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Did Mitt Romney Just Endorse Affirmative Action? | The Nation

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Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams

The online diary of a mad law professor.

Did Mitt Romney Just Endorse Affirmative Action?

“I learned a great deal,“ said Mitt Romney when asked about women’s pay equity during Tuesday’s debate. He was referring to his term as governor of Massachusetts, when, while assembling his senior staff, he became golly-gee-gobsmacked by the fact that “all the applicants seemed to be men.” Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 till 2007, not the Dark Ages, so this lack of women in his world seems to have come to him later in life than most. Nor is it a question he seems yet to have asked about the upper management ranks of Bain Capital Private Equity (twenty-four women out of 164), Bain Capital Ventures (three out of thirty-six), or the Republican Party leadership for that matter.

But better late than never, right? Clueless, brand-spanking-new Governor Mitt then proceeded to interrogate his staff: “How come all the people for these jobs are all men…” How come, indeed. However in the world? Pray decipher this mysterious riddle. The answer envelope, please: “Well, these are the people who have the qualifications.”

Well, gosh,” said Mitt, who apparently lives in a world where “gosh” is acceptable parlance among hepcats, ”can’t we find some women that are also qualified?” Well, gosh, yes, Mr. Romney! And the next thing you know, he and his team were making “a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said can you help us find folks? And theybrought us whole binders full of women.

I can’t do better than the fifty shades of parody that already suffuse the Internet, so let me skip over the obvious. Indeed, the deliciously salacious and show-stopping nature of that particular metaphor has tended to obscure the no less startling significance of what Mitt said next:

One of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two because I recognize that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes they need to be more flexible.

Mitt Romney, in other words, would seem to be endorsing affirmative action. His own description of what he did in Massachusetts is exactly the practice just argued last week before the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Fisher v. Texas. Hear it again, paraphrased with race instead of gender: How distressing! All the applicants appear to be white! Good gracious, can’t we find some blacks and Latinos that could be qualified to be part of the team? Let’s make a concerted effort to seek out some black-people groups and see if they can help us find folks we can recruit into the ranks of Bain Bond-age! (As an interesting aside, Bain Capital Private Equity has zero black faces on its upper management team; Bain Capital Ventures, one.)

That said, it’s possible that Romney doesn’t understand what affirmative action really is. To the Republican Party, as well as to many misinformed Americans of other political stripes, affirmative action signifies “unqualified,” as well as “reverse” discrimination, specifically against white men. Through this smeared lens, integration seems a zero sum game, rather than a process of inclusion for all. But the actuality of affirmative action means widening a given pool of people considered, by searches and by advertising, and then applying an “all things being equal” or so-called “mild preference” for under-represented groups like women, minorities or the economically disadvantaged. Again, it is precisely what Romney describes himself as having done.

But the Supreme Court seems set to strike even that little down. In the 2007 combined cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If this overly simplistic logic of “colorblindness” is extrapolated to women’s rights (as in, “I don’t see gender”), then Romney was sexist for so much as noticing that the pool was all-male. In the Fisher case, where the University of Texas is defending its practice of taking race into mild account to diversify the admission of twenty percent of its class, the Court seems poised to take that logic to precisely such an extreme ideological and anti-remedial end.

Of course, one of the peculiar features of the current debate around affirmative action is that accusations of “preference” only seem to come into obvious play when the job-seeker is black. Confusing the issue further has been a very self-conscious tactic on the part of right-wing organizations to make women their lead plaintiffs in attacks on affirmative action; indeed all the major cases in recent years have featured white females suing schools for discrimination based on race—as in (Cheryl) Hopwood v. Texas, (Barbara) Grutter v. Bollinger, (Jennifer) Gratz v. Bollinger. This intentional placement race and gender on opposite sides of the table disguises the degree to which precisely the same arguments can be—and have been historically—used to defeat women’s quest for inclusion in schools and employment. Indeed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has written about the then-dean of Harvard Law School’s complaint back in the 1950s that admitting any women at all was bad for the profession, resulting only in the displacement more productive male students.

Thus, the extent to which gender- and color- “blindness” is deployed as a strategy for selectively protecting norms of inequality becomes clearer when one applies that standard across a broader spectrum than race. It also clarifies the degree to which Romney’s anecdotes during the debate are at factual odds with his policies and executive actions. Suppose, for example, we just ask if all those women Romney supposedly hired in Massachusetts weren’t displacing “more qualified” men. Perhaps that would explain why, despite Romney’s debate claims, the number of women appointed to public leadership positions actually declined during his governorship. Suppose, too, that we just re-label all that “flexibility” Romney said women (but not men?) needed, and call it “special treatment” and “special accommodations” and “special favors.” After all, doesn’t whining about having to go home and make dinner for the kids sound awfully like the kind of “entitlement” that his favorite 47 percent of Americans call for when suffering from a bad case of the “victim”-hood crankies? Perhaps that explains why, six months into his governorship, Romney eliminated Massachusetts’ Office of Affirmative Action.

It’s hard to decipher whether Romney is lying about his commitment to integration, or whether, despite his fine education at Harvard Law School, he doesn’t know what affirmative action really is. After all, as a cultural matter, virtually no one thinks to ask what kind of affirmative action put Representative Paul Broun onto the House Committee on Science and Technology when he decries embryology, evolution and climate science as “lies” delivered from the pits of Hell. No one thinks to ask if Representative Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin didn’t displace a smarter, more-deserving black female applicant to Worcester Polytechnic Institute—which school actually granted that numbskull a degree in management engineering.

Regardless of whether Romney is dissembling or just ignorant, there is a more comprehensive ideological logic at work in the answer he gave on Tuesday.

His solution for helping “young women and women of all ages” is: “We’re going have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy that I’m gonna bring to play, that are gonna be so anxious to get good workers they’re gonna be anxious to hire women.” It will be, he promised, an economy “so strong that employers [will bring] them into their workforce and [adapt] to a flexible work schedule that gives women the opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.” This dreamy poppycock is an answer absolutely consistent with his and Paul Ryan’s libertarian extremism. Economic forces alone will make employers want to hire women; there’ll be so many extra jobs they’ll have to hire some women. Trust that invisible hand, it’ll lift your boats.

So let’s just assume for a hot hypothetical second that the economy were so strong that every woman in the nation was employed. The precise issue Romney was asked was about pay equity: about all those women doing twice the work of their male peers, backwards and in high heels, but getting paid less for it and being passed over for promotion while the men they train leap over them and up the corporate ladder. While it was terribly kind of Romney to let his chief of staff go home to do family things, he never answered the question of what executive action he would take to ensure equality of opportunity as a legal matter and of right. Again, that’s because, as a far-right libertarian, he doesn’t believe there’s a role for government to do anything other than defend the borders and leave businesses to their own devices.

But left to market forces alone, we have… well, we have what we have: seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar. Consignment to jobs that ensure all the women go home in time to make dinner, while the big boys stay on to do the heavy lifting. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter.

For more on Romney’s confusing stance on women’s rights, check out Bryce Covert on “What Does Mitt Romney Really Want for Women?”

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