In an industry built on nepotism and favoritism, why does Affirmation Action always get portrayed as the shitty concept?
So there is an episode of 30 Rock called “Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter” where an African-American writer (nicknamed Toofer) of the “show within the show” learns that he ultimately got his writing position due to Affirmative Action. Upon realizing that the network hired him only to fit a quota (paid by some ridiculous side business fund no less), the character quits, because he doesn’t like the idea that he was hired simply to bypass a law, not by the merit of his work.
What makes this so odd is this character has been working, I assume, quite successfully at his job up until this reveal. A job, mind you, that’s so ridiculously hard to achieve that the very field of writing ENCOURAGES to use every advantage one can get to achieve such a position. So for Toofer to quit, despite having proved himself and seemingly having strong relationships with the crew, is a direct example of the white (well, Euro-centric) misappropriation of Affirmative Action, its reasons, and its implications. It falls into the same trap that Affirmative Action detractors often do – the implication of reducing minorities to incapable have-nots forced into positions they don’t deserve (and they don’t believe they deserve), which results in another (presumably white – because in this example, the competition is ALWAYS presumably white) capable person not getting the job. Hollywood always perpetuates this myth, and it needs to stop.
I don’t watch 30 Rock. I tried to get into the show, but I always found it comically lacking. I’m very hit or miss on Tina Fey – more miss than hit – but the show itself seems to try and mine comedy from the eccentricities of show-biz and the characters within it, without committing to its silliness. It may be smart, but it’s an “in the know” kind of smart, an esoteric satirical criticism that I level at Tropic Thunder. It’s funny, but in a “THAAAAAAT’S SHOWBIZ!” kind of way, and that tends to put me off.
This Affirmative Action episode tends to epitomize why. Hollywood (and earning success within it) is couched heavily in nepotism and favoritism, the results of lavish spending in regards to meetings, lunches, parties, get-togethers, mixers, and so on. This isn’t just Hollywood though – it’s the nature of the collegiate/employment beast. Networking is harsh, a commitment of hours and handshakes, sucking up and partying down with the people you wish to know that can help you get that one position, that one assignment. It forces you to do things you don’t want with time you don’t have to please the right people, and if you have any advantage over some other schmo vying for the same position, you take it. Is this fair? No. But this is America, and this is what capitalism hath wroth.
So to see a minority character genuinely get offended because he was hired through Affirmative Action is misguided, primarily because it implies 1) the network hired him solely because he WAS black and never bothered to also check his resume and references, and 2) that he’s well-off enough to dismiss one of the most sought-after jobs in Hollywood because of pride. It’s, to be blunt, a white person’s worldview of the universal truth of pride (and I sure have my issues with “universal truth” when it comes to writing), in relation to a concept that is much more complex and historically contextual than “quotas”.
Chris Rock summed it up best. Paraphrasing here: “I’m not saying to hire me over a white person who’s more qualified than me. But if we’re both equally qualified? Fuck him!” It’s harsh, but then again, so is the job market, where unemployment is ridiculously high, and especially in Hollywood, where rumors abound of writers taking up extra work, for free, to keep hold to their positions. Being vicious and mean may be an extreme way of looking at it, but in the struggle to get that one job, ignoring one’s competition is the norm. I do not like this, but until the system changes, it’s the sad truth.
Affirmative Action has become the egregious, out-and-out example of this. After all, it’s a legal mandate enforcing that unqualified minorities are put into strong, real positions of merit, all as a response to slavery as work-based reparations. Actually, nothing in the previous sentence is true. Both white people and black people so often misunderstand and misappropriate this policy that it becomes embarrassing, a taint so often narrowed down INEXPLICABLY to a fight between two people, who ALWAYS is the unqualified black person vs. the qualified white person, which is inherently racist in itself. We, in Hollywood’s so-called “universal truth,” like to think that the inherent merit of one’s talent is strong enough to overcome this embarrassment – strong black men standing up for themselves against the the scourge of Affirmative Action’s belittling nature and quitting – but surely we’ll never see that kind of strike-out against, let’s say, daughters of producers or friends of directors. How many writers refused a job when their mediocre scripts were read but got the job because “they got a famous actor on board”? As Kendra James over at Racialicious put it:
“By your logic if a white girl with your background doesn’t get into an Ivy League college it’s because there weren’t enough spots for white students that year. But if a non-white girl with an identical profile is rejected who do they blame? No one. They don’t have the excuse; they simply weren’t good enough.”
Affirmative Action, for all the bullshit said about it, is a law that’s really about government employers to hire people not based on race, creed, color, gender, religion, or sexuality. While it encourages employers to actively seek out qualified people within that framework, it doesn’t not force them to hire a certain number of minorities. There is no quota. It’s a legal response to ensure that minorities were not fired or passed on because of their race, creed, color, gender, religion, or sexuality. Private companies may have their own internal policies, but they’re not legally required to have one.
Affirmative Action – at least the idea of which – is best thought of as a networking policy for minorities, who have historically had problems networking their way into positions, even low-level ones. Think about it. How many friends do you have? How many minority friends do you have? Now, how many of them are in the same field of work as you? How many of them would you recommend to your employer for a certain position? How many of you would put your own position at stake vouching for this person? The number can’t be high, and therefore, the number of minorities in certain positions continue to be low.
We like to really think of jobs and mobility as the true representation of meritocracy in action, but it’s simply is not the case. Job hunting is, and has always been, cut-throat and cruel. It’s favoritism and nepotism; it’s going to classes and and cross-country moving and paying to perfect that resume; it’s impromptu meetings and sucking up and song-and-dancing through interview after interview after interview. The whole process is, and for the most part, has always been bullshit. Yet Affirmative Action is the comic boogeyman, the ugly policy that demeans Toofer to the point that he can quit on a dime? That 30 Rock, among other shows, portray it like this is insulting. This is not something that pleases me, but at least have the foresight to see it as part of an entire culture of employer-based nonsense. Don’t single it out. Make it part of the full nature of the falsity of meritocracy, not an embarrassing racial issue.
So yeah, episodes like this do not really give me much more of a reason to bother with the show, and it kinda surprised me to see a number of critics praise it and the show in general so much by attacking race head-on. Maybe it does, but it does so just like The Blind Side and The Help does (albeit in wackier fashion); through a white person view of what should be, without historical context, socioeconomic relevance, or comparative discussions.