Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Problem With Affirmative Action

Providing equal opportunities has proven to be difficult.  Do affirmative action type programs fix this?   Maybe not.

A recent article online from The Guardian (who always looks for the worst in America) illustrates how affirmative action programs, or "diversity schemes" as they call them in the UK, can not only be ineffective, but actually backfire.

Like I said, The Guardian and other British tabloids (do they have any other kind of paper?) love to run down America, painting our country as some sort of Mad Max dystopian society where people knife each other to death over who gets to keep a pile of dead rats.   If only they had the social services as they do in the UK!

But as the article illustrates, the Brits have their own lovely little class and race problems, probably more of the former and less of the latter.  Bear in mind this is a country where they still have royalty and address some people as "Lord" - how egalitarian can a country be, when the demarcation of royal and commoner is embedded not just in the culture, but in the very structure of government?

What was shocking to me about this "diversity scheme" was the dramatic cruelty of it all. In America we have "Affirmative Action" which is the idea that you should set aside seats in schools or in companies for people of different races.   People claim it isn't a quota system, but it really is, despite the denials (which really detract from the whole thing - if you are going to lie about something, what does that tell us?).   Set-asides and quotas have their own problems, as we have seen.  If you set-aside one seat at Harvard for a student "of color" it means (or may mean) another student doesn't get admitted, even though their academic credentials may be superior.   Lawsuits have been filed over this and it is indeed messy.

But that's nothing compared to the "diversity scheme" outlined in the Guardian article. The article describes a "scheme" (which is an appropriate word) at a Soap Opera production company. They want to hire more diverse writers for the show, so they decide to put on a sort of contest, which makes the cruelty of Japanese game shows seem weak in comparison. Competitors for the one seat available have to submit an entire script before they are even considered.  Once selected, they have to go through a grueling series of tests until one is selected to write for the show. The one person selected ended up working a short while before quitting - their input never valued, their script ideas discarded.

The author points out that the real problems can't be solved by some sort of "vote them off the island" reality show concept (well, there's a script idea right there - a reality show based on that "diversity scheme").

But as the author points out, this "scheme" was particularly cruel, as it forced minority job applicants to go through a grueling process that white job applicants were not required to do.   White people get hired, in the traditional manner, through referrals, interviews, resumes, and samples of work product.  And yes, often it helps to know someone or have a connection - such as being a friend of the nephew of the producer or something like that - the sort of connections a minority candidate likely wouldn't have.  That sort of back-door connection can't readily be countered by Affirmative Action  - and certainly not by this awkward "diversity scheme".

But another effect that the author noted is also present in our Affirmative Action programs - the idea that a minority candidate isn't qualified and thus has been accepted only because of their race. They are perceived as a "token" minority, hired to fulfill some quota scheme, and not do real work.  That is the perception that any minority employee or student has to fight back against.

And sadly, it is a perception created by these programs designed to increase fairness. In a society where there is no affirmative action program or diversity scheme, if a minority reaches a position of power or is admitted to a top-tier school, you can be assured they did so on their merits, as they had to struggle against the odds.   Again, at least that would be the perception. But in a society that has set-asides or seats reserved for minority candidates, the doubts will always be there, or more precisely, as the author notes, the doubters will always be there.

So, what's the answer?  Are you serious?   You want my peace plan for middle-east peace while you're at it - and should I throw in my plan for nuclear disarmament as well?   These are not easily solvable problems, which is why they haven't been easily solved.   Anyone who tells you there is a simple solution to a complex problem is probably lying to you - or at least themselves.

The ultimate solution, of course, would be to live in a society where people are color-blind.  A society where a young "person of color" is encouraged to get good grades in school, and learns how to be a writer, and gets hired onto that television show based on their merits and talents alone.  That will take a long time, and require a lot of changes in societal values.   Not only will whites have to be more willing to look beyond color, but attitudes among minorities have to change as well.   You can't expect to advance in society if you view learning as "acting white" and beat the shit out of your fellow classmate because he gets good grades.   And that isn't a black/white thing - white kids in the trailer park in the county do the same thing to their classmates who "act smart".

And this in turn requires that parents teach values to their children.   As messed-up emotionally as my parents were, they instilled, nay beat into us, the value of education, as well as reading and writing.  I grew up in a house full of books. Some of my poor friends who lived in trailer parks outside of town, grew up in a trailer full of televisions. I recounted before how my Mother, as part of a head start program, handed out copies of Richard Scary's Busy, Busy World - a reading primer - that would be the only book in the house at some places she dropped them off.   It was charming, in a way, to see the parents read with their kids - the first time they read anything in years.

Of course, other things have to change as well - the old boy network, where jobs are handed out based on who you know, not what you know.   That will be a lot harder to change, ironically, as we are a tribal species, and we tend to look for trust and loyalty in a prospective employee.   You want to hire someone who is going to support you, personally.   And that illustrates another problem with Affirmative Action programs - the perception that any minority employee or student is poised to pull the pin on a discrimination lawsuit at the drop of a hat.   The fact that some people do abuse this, only adds to the perception.

Like I said, there are no easy answers, for society as a whole.   But for you, the individual, there are at least some options.   While it is nice to pine for fairness in the world, realize the world isn't going to be fair, on a number of levels, and accept that and move forward.   If you look back in history at the brave men and women who overcame adversity and succeeded in their fields despite the prejudices against their race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever, you see these are brave folks who didn't spend a lot of time complaining about how the system was unfair or stacked against them.   They just kept butting their head against the wall until people had to accept them, in spite of their prejudices.

Did that mean they had a fair outcome?  That they were offered the same opportunities as others in their field?  That others with far lesser talents did not succeeded further?   Of course not.   The world is an unfair place, and even without racial or gender discrimination, you are going to find a lot of things not going your way for reasons that make no sense.   You can get depressed and cry about this, and then give up and curl into a ball, or you can get right back up again and fight back - not by setting fire to a McDonald's but by getting back into the game and showing them you have so much talent they can't afford not to hire you.

Of course, this doesn't mean you are entitled to every job out there, nor would you want some of them. But you can better yourself and improve your lot in the world. Statistics and personal outcomes are two different things.  Just because "statistically" your demographic is not destined to succeed does not mean you cannot succeed.  As I noted above, the problem of discrimination in admissions and hiring is two-fold:  The attitudes of the people hiring and that of the applicants.  You might not be able to control the attitudes of the hiring manager, but you can change your own attitude about valuing education, training, intellect, and knowledge.  Despite the statistics, many people of minority backgrounds succeed very well in this country - and most do this through education and acquiring skills.

The top-down approach has its merits, but it will never succeed until there is an ample supply of qualified applicants coming from the bottom-up.

And for the life of me, I cannot fathom what the British were thinking - making race relations into a contest!