A Case of Stigmatism

Stigmatism, n. A variant of astigmatism, particularly virulent in academia, in which visual impairment derives not from an irregularly curved cornea but from ideologically distorted vision that in many cases prevents its victims from perceiving the stigma from which they suffer and in others prevents them from recognizing the source of the stigma they do perceive.

A nice, almost perfect example of rampant stigmatism can be found in Disrespected?, a recent article by Penn anthropology professor John L. Jackson Jr., who apparently is the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s designated commentator on blackademia.
Jackson writes that he’s been “collecting unpleasant and disconcerting stories from senior black faculty,” most of whom “are incredibly accomplished and wildly influential in their fields” but all of whom feel “disrespected, profoundly disrespected,” all “with similar stories to tell of humiliating slights interpreted as race-based disrespect.”

In these narratives, senior scholars of color describe themselves as under-appreciated by administrators, relatively marginalized (and even maligned) by fellow colleagues, and somewhat alienated from other experts in their fields.
…. No amount of publishing productivity or public notoriety exempts one from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with under-representation in the academy.

Jackson and his friends do not simply assume that the disrespect they suffer stems from the “under-representation” of blacks in academia rather than the stigma that attaches to the suspected beneficiaries of affirmative action; to all but the last man they positively assert it.

In all but one instance, these scholars weren’t lamenting the stain of “affirmative action,” the fear that their successes were tainted by other people’s assumptions about their achievements being predicated on something other than purely meritocratic grounds. Only one person seemed plagued by such a concern. The others were arguing the opposite (or close to it): that they had succeeded at a game decidedly stacked against them….

It seems to me that what these scholars are claiming is not “disrespect” but outright racism. Why else would the game have been decidedly (by whose decision?) stacked against them? Why else would they be “under-appreciated” and “relatively marginalized (and even maligned)” for succeeding?
Although it is possible that all of these “incredibly accomplished and wildly influential” scholars are on the receiving end of naked racism, I think it far more likely that, despite their denials, what they have experienced is the quite common resentment of affirmative action.
Indeed, it would be quite surprising, astounding even, if race-based preferential treatment did not engender race-based resentment. Such resentments, in fact, are widely documented. Just a few days ago, for example, the Harvard Crimson published a long criticism of the “special treatment” afforded some preferred students by Harvard’s practice, between October and March, of mailing “300 likely letters, which serve as authorized notices of expected admission” to some especially sought after applicants (all others have to wait until April 1).

Through likely letters … Harvard — an academic institution — gives priority to [non-academic attributes] when it should instead prioritize academic accomplishments above all else.
In a twist of irony, of all the negative consequences that the institution of likely letters brings to Harvard’s campus, perhaps the most harmful is the resulting stigma toward recruited [beneficiaries].

By now you may have guessed that the Crimson was directing its meritocratic ire toward the preferential treatment of athletic, not “diversity,” recruits. It would be too much to expect the Crimson writers and editors to recognize that their criticism of athletic-based preferences also applies to race-based preferences — and sure enough they write that “Used sparingly, likely letters can be a powerful tool for adding talent and diversity to the student body” [emphasis added]. Nevertheless, the barb of its argument would seem to sting either target equally, as the following passage clearly demonstrates:

Thus, the stigma of having been admitted to a college under different circumstances follows student athletes throughout their time at Harvard and creates a divisive, at times hostile, social environment. Even though recruited athletes must still apply to Harvard with the same materials as regular candidates, the unfortunate perception nevertheless exists that recruits are intellectually inferior and thus undeserving of a place among the student body….

“Anon,” who commented on the Crimson article, noted that “as a recruited athlete, I don’t really feel any stigma against me,” but that was because, he said, “most people don’t know I was recruited unless I tell them so. If you define yourself as an athlete that might be different.”
I am in no position to say whether, or to what degree, Prof. Jackson and his eminent friends define themselves as beneficiaries of affirmative action, but then, unlike athletes at Harvard, they will be suspect even if they don’t.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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