Last night, the NPR program Marketplace did a story on Building a More Diverse Faculty. Same old story: A small fraction of new doctorates are awarded to minorities and a slightly smaller fraction of them reach faculty status; we need to increase our efforts to recruit minority faculty members.
Really? This again?
First things first: In this context, "minorities" most often means African-American. Sometimes hispanics make it into the discussion, but it's decidedly less common. There are a metric fuckton (technical term there) of people traditionally regarded as minorities in science. Because the majority of these folks are usually Asian/Indian, no one gives a shit.
I'll tell you a story about how badly Chinese people are discriminated against in grad school admissions from my days as a student on the admissions committee: Each year, my grad school received approximately 500 applications from China for a strict cap of 5 or so slots. Applications with less-than-perfect grades and test scores were immediately tossed without further consideration, narrowing the pile by roughly half. A Chinese faculty member (who got tenure while I was there, by the way) would then go through the remaining applications and select candidates from schools he deemed decent. These were the people who made it to phone interviews by the larger admission committee.
The shoddy treatment of applications from overseas wasn't a secret. Neither was the fact that Asian applicants (who are ineligible for financial aid) are used as cash cows for Universities to pad their budgets. Later, many of these same individuals are utilized by research departments as cheap labor, forever threatened with the prospect of having their H1B visas pulled.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, black PhD candidates in the sciences are like gold. In grad school, we had (I think) four black PhD candidates out of about 200 total students that went through the program. There was a big effort to recruit more but there just weren't that many out there. The black candidates we did get were pretty much average as far as career trajectories. Ten years out, I'd put one in the top quarter, one in the second quarter, and so on.
My (very subjective) conclusion from these limited observations is this: Skin color made little difference. And yet we hear constantly about the pressing need to cram more minorities into grad programs, not by fostering more interest, but by changing admission standards to let more students in.
We do this without considering any possibility other than discrimination and/or bias. If race is too polarizing, let's think about disparity using gender. Everyone knows the old chestnut about women making only 79 cents on the dollar compared to male colleagues. This fact (if it is true - I'm not sure) is almost always immediately followed by an argument to equalize pay (even socialist god Bernie Sanders blathered on about this the other day).
So women are only paid 79% of what men make. By this logic, John Q BusinessOwner can save 21% on payroll costs by firing all the men and replacing them with women. Everyone with a dong would find themselves out on the sidewalk so fast if this were indeed true. Fact is, simple economics quashes any contribution to the wage gap resulting from gender discrimination. (Again, this isn't to deny it exists: Maybe women are shittier negotiators or lose seniority after having kids, but those are largely personal decisions that don't warrant much sympathy.)
Moving on. I hear a lot about minorities being trampled upon, but very little about why too much help is a good thing. And there are some VERY good reasons helping minorities is not such a good thing.
Creepy Feel-Good Exploitation
A company I worked for had two black scientists in a group of about 25 people. I have no idea whether they were recruited/hired because they were black, but the company seemed to do everything it could to suggest that was the case: Every time we had a PR firm came in to shoot some science/laboratory footage for television commercials and whatnot, one of the two was inevitably selected as a subject. It was awkward, a little heavy-handed and (in my opinion) insulting to the two ladies.
"S/he's only a [insert profession] because of affirmative action."
Would you want a heart surgeon who only got through medical school as a result of affirmative action? Do you think you can tell which doctors did and didn't? Care to bet your life on that?
Helping minorities (any minority) has a nasty backlash when it comes to public perception and decisions members of society make when dealing with them. When you bend over backwards (i.e., change rules) to admit people who are less qualified, you inadvertently apply this label to everyone in the group, regardless of whether they were qualified in the first place. Again, this stigma is attached to every member of that group, regardless of how qualified they are. Policy makers are, in effect, guaranteeing that a large number of people will be screwed in order to maybe help a smaller subset of that same group.
The Phenomenon of Quiet Racists
Jim Watson (the guy who, along with Francis Crick, took the data of Roslind Franklin and determined the structure of DNA) was an extremely powerful scientist. He headed up a massive research facility on Long Island called Cold Spring Harbor for the latter part of the twentieth century. However, his tenure ended rather abruptly in 2007 after he made some comments on Africans and intelligence that were deemed politically incorrect. Whether they were or not falls outside the scope of this post, but it was certainly debated heavily. What I'd like to draw everyone's attention to were the repurcussions - the administrators came down on Watson like a ton of bricks and he was essentially put to pasture for voicing his personal opinion.
Imagine for a moment that you are a raging racist of a professor and you see a famous titan of science like Watson go down in flames for comments that you personally consider mild. What does this change? Are you still a racist? Yes, maybe even more so if you believe Watson's been mistreated. However, even racists understand cause and effect just fine. To that end, the Watson incident mainly teaches the value of keeping their views private.
This loss of transparency on personal views of race relations can have devastating consequences. A minority who works for a closet racist will never be promoted, never be given opportunities for advancement, never receive anything more than a paycheck and the most clinical of professional interactions. How many months or years would such a person waste before realizing that they have no professional future in this hypothetical place? Now answer this: Would you prefer to know that said professor was openly racist (albeit a tolerated one) or would you rather run the risk of stumbling blindly into this situation?
As odd as it may sound, I say "let racists be racist." There's far less collateral damage.
Open communication on race is essential to all of this, but it's honestly a joke in its current form. A big reason for this is that white people fear being arbitrarily labeled as a racist when they say (for example), "I worry about hiring black workers because I'm concerned they'll sue me if I have to fire them." Such reservations prevent the natural pushback against progressive, pro-minority action (see above if you've forgotten why that's necessary) that settles things into a reasonable, dynamic balance.
This is getting long-winded so I'm wrapping it up. Tl:dr: People are inflexible. Darwinian systems favoring efficiency eventually win out over personal bigotry. Pretending we can legislate away prejudice is absurd.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.