Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Let’s talk about Affirmative Action

The issue:

In some areas, primarily employment and work, in some countries, systems have been and are being trialled, with the goal of addressing historical and institutionalised inequalities. These systems involve what has been described as ‘positive discrimination’, e.g. deliberately selecting minorities for opportunities, sometimes despite superior non-minority candidates, or providing educational subsidies to members of ‘underrepresented’ groups in various fields.
 
The argument:
Listen, I understand the motivation behind these programmes, I really do. And they’re all very well and good, but it seems to me there are a few fatal flaws. I mean, how can you try and destroy something by using the very thing you’re trying to destroy? How does using discrimination to fight discrimination do anything but create more discrimination? And this applies to issues of both ‘race’, and sex. It doesn’t seem logical.
Furthermore, there’s discrimination within the discrimination. It is well known that men are underrepresented in fields like literature, nursing, and even babysitting. No one is screaming for affirmative action for those areas, are they?
And here’s where it gets tricky. How do you count? How do you know when you’ve been successful? Is it always logical to expect a fifty-fifty split of men and women in every role? For some professions this doesn’t make any sense. We might logically expect to see more men in professions requiring physical strength, like construction. We might logically expect to see more women in professions requiring empathy, like nursing. It’s also worth considering that there are differences in the way men and women think, and approach problems.
Though it’s controversial to say it, the same may be true of ‘race’. (I put the word in quotation marks because it’s a problematic concept at the best of times, but I won’t go into that here.) It may be true that certain peoples are better at certain things. We know this from the Olympics. Koreans dominate archery, eastern Europeans rule at weightlifting. There are stereotypes for a reason.
There’s also the problem half-raised by Chris Rock. In one of his shows he talks about the fact that in the US, slaves were bred to be strong and stupid. They picked the biggest ones and forced them to have children. He points out that this is why African-Americans dominate many sports in the US today (and again, there’s no call for action here, even though you could argue whites are underrepresented, given the ethnic make-up of the country). What he doesn’t point out though, is that if slaves were bred to be stupid as well as strong, does this explain both black overachievement in sports and underachievement in academia?
So, the real question is, what do we aim for? What’s the goal? If a country is half white and half Hispanic, do you have to have a fifty-fifty split in all areas? And it is an important question to consider, even at this stage, not because of a danger of becoming ‘too equal’, but because you don’t build a car without building the brakes, too.
Finally, there’s a form a racism/sexism which is now socially acceptable, and this is to blame the white male for the world’s problems. Again, I don’t see how using prejudice to fight prejudice makes someone any better than the person they’re criticising. But also, it’s just not true. You think there are many white men in charge in China, Africa, the Middle East? I’m not denying that in some places privilege exists, but I am saying, if every time you see a problem, your first reaction is to scream ‘blame the white man’, then how are you any different from the racists and sexists you claim to despise?
 
The rebuttal:
I want to talk first about the car analogy, because it’s simply not accurate. A better way of looking at it would be that certain people have cars and others have to walk, and the people with cars sometimes stop to pick up their friends who happen to look like them, and then they wonder why everyone else struggles to get around.
We’re not aiming for specific figures here. We’re not aiming for fifty percent women in every job, or thirty-five percent Hispanics in every board room. What we’re aiming for is the paths and opportunities to these roles to be the same. If we take care of that, the numbers will take care of themselves.
We’re not saying, every construction site should be half female, or every hospital half male, but that those who want to be nurses and builders should be able to have the same opportunity to do so, regardless of sex or skin colour. And at the moment that simply is not the case. So we’re not expecting specific numbers per se, we’re looking at the numbers as a symptom.
Currently, the numbers illustrate the problem. The question of what to aim for is logical, and the argument for understanding the goal makes sense, but the idea behind all these systems is that if the paths are clearer, the numbers won’t need to be dictated.
ere’s the thing: people need to see others like them in roles they aspire to, or they automatically (and subconsciously) assume the roles are not available. Even if the paths are ostensibly open, if they cannot be seen or understood, what use are they?
Like it or not, a bias exists. If you feel threatened by a loss of opportunity for ‘your type’ (which secretly many do), then your only recourse is to become better at what you do, so that when the choice is made, it is made on ability. Don’t you want to be selected because you’re the best, not because you happen to look the part? If we persist long enough, things will balance out, the systems we are using will no longer be needed, and merit will become the criterion by which all are judged. If you don’t like feeling like you may be undercut because of who you are, now you know how the rest of us feel. It’s time to take away that feeling for all people. And you can help.
Finally, yes we get that prejudice doesn’t defeat prejudice. But try being disadvantaged your whole life and see if you don’t get a little angry at the people on top, too. We’re not fools, we know that not all problems are caused by white men, we don’t think that all white men are bad people. But it’s easy for you to accept the status quo, for obvious reasons. And you need to understand that the rest of us aren’t going to put up with it any more. And neither should you.