Diversity v. merit (oh, look! a red herring!)

4 May

Here’s the controversy:

Elizabeth Warren, the likely Democratic challenger to Senator Scott P. Brown in the closely watched Senate race in Massachusetts, released statements on Monday night [4/30/12] from officials at all of the law schools where she has taught insisting that her hiring was based on merit, not ancestry.

Aides to Mr. Brown have accused Ms. Warren, who teaches at Harvard Law School, of having misled the public by saying she had American Indian ancestors to advance her academic career at a time when law school faculties were under fire for their lack of ethnic and gender diversity (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/us/politics/elizabeth-warrens-ancestry-irrelevant-in-hiring-law-schools-say.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all).

Leaving the authenticity of Warren’s Native American heritage aside, here we go again with the diversity v. merit debate. I was just facilitating a discussion about this at the People of Color in Independent Schools conference. The workshop “That’s Racist!” was an exploration of things students call “racist.” Here are some examples, offered by colleagues who work with middle and high school age students:

  • Asking/talking about someone else’s race or ethnicity
  • “How about if we bring in Chinese food for our potluck?”
  • Hoping that Spain loses a soccer game
  • “You play like a girl!”
  • “I don’t like chocolate.”
  • Racial affinity groups (including white consciousness/allies groups)
  • Considering race in admissions and other competitive decisions

Some of these are “jokes,” some are deliberate misuses, some are earnest but misled claims and some are culturally held beliefs about what is, in fact, racist. All reveal an emotional understanding of what “racist” connotes and the impact it carries.

Discussion of the final bullet point “considering race in admissions and other competitive decisions” really struck a chord with the adults in the room, some of whom agree with the students that this is racist. Senator Brown’s accusations about rival Warren imply as much (and tellingly, stop just short of saying so).

So here’s how I see it:

Admissions, hiring, getting elected to public office have never been purely about merit. These competitions have always been influenced by identity and social bias. Being from the “right” family, being physically able, being wealthy, being white, being socially savvy and adept, being heterosexual and being traditionally gender-conforming go a long way toward explaining historical, sustained trends and disparities in admissions, hiring and election outcomes.

  • Suggesting that people of color enjoy the fruits of unearned privilege is a (pardon the pun) red herring, intended to distract us from all the other unearned identity-triggered advantages that have always greased the wheels of society.
  • Objecting to the consideration of race in admissions, hiring or elections passively endorses the consideration of wealth, legacy and physical ability as bona fide qualifications of candidates.
  • Calling out race as an unfair consideration only regarding non-white candidates (pardon the 2nd pun) whitewashes the fact that whiteness has been and continues to be an unfair advantage, too.

Brown’s campaign team has charged that “Professor Warren needs to come clean about her motivations for making these claims [about her Native American heritage in order to gain special advantage]” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/elizabeth-warren-native-american_n_1466048.html). Fair enough. And on that note, I’d like to hear more from Brown about the special advantages he’s enjoyed as a public official, based on his ethnicity, race and sex.

This is not to endorse rampant bigotry in how we choose our students, employees and public leaders. Rather, if we’re not happy with how race or sex factor into these decisions, then let’s examine biases in the system. All of them.

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