiring decision.  Often there is not a clear “best” person — so, intentionally or not, we often pick the person who is the easiest and most comfortable fit.

Here is an example of how this can play out…

I was on a hiring committee once for an administrative position.  There were three or four of us on the committee – all of us White, as was most of the hierarchy of the organization where I worked.  We had four candidates to interview.  One of them was clearly less experienced and was eliminated from the running with little discussion.

The three remaining candidates all seemed well qualified for the position, and all three did a great job at the interview.  They were…

  • A White man who was already working in our organization, but in a different office. He had done similar work to the job we were trying to fill, but for a smaller organization.
  • A Hispanic man who knocked our socks off in terms of creativity and ideas for the job, in addition to his considerable experience. He was very animated and enthusiastic and not at all shy about talking about his accomplishments.
  • An African-American man who had fairly direct experience in the work we were doing and at a larger organization. He was also by far the most formal in the interview. His responses were very measured, and he was very conscious of the “letter of the law” when it came to the rules.

We talked to all three of them for 45 minutes or an hour and we thought any of the three would have been really good for the job.

In the end, we hired the White man who already worked in our organization.  He turned out to be great.

Did we hire the best? 

Was he “the best” of the three?  Who knows.  He was certainly good at his job – but maybe one of the others would have been spectacular, or at least just as good.  There’s no real way of knowing.  Any person who does job interviews – if they are honest at all – will tell you that they are kind of a crap shoot.  Sometimes people who seem great turn out to be a mess, and vice versa.

My point here, though, is that we did not hire him because he was the “best.” They were all about the same, as far as we knew, regarding job competency.  We hired him because he seemed like he would be the easiest.

The White man had the “right” balance of calm vs. enthusiasm, and the “right” level of informality vs. formality.  He probably would not require as much coaching or supervision or time to get up to speed.  He was the best “fit.”  We felt most comfortable with him.  We were a little overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the Hispanic man, and the African-American man just seemed too stuffy.

This was not an overtly “racist” hiring decision.  I could argue that it was not racist at all – we certainly had the right to hire the person we thought would be the best fit!

On the other hand, having participated in it, I would have a hard time saying that race, or “culture” – if that’s a less contentious word – had nothing to do with it.

I’m sure we would have definitely hired the Black man or the Hispanic man if either had obviously been the best.  But all things being equal…we did not.

And that’s the rub, to me, when it comes to affirmative action.

It’s not, anymore, so much about what happens when one person is clearly best – it’s what happens “all things being equal.”   All things being equal … I don’t think things are equal yet.

All things being equal,” we hired the person who was most like us.  I think a good number of us White people (maybe people of any race) would almost always do that. We would hire the person who seems like the best “fit,” and that would much of the time “just happen to be” the person who is most obviously like us.

As it happens, even after years of diversification efforts, White people are still doing quite a bit of the deciding about plum jobs and admissions to plum colleges. So, I think, all things being equal, there’s a good chance that, left to our own devices, we White people would still give each other preferential treatment.  I am not even sure that we would realize we were doing it – it can be very subtle, maybe less about skin color and more about some kind of subconscious behavioral cues or something like that.  I am not sure.

I would bet though, that if no one were counting, we would soon slide back toward homogeneity. It’s easier, more comfortable, a better “fit.”

Is this subtle preference for people most like us insurmountable?  No.

Thanks to years of struggle and persistent effort at raising awareness, I don’t believe that people of color any longer have to be “ten-times better” to get the same opportunity. But do they have to be twice as good?  Maybe.  Do they have to be at least “obviously better” to get the same opportunity? Maybe so.

I have a hard time saying I think opportunities are really equal.   I have a hard time saying that all things being equal a person of color would consistently have the same chances of being hired or admitted to college by a White person as another White person would.  Not necessarily because of overt prejudice, but because we all tend toward what is most comfortable.  I don’t think we are at the point yet of being equally comfortable with each other.  I think some are.  But I don’t think most of us are.

I don’t think we are “there” yet.  I think we are much closer than we once were, but I don’t think we are there yet.  We are still pushing the rock of diversity and equality up the hill.  Maybe someday we will push it over the tipping point at the top of the hill and it will be able to roll on its own – but I don’t think we are there yet.  I think without pushing, the rock will slide back down toward (perhaps unintentional) segregation and homogeneity.

