The Black Leadership Forum — an organization that includes the
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Urban League, the
National Council of Negro Women, and others — deflected energy from
the controversial Taxman v. Piscataway case that the Supreme Court had
committed to hear this session. The forum agreed to finance 70 percent
of the nearly $450,000 settlement that the plaintiff and her lawyers
will receive from the Piscataway school board.
Sharon Taxman was the White business education teacher who was laid
off in a downsizing while Debra Williams, an African American business
education teacher, was retained. Since the two women were hired the
same day and deemed “equally” qualified, the school board justified
retaining Williams on the basis of “diversity.”
Faster than she could spell diverse, Taxman was filing a lawsuit.
Her quest for “equality” was affirmed by every court up to the Supreme
Court, which had agreed to hear her case. Civil rights activists
thought this was the wrong one to take to the nation’s highest court,
so they bought Taxman out.
I’m not sure how I feel about the buy-out. It’s like postponing
something tragic — in this case, the apathy that comes from a Supreme
Court which appears to be indifferent to diversity as well as equality.
But I am convinced that there are at least two villains in this story
— and one of them is the Piscataway School Board.
Come again? To some, these guys seem like the good guys. They
retained an African American teacher and laid off a White one,
upholding diversity. At the same time, though, they tragically argued
that two workers were “equally” qualified when one held a master’s
degree while the other had a lesser education.
If I were Debra Williams I’d be fuming through the ears. The myth
that hard work and the quest for education would give you a leg up was
busted in her case. Rather than the school board affirming her superior
education, they told her that her master’s degree was not worth enough
for her to be considered more than equally qualified over a colleague
with less education. (I almost typed inferior for less, but that is the
A careful examination of what happened in Piscataway explains why
affirmative action has become America’s whipping post. Instead of White
employers telling White employees that they aren’t competitive, the
White employees are told that a position was assigned or retained
because of affirmative action. That is the kind of lazy dishonesty that
fuels the myth of White superiority.
Consider Proposition 209. We all know that it was championed by
Republicans Pete Wilson and Ward Connerly, but the early poster boys
were two White men who presented themselves as academics and said they
could not find jobs in the California State University system, despite
To be sure, these men both had Ph.D. degrees. However, neither had
earned academic distinction. They were not published, nor had they ever
actually applied for jobs in the California state system — a fact
uncovered in a blistering report by investigative journalists.
Nonetheless, one of these men said he could not find a job as a
philosophy teacher in California. In the year he said he looked, five
philosophers were hired, and three were White men. But he didn’t
challenge their status. There was an eminently qualified White woman
hired, and he didn’t challenge her status either. And an African
American woman, also hired, was not the target of his ire.
Where was this undistinguished, unpublished, non-applying product
of our nation’s system of higher education supposed to get a job? It
didn’t matter. In his warped mind, some mythical Black person was out
there holding his job — and by golly, he was going to make affirmative
action beneficiaries pay. Thus, Proposition 209.
Enter the second villain of this New Jersey-spawned affair. Taxman
must have her head in the sand. Hasn’t she ever heard that People lose
their jobs. Spit happens, and the best thing to do with spit is to wash
it off and move on.
Instead, she put her life on hold, apparently because she could not
stand the notion that some Black woman should get a job she thought she
should have. Never mind that the Black woman, her colleague, had more
education. Never mind that her colleague was the better teacher. Taxman
is White and she has wrapped herself in the privilege of Whiteness.
Thus, her lawsuit.
The Supreme Court wouldn’t see that because they are mostly White,
too. Those who opposed Taxman would have had to overcome both the
Court’s distaste for affirmative action — and its pejorative
description of such policies as “race-based preferences” — as well as
a fealty to Whiteness.
The civil rights community bought Taxman off because they
understood that the Piscataway school board improperly packaged this
case, choosing affirmative action and diversity as the wrong reasons to
let an inferior teacher go. If the school board had looked more
carefully at the two women and their qualifications, this case may not
have gone to court.
There’s the rub. Spit happens. Downsizing takes place. What the
Taxman case has said so far is that when downsizing doesn’t fall on the
shoulders of Black people, White people are ready to go to court. Or
when all else is supposedly equal, White folks are supposed to prevail.
This is a premise that deserves challenge. But then there are
others, such as the premise that a White woman’s bachelor’s degree is
the equivalent of a Black woman’s master’s. That is only the case in a
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville