Thursday, July 9, 2009

Max musings in the morning

        I’ve been reading John McWhorter’s “Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority” and cannot recommend it highly enough. That said, I am also finding it a distinctly uncomfortable book because in his writings I find myself challenged to think about whether I mean it about a color-blind society. I am almost certain that I do and the frisson I feel is more fear of breaking with left-wing orthodoxy thus threatening my good Progressive credentials. I pride myself on having earned and kept my Progressive chops through the nineties, when I was in the streets with ACT-UP, Queer Nation, and the Lesbian Avengers. Even my first job in high-tech was at a Progressive ISP called IGC-APC which provided Internet service to organizations like Green-peace and the Rainforest Action Network.

        There is a Progressive orthodoxy about blacks in America that I think has played itself out and needs to be questioned. Specifically, the question of Affirmative Action needs to be looked at again. Not the goals which are completely laudable and which are clearly for the good. Rather, we who call ourselves Progressive or Liberal need to look at the real world effects of Affirmative Action and ask ourselves if the cost-benefit analysis comes down on the side of continuing the idea--at least in its current form. What are these real-world effects? They can be enumerated as follows:

  1. Affirmative Action clearly breeds resentment. Now, there are times when it may be more or less appropriate to say “well, that’s just the way it is”. For example, there was no paucity of white resentment over integration and to that I would have to say “too bad”. The goal of making certain that the Constitution fully covered all of America’s citizens outweighed the resentment recalcitrant whites might have felt over things changing. The same could be said about voting rights for either blacks or women. There are, however, times when we should look at what others are saying and really give it the most fair hearing possible. I have heard too, too many whites who grew up poor express resentment that “no one gave me a break” to dismiss that as mere free-floating resentment. Who needed a break more to get into a top-tier school? My partner, who grew up one of four children of a single-mother making less than $30K a year in Utah in the 90’s or me, youngest of two children who grew up in a house where my parents combined income, when I left home in 1985, was at least $120K? Clearly, the answer of any sane person would be my partner. A class-based Affirmative Action would be altogether more justifiable than a race-based one.
  2. Affirmative Action keeps an undue focus on race. I want to make it clear, I am proud of my heritage because in my veins runs the blood of people who took the worst that America had to throw at a people and who managed, somehow, to find the courage to get up every morning and keep on keeping on. However, as proud as I am of that heritage and as much inspiration I draw from it, their accomplishments are not mine and my accomplishments are not theirs. Ultimately, I want to be judged on my own competency and I would be profoundly insulted to find out that I had ever gotten a job or admitted to a school because I was less than the best possible candidate. What’s more, it is inconsistent to want favor to flow toward me because of my phenotype while simultaneously saying that I do not want disfavor to befall me because of that same phenotype. If the latter is actively happening to me then I have grounds on which to claim the former. But the converse is also true. If I gain the former, I have no standing upon which to reject the latter.
  3. Affirmative Action sets up a double-bind for blacks. While it has not happened at my current employer, I have had jobs where co-workers wondered, out loud mind you, if I had gotten the job because of Affirmative Action--if I was filling a quota. That is a terrible feeling and one that no one should have to experience. (Even though I have had a co-worker who asked if I was raised by a white family because of my diction but that’s a different story.)
  4. Affirmative Action is anti-meritocratic. Now, I understand that on the Left there is a lot of talk against meritocracy but if we are fair, we must recognize that meritocracy is the best chance we have for a truly fair and just society. Some of the critique of meritocracy is “who decides what is merit”. On one hand, that’s a valid question worth exploring. On the other hand, at some level we know what merit is. I work for a software company, we can tell the callers who know what they are doing and those who don’t. There’s no absolute standard or checklist, it is intuitive. If I have to explain what a file system is and the person on the other line has the job title of developer or system administrator, then that person is not competent because there is no excuse for anyone with those job titles to not know what one is. None. Ever. If your doctor is incompetent you know they are and you will no longer go to them. So in a very real sense the question “who decides what counts as merit” is a false question. No one would get on an airliner with a pilot who they heard asking “what do those big round things do” when pointing at the engines. If there is something with the potential for fairness that is greater than meritocracy, I am unaware of it.
  5. Culture matters. By this I mean you cannot expect that if black kids genuinely believe that doing well in school is somehow to be “acting white” that black kids will do well in school. The problem, then, becomes not the school but the culture that tolerates the utterance of the statement “doing well in school is acting white”. To see this one need only compare the varying fates of three groups---blacks born BEFORE 1950, Afro-Carribean blacks who have migrated to the United States, and blacks born AFTER 1965. Blacks born before 1950 grew up being taught that an education was the key to liberation and that the crime was NOT that we were expected to learn but that in many venues we were either not ALLOWED to learn (being barred from the best schools, etc.) or that our education counted for absolutely nothing (the old joke of “Q. What’s a black man with a PhD called in Mississippi? A. Nigger). But blacks born in that era did not believe that to be well-read was to be non-black. Rather, it was to be integrated and to be resistant to the slings and arrows of outrageous racial misfortune. Afro-Carribean blacks who migrated never bought into the idea that being educated was somehow to betray blackness. Thus we have the example of a Colin Powell (who also was born before 1950). It is only blacks of MY generation who were born AFTER 1960 who suddenly started propagating this meme which, as far as I am aware, sprung up quite independently in the black community, that to be educated and integrated was to be non-black. This meme operates entirely independent of whites and, in fact, is not something I can ever recall hearing from white students at school but heard from black students on a regular basis.
  6. Life is not perfect. It has never been perfect, it never will be. All you can do is the best with what you have.
  7. There is absolutely no way to guarantee equality of outcome. It simply cannot be done. For example, I have taken a couple of writing classes in the last few semesters to break myself of some bad habits I picked up posting on USENET groups. From day one, both my professors and my fellow students recognized that I was far and away a more sophisticated writer than most of the other students in the class. I had several advantages over these students and so there is no way that there could be equal outcomes in that class. The only thing that the professors could do is judge each student’s work on the same merit (although, quite honestly, I went to my professors and said that I wanted them to judge my work as they would someone in a 200 or 300 level class because I was taking the class to break bad habits and get through some pre-reqs, in the case of one class). My advantages are that I am older than most of the other students in the class, meaning I have had more time to do more reading. I grew up in an academic environment so I was exposed to writing and reading from a very early age. I also read very broadly. All of these are, in fact, advantages I have that most of my fellow students did not. Given that, there is no way that there could be equal outcomes between me and any other given student in that class. I was going to get an “A” in those classes unless I simply refused to work or worked below my abilities. We on the Left, who are perfectly comfortable with the idea that there are people who have artistic talent and those who do not, those who have musical talent and those who do not, and those who have athletic talent and those who do not must also accept that there are people who have intellectual talent and those who do not and that given the kind of society we live in, where the best money is to be made (the aforementioned athletics and music not-with-standing) is going to be made by those who are best at manipulating symbolic logic. In other words, mind workers. Lawyers will make more money than baristas. Doctors will make more money than cashiers. GOOD lawyers will make more money than mediocre ones. GREAT doctors will make more money than so-so ones. This is not a prima facie sign of discrimination or racism unless one is going to posit that ALL the GOOD lawyers are of one race and that the best lawyers of another race can achieve is mediocre. This may not be a comfortable truth but it doesn’t make it any less true. What we can do is to provide opportunities to people and to not allow non-relevant barriers to achievement be put up. What we cannot do is ensure that every one who wants to go to Princeton gets into Princeton. Nor can we ensure that every Princeton graduate makes $80K a year out of the starting gate. That is not achievable. Now, if what we find is that NO blacks get into Princeton ever--and by this I mean that a black student who has never gotten a ‘B’ in her life, got a perfect score on the SATs, etc. cannot get into Princeton--then we have a problem that needs to be addressed. The same goes for bank loans. If I and one of my colleagues, who make the same amount of money, have the same time in our careers, have the exact same credit rating cannot get the same loan from the same bank (in other words, if you hold every relevant variable constant) then the bank had better be prepared to explain why it is that two individuals who are identical on paper cannot be treated identically if the only difference is ethnicity.*
        Now, to say all of this is not to say that there are never situations where an employer might not want to go out of their way to find someone like me. I’m currently in school, debating whether to go the route of education (in which case I’ll teach high school biology) or public health (in which case I’d like to work for one of the local hospitals as an epidemiologist). In the former, I would not feel particularly adverse to the idea of the Portland School District seeking me out to teach in North or Northeast Portland. Since the population of that school would be largely black having a black woman with dreadlocks in biology class, involved with the science club, etc. would be immensely valuable to those students and provided that I otherwise met the qualifications and performed well as a teacher I see no reason why the district should not go out of their way to recruit me. However, the cart is still before the horse. I would be the best candidate for a teaching position and the fact that I was a black woman would be something the school gets “for free”. All of that said, it would still be unacceptable for the district to pass over, say, a white teacher who had a M.S. in Biology and 20 years experience over me if I only had a B.S. in Biology since she would be the far more qualified candidate. My argument, vis a vis the teaching position, is only valid in as much as the district might take some steps to find and recruit me but not to hire me if I were not the best qualified candidate who also happened to be black.

