Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Racial Inequality and Diversity, in the Wake of the Death of Michael Brown

I had planned on doing another brief thing for my podcast relating to the events of Ferguson, Missouri, but I wound up writing something pretty long and complex that I'll probably fail miserably at reading aloud. That won't stop me from trying, but on the off chance it takes me a while to get right, I wanted to share what I have written so far.

I'm not sure what the TL;DR version would be so I can't sum my thoughts up for you. If you actually care about race relations in this country, you'll have to take some considerable time out of your day to sit down and read this. I don't think that's too much to ask, though. Just make an effort. That's what it's all about.

Oh, wait, I guess that actually does kind of sum it up. There you go, I just saved you a lot of reading. If you still feel like killing time, though, here's the long version:


With the grand jury decision this past Monday the 24th, unrest and outrage over the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have reignited. I recorded a rant back in August about the situation, and while I think it's worth sharing again now while it's still relevant, I don't want to leave my commentary at that. What I said back then was largely reactive and largely insensitive, and as my understanding has evolved a bit since then, if I were to re-record that rant today it would likely sound a bit different. And maybe a bit less insensitive.

However, I really don't want to dwell on the specific events of this case anymore. I will just add this: I still think it's screwed up that when it comes to holding people accountable legally, police are seemingly held to a lower standard than the rest of us. You'd think it should be a higher one. A regular citizen who kills in self defense has to at least see their day in court, and might even be found guilty depending on circumstances like whether the assailant was armed, or what state it happened in. But a cop killing in self defense in the line of duty might not even make it that far. I know they do internal investigations on these matters, but it doesn't seem nearly transparent enough, and that's only compounded by the majority of cases where the cop ultimately faces little to no penalty for what happened.

But that's not what I actually wanted to talk about. This is:

Racial tension isn't going away because we're not facing it. Part of the problem is that a lot of people are still confused by where this tension is coming from in the first place. They think it's all resentment about the past; it's not. Not really. The tension doesn't emerge from what happened fifty-plus years ago, (which still sounds pretty recent when you put it like that). It emerges from what happens today, every day.

Black people in this country overwhelmingly have less opportunities to succeed than their white counterparts. It's built into how the system works. If you don't believe me, I'll be happy to explain my position momentarily.

Granted, many of the disadvantages they're facing are basically the disadvantages of poverty, but the fact is that minorities experience poverty at a much higher rate. When doors are closing on young black kids from poor neighborhoods, for our purposes here it doesn't matter whether doors are closing because they're black or because they're poor; the doors are closing just the same.

Now, I get the impression that a lot of my fellow white middle-class suburbanite types don't really understand where the opportunity gap is coming from, or even believe it exists, so I'll try to explain my limited understanding of the situation. Imagine a kid in an impoverished neighborhood. They're growing up surrounded by drugs, violent crime and failing infrastructure. They can't walk the streets outside their home after dark. They come home from school and are either told they'll be having fast food again (because decent fresh food is hard to come by or too expensive, or because Mom or Dad don't have time to cook because they're working). Other times they just won't be eating dinner at all because there's no food left in the house and Mom or Dad doesn't get their paycheck til tomorrow. This isn't a surprise for the kid; it's happened a lot before. As a kid they might at least enjoy the fast food; that still doesn't make it good for them, of course, but it's something.

At bedtime, they have to huddle under the biggest blanket they've got in an attempt to stay warm, because it's winter and their family can't afford heat. Assuming they can get warm enough to sleep, they're probably still going to have trouble staying asleep because of the sirens screaming by in the middle of the night. This is not a kid who is likely to believe they have a bright future ahead of them, or any future for that matter.

Are you familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Neither am I, really; I barely paid attention in psychology class. But that's kind of the point. For a guy like me who has the basic needs of life met, who had an overall happy and fulfilling childhood, a lot of what was happening in school just felt trivial to me. It's only by virtue of being the giant nerd that I am that I succeeded at all. Now, imagine that kid in the rough neighborhood, who spends much of their time hungry, cold, tired, or generally having to worry about their safety. When they pick up the Geometry or Earth Science text book they had to borrow from a friend, because their family can't afford to buy it and their school doesn't have the funding to provide one for every student, they're not realistically going to look at that book and think, “Yeah, this is my ticket out of here.”

