SAN FRANCISCO — The front page of the March 30 San Francisco Chronicle carried a photograph of a man on a television sound stage, a man with a story to tell.
After losing a coveted teaching job to a minority woman ( the accompanying article began) Tom Wood has turned his private frustration into a public crusade that threatens to end America's 30-year experiment with affirmative action. Wood's anger coalesced in the late 1980s, when he was a candidate for a job teaching philosophy at a California university. He had no doubt that he was the most qualified for the post. Then came a development he had considered unthinkable.
As Wood recalls it, a member of the search committee told him bluntly over a cappuccino: 'You know, Tom, it sounds to me as though you'd probably just waltz into this job if you were the right race or the right sex.' But Tom Wood is a white male. And today, as the co-author of a proposed initiative to end most state affirmative action programs. . . .\f7
And so another storyteller comes wandering across the plains of California politics. Tom Wood didn't get the job, but in November of 1996 voters can help him get even. Once again, complicated public policy will be subjected to trial by anecdote. Forget about statistical analysis, documented progress or moral obligation. Forget, most of all, about history. For Californians, the decision whether to eliminate affirmative action will begin, as did the above article, with the story of poor old Tom Wood and the teaching job that got away.
This seemingly is how political business gets done these days. Wood follows a long line: the bankrupt contractor, who in his ire decides to take on illegal immigration; the Bakersfield "farmer" accused by the feds of killing endangered rats; the embittered mourners of murder victims Polly Klaas and Kimber Reynolds, and on and on. All had stories to tell, stories that made debate over difficult issues seem, well, simple.
There are, of course, dangers in surrendering the stage to the storytellers. For example, the fathers of slain girls--however righteous and powerful their outrage--were not necessarily qualified to devise sweeping revisions of the criminal justice system . . . and thus the chaos swirling around "three strikes" implementation. Also, these anecdotes are not always as simple as the storytellers tell them. The "farmer" who killed the rats--and became a hero to farmers opposed to endangered species protection--turned out to be a Los Angeles bookbinder with immigration problems. And so forth.
For his part, Wood insists he never wanted to become the face of the anti-affirmative action movement. He blames unnamed opponents for attempting to frame him with his own vignette, to paint him as one more angry white male. In his telling, reporters have asked if he ever experienced reverse discrimination and he has answered. "What was I supposed to do," Wood asked the other day, "say no?"
Actually, two reporters who interviewed Wood remembered that he in fact had volunteered his tale of woe. The author of the Chronicle account said she simply asked Wood what social ills he hoped to cure with the initiative, and he launched into a long monologue about his encounter with the search committee member. But not to quibble.
What's most interesting about Wood's story is what he leaves out. He decorates his tale with all sorts of detail--how he spotted the opening advertised in a publication called "Jobs for Professors," how he bumped into the faculty member at a computer store, how they discussed his chances over "lattes and cappuccinos." What he will not tell--what he absolutely refuses to divulge--is the name of the university and faculty member, and when the rejection occurred. This would lead reporters--and therefore voters--to the "minority woman" who in fact was hired, and Wood clearly does not want that to happen. And why not?
Could it be the "minority woman" in truth was more qualified than Wood? Or could it be the cappuccino discussion did not unfold quite as Wood tells it? Could it be, as often happens in the delicate dance called personnel relations, Wood was told a white lie to let him down easy? It's tough telling people they're just not up to snuff. Or could it be--and this also is typical in these exchanges--Wood simply chose to hear what he wanted to hear?
These questions won't be answered until the winning job applicant is found. It's quite possible that she--presuming Wood's "minority woman" truly exists--will have her own story of affirmative action to tell, an anecdote that runs counter to the interests of Tom Wood. He told me angrily the other day he now regrets ever telling his story. No doubt, that was the truth.