Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Just to think about...

I'm not even sure how the subject came up, but as I was out on the driveway talking with neighbors a female neighbor mentioned how frustrating it was in college when a minority woman was given an academic scholarship instead of her, when my neighbor had a slightly better GPA in similar classes. Because of her personal experience, my neighbor is not a strong supporter of affirmative action. A little later in the conversation, the Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court came up, and I asked my neighbor what she thought. She said without hesitation she was so disappointed that Bush did not choose a woman to replace O'Connor. I asked if she thought there was a better qualified woman she new of over Roberts, or if it was important in other ways just to have a woman. She said it would be nice if the Court had female role models for young girls like her daughter (to prove that there are other career opportunities than being half-naked pop/movie stars) and that the Court as well as Congress should be more representative of the fact women make up a majority of the population.

My neighbor just answered her own question about why the minority woman may have been given the scholarship. We all know life at times is unfair, and that it can never be ideal. If for any other reason, everyone has in their own mind what 'ideal' means, and in the end there is only one reality. Is there a critical mass of women in high positions of government, science, business, and all other fields, that is needed to satisfy most people? And now ask the same question for all subgroups? Is the 'best qualified for the job' the absolute best way to go for a mixed, complex society? Is that the most fair way to approach life? Perhaps, and I think most whites (especially white males) may agree with this. Perhaps not, if you are, say, a black male who has as role models professional athletes or rappers, and you cannot walk into certain stores without being followed by security or walk down a street without a white woman moving to the other side of the life being played on an level playing field for you? What does 'right' mean in these complex discussions on affirmative action, race relations, job opportunities, who gets the scholarship, and all that comes with it?

Of course, I am convinced there is no 'right' answer because it all depends on your own situation and circumstances. It is a relative term. I tend to think that the 'best qualified' for the job or scholarship is absolutely the goal, but I am not convinced it is absolutely 'right' until there is a level playing field. This is something to think about for sure. It would be great to hear any and all thoughts on this one!


There Is Hope said...

'Best qualified for the job' is a nice concept, but is also an abstraction, practically speaking. It implies that there is some means by which people can be truly objectively evaluated on the basis of their credentials, background, experience, whatever. There are numerous reasons why this simply never will be possible.

First: People make up their own resumes. Think of 'make up' in both senses that it can be interpreted, here: they compose them, but they also choose what light to establish themselves in. Employers, at least most employers, are unable to establish what any scientist or social scientist would consider a sufficiently fact-checked, multiply-sourced background that comprehensively describes a person's life. Even if they call around for days and try to figure out exactly how a person behaved in circumstances analogous to those in which they would be working in the new position, the employer would still be hearing second-hand accounts tinged by the viewer. Thus, even if the criteria for 'best-qualified' are extremely clearly defined, which they often are not, it is realistically impossible to establish objective means for comparing applicants on the basis of merit. This is not to say that background is unimportant, but simply to remind that 'best qualified for the job' is a necessarily subjective and human standard with all the flaws appropriately pertaining thereunto. Which leads to my next point.

Second: In hiring, scholarship, whatever, decisions, choices are made with emotional reactions, sometimes even off-the-cuff emotional reactions, playing a significant role. These emotional reactions are based very much around whether the interviewer 'likes' something about the interviewee. This, then, is the key: if the interviewee is a white male, which is a statistical likelihood, then that interviewer is more likely to have more in common in terms of life experience than someone interviewing for the same position who is female, black, or the member of some other minority group, particularly if the job is in one of those professions still dominated by white men. This is not to accuse every interviewer of conscious prejudice, but simply to recognize the reality that the two white men are more likely to be able to relate to each others' life experience, whereas the interviewer simply may not understand the importance or depth in the background of a non-white, non-male.

This are aggregate statements, and obviously do not apply in all circumstances. But when affirmative action or other things like it work, they are (inevitably clumsily) seeking to correct this in-built bias towards white men.

