Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Affirmative Action Bake Sale

I have a question from the studio audience.

The College Republicans held an "Affirmative Action Bake Sale" where the price of the cookies depended on your gender and race. Women and African-Americans pay less for the same cookies as whites (and, strangely, Asians). Question: Should I be offended? Or is their point valid and logical?

The next time that somebody sets up a booth such as this, do me a favor.

Grab a table and set up a booth next to theirs.

Let us assume that the offending booth is selling cookies for 50 cents to whites and 25 cents for African-Americans and women (and, strangely, Asians). When you set up your booth, put up a help wanted sign.


DAY LABORERS: 5 cents per minute

MANAGERS: (psst, white males only): 10 center per minute.

When you set up this booth, remember that you cannot explicitly state that only whites are permitted to be managers. You have to come up with some other reason for rejecting non-white candidates. They ‘do not fit into the corporate culture’ or ‘their performance is not up to the standards that we expect from our employees’ or ‘they do not get along well with others – will not fit in as a member of the team’.

I am writing about a hypothetical booth here. If you have a chance to set up an actual booth, I could recommend something like having a list of legitimate-sounding reasons handy, for refusing to hire any minority candidate into a manager’s position, and rolling randomly for a reason on the list for each minority candidate who applies.

After all, discrimination does not work by causing an employer to say, “I am not going to hire you for this position because you are black.” Discrimination causes a person to say, “As much as I would like to, I really cannot see giving the job to the black candidate. It’s not that I’m prejudiced. It’s just that this particular candidate does not seem as creative or as energetic as I would like. He seems less intelligent, I question his honesty, or I sense he will lack loyalty to the company.” In short, bigots convince even themselves that they have legitimate reasons for their decision. It is only when we look at their decision from the outside that we can see that these reasons are simply excuses that have no bearing in fact.

There are several ways to test for these. Researchers look for help-wanted advertisements, create two candidates, and give them identical resumes. Then, when they get the interview, the researchers send a black candidate and a white candidate (or some other mix). The research controls for all variables – education, experience, where they went to school, hobbies, everything. If the assignment of jobs is based on objective criteria, then we should expect the job assignments to be random. Instead, we the research shows that employers have a strong preference for white males in upper-paying jobs, and minority gates are turned down for some legitimate sounding reason.

Would you like to find out how bigoted you are? Consider taking one of the sample test at Project Implicit. These are online test that measures the ease with which a person associates certain individuals with stereotypes.

This is a very useful test. You can’t cheat, so it can be self-administered. This would be a good test to conduct on the Republicans who are manning the booth in question. You can’t cheat, so the test can even be self-administered. It measures the reaction time – the speed at which a person associates a trait (good or bad) with a face (black or white).

You can find an example of a different version of the test, measuring sexism, in the presentation given by Mahzarin Banaji at the Beyond Belief conference, where it was applied to a significantly liberal audience which contained both men and women.

These are the forces that keep blacks and women in the jobs that pay the lower rates, and that allow white males to earn more money. I wonder, often, what my life would have been like if I had to compete with blacks and women on an equal basis – if I did not obtain the benefits accorded to my race and gender.

Given that even the most radical liberals show these hidden biases, it is reasonable to look for ways to remove them, if we want to be fair. For example, we may discover that employers tend to give black candidates an automatic 20 point deduction for being black. Remember, the employer will actually convince himself that he has some other, legitimate reason for ranking the candidate as he does. He will base it on a feeling – that the guy just seemed lazy, or unreliable, or like somebody who would not fit in. If, however, people are giving an automatic discount due to race, then it is quite appropriate to demand that they start by giving minority candidates an automatic credit.

Or, alternatively, one can simply say, “If you were being fair, then X% of your employees will be minority candidates. If X% of your employees are not minority candidates, this demonstrates that you are using bigotry to discount the qualifications of those candidates. To help to ensure that this does not happen, we will require that X% of your candidates be minority candidates.”

The complaint here would then be, “Because of the quota, I had to bypass a superior white applicant and accept an inferior minority candidate.”

Answer: “Are you sure? Your hiring practices suggest that you only think that the minority candidates are inferior, and you think that because of your bigotry against such candidates. If you choose to hire an obviously inferior minority candidate, this is your bigotry telling you that you that you cannot find something better – that all minority candidates are intrinsically flawed in some way.”

It is also interesting note that one of the leading predictors of fairness has to do with the subject’s experience of people in various roles. The best predictor against bigotry is whether the agent has experience with these individuals that break the stereotype. Youngsters who have experience living in a world with women and black teachers, then they are more likely to grow up to be people who do not show a bias when they take these types of tests. Therefore, putting minority candidates in these positions is an effective tool for ending discrimination in the future.

Again, if you have an opportunity to actually have a booth next to the College Republicans, you can have a computer set up to take this test. With this, you can either goad the Republicans for refusing to take the test or, if they take it, report whatever bias appears in their results.

This type of program does require extensive empirical research. It needs to determine how much of a handicap that minority candidates face, and respond accordingly – just so much as to create an even playing field and to help to establish a future environment where these prejudices do not limit the opportunities for minority candidates.

So, if you are offended by invalid and illogical points, this would qualify. The College Republicans you talked about took a specific statement out of context in order to criticize it. Statements that lose their context change their meaning. These College Republicans are complaining about a position that nobody holds. They are, in fact, builders of straw men.

In doing so, they are being intellectually negligent. A person exercising normal care to make sure that what he claims is true would have noticed the mistake. Your College Republicans did not notice the mistake. Thus, they are people who do not apply reasonable care to beliefs that may result to harm to others. They are negligent.

There is still a question of how much affirmative action there should be. This question actually has to come from the scientific research. One needs to measure the economic cost of the bigotry that currently exists to the victims of bigotry, and apply sufficient affirmative action to compensate.


olvlzl said...

Question: Should I be offended? Or is their point valid and logical?

My first question would be "Were you offended" followed by the statement "If you could imagine the possibility that this false and stereotyped cartoon of affirmative action a candidate for logical validity you need to find out more about affirmative action". This wasn't any different from the long history of using allegedly humorous lies to stereotype Jews in Germany in the 30s or women through out the entire history of many places. It is racism that is at its least evil indifferent to the harm it causes but generally an appeal for people in a position of power to blight the lives or even kill the targeted group. In the modern Republican Party the attempt is to rally racists and bigots to the support of Republican candidates. You have heard of Nixon's "Southern Strategy".
The only logical content of the effort is in that it was thought out and planned to gain them the most support from racists with no regard to the morality of the effort.

Anonymous said...

The ideal answer to this would be to have women and African-Americans buy all the cookies. That way they can demonstrate to the Republicans that affirmative action works in the marketplace.