        However, in my current employment situation my being black does nothing for my employer. It does not matter and has absolutely no influence on either my job performance nor on the success of our customers. It would make no sense for my employer to go out of their way to recruit a black employee because there is absolutely nothing my race would bring to the table and any indirect benefits of my being black (diversity) are nice and shouldn’t be dismissed but they are completely irrelevant to the business we do. In the case of me as teacher, an argument could be made that I could be a figure of inspiration to my students and so if I can be found an effort should be made to find me.

        This, to me, seems a more sane way of navigating the treacherous waters. It avoids the problematic area of sticking students with a teacher who is not qualified while at the same time recognizing that there is a real, on the ground reality that black children do not see adult blacks who are scientists very often. Having a real, live, scientist who is black in the classroom on a day-to-day basis may provide a benefit down the road that is unforeseen. And it would only make sense in the very limited context in which I am speaking and is, ultimately, predicated on my being the best qualified person. Again, all I’m saying is that as a recruitment effort not a hiring decision, the district might be well served to seek me out however they might go about that.

        There’s a society that I believe is possible wherein we are functionally color-blind while at the same time recognizing that there are, from time to time, distinctly non-colorblind actions. For instance, the link below is about a decidedly non-colorblind action that took place in Philadelphia, quite ironically. What this means is that, for the Left, we have to recognize that equality of opportunity is possible while equality of outcome is not.,2933,531024,00.html