There are larger statements to be made, however, and I agree with your neighbour in wishing that a woman had been nominated to fill O'Connor's spot. Supreme Court Justices are an extremely peculiar case when it comes to selection because they are being selected to serve for the rest of their lives. You are not simply selecting a resume, the person with all the right pieces in all the right places. You are selecting a person, and that is tremendously important to consider. No matter how much of a feminist I become or how racially sophisticated I become, my life experience is still that of a white man. I am seriously doubtful that there were no women who were technically qualified to fill the job, but - correct me if I'm wrong - I don't remember seeing a single woman listed in the possible nominees list. The life experience that she has had would bring an important perspective that no number of white men could possibly bring, and due to the now total lack of women on the Court, it is a vital perspective.

I had a couple more thoughts, but I didn't write them down and am now simply rambling along, so I'll just leave it there.

vonny said...

Hi hope,

I more or less agree that 'best qualified' is an abstraction, which is part of the reason why this topic is so difficult. It means something a little different to most individuals. There may be instances where there is a stand-out candidate, for sure, but in general it is more vague than that. Hiring is definitely subjective, and I suspect there is some validity to the notion of unconscious prejudice among employers. We are, after all, human, and tend to choose to be around those like us (one can think of your own pool of friends). There are also the intangibles such as judgment, ethics, morality, use of common sense, work ethic, and so on that can be looked for and does not necessarily correspnod to things like academic record, test scores, and other quantitative qualities of an applicant. Makes me think of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, who dismissed "Ivy League schmucks" and preferred someone who was "hungry and smart." Oh, and he also wanted someone with "no feelings," too.

It would be great to get some comments from some in business who have had experience with the hiring process. I have a lot of friends in such positions, and they are largely frustrated by the lack of strong candidates for most positions they are looking to fill.

BTW, when O'Connor leaves, there is still Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. But she likely won't stay for too many more years (waiting for the next Dem, most likely, before she retires).

Thanks for your comments.

mark said...

On the other hand....

We ought not to move to the opposite end of the spectrum and get carried away attributing all kinds of mystical, unknowable, undefinable but intrinsically wonderful attributes to differences of gender, ethnicity and race. It's the same irrational mental trap as discriminatory thinking just with a more benign intent.

First of all, American white males have a lot more in common with other 21st century Americans who are female, Black or Hispanic than they do with North Koreans, Xhosa tribesmen or Salafi Arabs. Or than they do with say, equally caucasian Germans in the 1930's or even white Americans in the 1930's. To say otherwise is to exaggerate the differences we see amongst ourselves - outsiders to our society see our commonalities as Americans very clearly.

Secondly, while *perfect* knowledge in terms " best qualified" amongly closely matched individuals is impossible that does not mean sorting people out by their qualifications on a rational basis is an impossible task. Certainly by deciles of ability is both possible and relatively reliable and valid in terms of methodology.

We forget that prior to Charles Conant's meritocratic SAT revolution, access to higher education in the United States was determined primarily by wealth, rather than ability. Rather stupid people went to Harvard and Yale back in the 1920's but today, thanks to the SAT, the student bodies there and at top tier schools are exceptionally bright and have been for about two generations. Standardized aptitude testing was a tremedous step forward in terms of making American society more egalitarian, socially mobile and in terms of opening doors that had once been shut to qualified Jews, women and minorities.

Affirmative action works best and provokes the least resistance when it more clearly remediates the effects of culture and class deprivation instead of trying to finesse candidates who lack native ability in order to get the " right" numbers for an institution under political scrutiny. Mentoring, aggressive recruitment, pre-k and pre-natal intervention, enriched education k-12 are all more successful strategies than simply lowering the gatekeeping bar and letting A.A. candidates sink or swim afterward.

There Is Hope said...

Wow, nice on my part, totally forgetting about Bader-Ginsburg. Whoops. Hope my law school admissions board never sees that.

Mark, your point that one should not simply dismiss the importance of objective standards is well-taken. I re-read my initial comment and realize how thoroughly dismissive I was of the concept of objective standards, and that is entirely unfair.