If I am a White person in charge of admissions or hiring, affirmative action applies a counter force to my natural tendency to do the easiest, most comfortable thing.  It requires me to do extra work, the extra effort at on-boarding or supervising or “getting up to speed” if that is what it takes to diversify.  It makes me make the effort to widen the circle when looking for candidates when it would be easier to just stick with the people I know, who are like me, the ones who find us without us having to work at it.

As long as White people make up a disproportionately large percentage of the gatekeepers to plum jobs and plum college admissions, I think we need something to push against our tendency to hire people who seem like they are most like us.  When the percentage of gatekeepers aligns better with the demographics of the population, maybe that will be the time to let affirmative action sunset.  We have made some progress, but I don’t think we are there yet.

Affirmative action has always been a blunt instrument.  I disagree with Judge Clarence Thomas about some of his objections to affirmative action – but I can’t disagree with him that affirmative action causes a stigma.  That is his lived experience.  Affirmative action has never been perfect — but I do think it helped push the rock up the hill. Would Judge Thomas be on the Supreme Court without a degree from Yale?  Would he have gotten into Yale without affirmative action?  I don’t think so.  Not because he lacked the skill and intellect, but because of overt prejudice.

Now that same blunt instrument is still being used to try to fix a problem that has become increasingly more subtle.  Maybe it’s too blunt.  Maybe we need something more sophisticated now.   But if so, what would that be?

Does affirmative action push too hard?  Possibly.

Does it cause resentment? Certainly.

But when it is gone, what will apply the counter force to our tendency toward the easiest, most comfortable thing? I don’t know.

What will make us keep pushing the rock up the hill? Will we keep pushing? Will the rock slide back down the hill if we don’t keep pushing? Are we OK with that?  I would like to think that we are not.

Want to make sure you get all the Dead Dillo posts?  To subscribe to this email list, click here! 


  1. Karen LiBassi on July 9, 2023 at 9:29 am

    Very fair and thoughtful words, Ashley

  2. Margo Pearson on July 9, 2023 at 7:22 pm

    I was just out of college and having trouble being interviewed for professional level jobs when they passed the Civil Rights laws. The GE plant near me decided they needed women professionals and hired me. (500 professional employees included 20 women at the time.) Without the pressure on GE to have women professionals, I would not have had the career and life I had. Yes, I was resented but I never worried about the “stigma”. I had better qualifications than others I worked with and I was glad for the pressure on managers to recognize it. I do know that the world has changed in 50 years but not enough for some groups. It continues to need pressure to change.

  3. Ramona on July 15, 2023 at 10:15 am

    Thank you Ashley for being honest and vulnerable regarding this subject. We need more people like you who will state what most see as obvious but stay silent. Here’s a question: What would motivate White people to change a system that greatly favors them?

  4. Lisa Combest on July 25, 2023 at 9:04 pm

    I enjoyed your post. I have had a similar attitude to affirmative action in the past, because it seemed so arbitrary. You’re black, so you’re in. You’re not qualified, but who cares? You’re black. That doesn’t seem just or equitable. It doesn’t take into account the human experience that brought someone to this point. What kinds of opportunities did the person have? What are the stories of their predecessors? What are the norms of their socio/economic group? Did everyone start from the same starting line, so to speak? The answer is NO. When considering a cross section of people from a population, the answer is always NO.

    So, I’m working on formulating an argument for a different interpretation of affirmative action, not based upon “race”. Race is a construct of the West to justify slavery and really should never come into our discussions on anything, IMHO. But can we use far more objective criteria to allow for things like hiring and college admissions? I argue that yes, we can. We can look at income, we can look at family size, we can look at geographic location, we can look at historical opportunities presented to the subject or their family. We can boil that down to yes/no questions and use those criteria to make a judgement, regardless of race or creed or gender. We can determine ratios of people to consider, based upon demographics from the region in question. I believe this type of consideration would work better. It’s less subjective and therefore a little less assailable from people who are affronted by things that aren’t “fair”.

    • ashleythornton on July 26, 2023 at 8:17 am

      Part of the challenge with Affirmative Action (as we know it today) is that it seems to be mainly focused on college admissions and hiring, which occur so late in life. By the time you are considering college, for example, you have already had a lifetime of being raised in a more or less well-off family that has afforded you more or fewer opportunities. You have already had 12 years of primary and secondary education at more or less effective schools. Affirmative Action as we use it today is mostly about making sure qualified people don’t get short shrift because of prejudice. I think that kind of Affirmative Action is still an important arrow in the quiver, and I think if we want to continue to build equality, we need to invest more earlier.

Leave a Comment