However, that does not take the teeth out of the argument. Yes, most Americans probably have far more in common with one another than they do with your average Saudi Wahabi cleric or Xhosa tribesman. But that does _not_ mean that they understand each other, and that they can relate to their background. I grew up in Evanston and went to ETHS. I never particularly wanted for anything during my childhood; more importantly, I never understood what want really is. But some of my classmates at ETHS did, and as I get older and my work begins to focus on development and poverty alleviation, I have gradually come to understand what it means to want today in American society. For me, the greatest truths are in day-to-day differences - how you look at the money in your wallet, what time you have to wake up in the morning. Many of my classmates do not emotionally understand, even vicariously, what that is like. The same is often true in reverse. We all live in America, but to lump us all together as similar with respect to the Xhosa does a disservice to the significant differences in our lives. So, as an exaggerator of these differences, I ask you: why are so many lunch tables in the ETHS cafeteria still divided by race? A Xhosa tribesman might see a bunch of indistinguishable Americans, but an American sees voluntary segregation. An Americans, not Xhosa tribesmen, generally make the hiring decisions in America.

I'll be honest: much of this argument stems from a belief that I hold, and not from evidence that I can easily lay out and marshal. I do not believe that 'merit' is ever the sole determinant of hiring or placement decisions, and that often enough it is merely one of a variety of factors. I have been both seeker and seekee, and as seeker, a variety of factors influence my decision-making process, many of which have to do with time constraints and other such issues wholly unrelated to the candidate's background. Finally, and perhaps most importantly - I am not talking about whether we can make rational decisions that surmount these obstacles, but rather whether or not we do make those decisions. For the guy interviewing thirty people in a day for the same position, I wonder if he is fully able to provide a level playing field to all of his applicants, especially those who differ noticeably from himself. The Harvard economist Roland Fryer has a lot of interesting thoughts related to this:

I don't know if we forget that we have come a long way from where we were in the 1920's, but I certainly don't. While I, like most people, think that the SAT has its problems, I don't think we should abolish it, or return to a pre-SAT system. That would be silly. I commend Conant for his revolution, but it seems to me our time and perspectives are better aimed at realizing the ground yet to be covered rather than focusing on successes already achieved.

As for your final assessment of affirmative action, I agree, to an extent. The problem is that the negative effects of class and culture you describe as needing amelioration are rarely clear and apparent (anymore). An organization I am involved with has been developing software designed to help undergraduates network with researchers and facilitate the process of finding research opportunities. When I mentioned this to our Director of Undergraduate Research (who also happens to be affiliated with our Minorities and Women in Research programs), she made a point that I hadn't even thought of - non-white, non-males are underrepresented in the research field, like so many other places. In her experience, women and minorities (again, in aggregate) have a more difficult time finding such opportunities, there being no other explanation than that of their minority status. Fanfare about diversity in academia is beginning, but diversity in undergraduate research? The point is, it is a case where race and gender matter, but not one that is commonly addressed, and thus would probably fall into a category of 'aggressive A.A.-ing' if A.A. were actually to be put to work in such a context. Her point to me was that while our software will help bring people together, it will also help to make the process more meritocratic. I prefer our system over A.A., much as you prefer those other systems you mentioned over A.A., but the ultimate goal is to ensure a fair and level playing field. A.A. has never been anything more than a band-aid, and I can't imagine that people would argue A.A. is the best long-term solution - starting early, changing the culture, is always best. But what do you do for millions of people for whom it is already too late? A.A., it seems, is the best, practical answer. When A.A. goes too far, so as to create a culture of simply satisfying the numerical requirements, then it is clearly not working as it intended. But no law has ever or will ever be able to take the place of a human's touch. At its best, A.A. seeks to ensure that in the interviewing room, two parties are meeting on a field that recognizes the importance of background and is thus more level, more fair, and closer to realizing the American dream of working your way up.

vonny said...

Good points from both hope and Mark. Since I know both of you, you are aware that I am of the belief that culture plays the biggest role in all this. Each generation gets a little better in general, but I agree with Hope that a major problem is what to do with the existing older generations who won't ever benefit from changes that do need to occur for youngsters. Education is the silver bullet if there is such a thing. You both know of Project Excite, so I won't get into details now (plus I have to run). We will have record numbers of minorities entering math classes that are in the track for calculus, but it is a major commitment of time, resources, money, and is long-term (not what most politicians want to hear). But I don't see any other programs out there that can help change the value system and culture that we need to create in order to help on a more massive scale. A tough problem indeed, and one in which we need more resources and funding (pre-natal, health care, preschool, K-12 funding reform, day care, college opportunities that are more affordable, and countless others that need to be at least considered).