And even so, let's assume that kid does everything right. They take their schoolwork seriously and do the best they can because someone important in their life drilled it into them that an education is their ticket to a better future. The next challenge is getting accepted to college. Not everyone who applies to a school gets in, and if you're the poor kid from the inner city who did their best in a public school, you're simply not competing on even ground with the kid who went to a private school and has a stellar SAT score because they took some expensive prep courses. Now assuming there's no nepotism going on at these schools (which is a big assumption), if they chose to admit the best of the best based on transcripts alone, most of the kids coming from a poor background wouldn't make the cut. Even with schools showing preference for diversity candidates, a lot still won't make it. They might still have a chance at community college, but the career opportunities from that won't typically go as far.

But let's assume the kid is fortunate enough to be accepted somewhere, and it's somewhere close enough they can afford to travel there. If they want to go to college, they need a way to pay for it. Loans might not be an option; not everybody has someone in their life with a good credit score. So then there are scholarships. Academic scholarships are hard to get, and for the same reasons we saw above, even harder for a kid graduating from a public school in the inner city.

Now, I've heard people express disapproval that there are scholarships set up explicitly to be awarded to black kids, Hispanic kids, kids from a Native American background, and so on. They feel that rewarding students based on their race rather than their achievements sends the wrong message, and while I understand where they're coming from, that argument seems to ignore the cultural context in which these scholarships are created. Personally, I would rather see those scholarships committed to awarding money to students based on their economic situation or the place they grew up rather than explicitly on race, and obviously they shouldn't be giving free money to people who don't take their education seriously, but if someone is applying for a college scholarship, let's work on the assumption that they're fairly serious about going to school, because for these kids that's no easy feat.

Even then, those diversity scholarships frequently don't award a full ride, and they never give very many of them. For the thousands and thousands of students who will apply, only a handful receive that award that makes school viable for them. This is a major problem, and arguing that the kids who failed to get a scholarship should have worked harder is not a solution. When the possibility of higher education is like playing the lottery, how can anyone in that situation be expected to conclude the system is working?

Personally, I think it's a travesty all around. Education, the pursuit of knowledge, is the most basic foundation of everything we have achieved as a society. In any modern society that boasts freedom and equality for all, education should not be a privilege. Federal and state funding for education should be primary concerns, even if it's just K-12. A government that spends more money on bombs than books is fundamentally failing its people. But that's tangential to the point of all this.

So far I'm sure all this sounds like a big white guilt trip, that because my ancestors enslaved their ancestors I'm somehow obligated to pay reparations or something. That's not it at all. Just because I'm white doesn't mean I don't have a personal stake in the success of the black community. The fact of the matter is, the American community at large needs the black community to succeed, because when they succeed, the rest of us will benefit. Because diversity makes us stronger.

Now I grew up in a school district where seeing a black kid was kind of like seeing an elephant. You knew they existed, but mostly from seeing them on TV or at the zoo. Before college I think I knew one black kid in my entire life. After college, I knew two. Diversity lies outside the realm of my personal experience, so the power of diversity is a concept it's taken me a good quarter of a century to be turned on to.

Anybody who has studied genetics understands why diversity in a population is crucial to the survival of that population, but this concept actually applies to society as well. As an example, let's take something I might be familiar with: the tech industry. Say a tech company is interviewing for a new developer position, and their choice comes down to two candidates, one of whom is a bit more qualified on paper, but the other would bring diversity.

Now, most employers would say they want what they perceive to be the better more qualified candidate, so they'll just take the first guy if they can. But the way a smart employer makes this choice has a lot to do with who they've already hired in the past. Let's say Candidate #1 is a white male who grew up in the suburbs of the northeast and graduated from MIT. If the company already has five people in that department who fit that description, unless this guy's some kind of prodigy, his presence is likely going to be kind of superfluous. In any field where critical and creative thinking are important, like the tech sector, where innovation can be the difference between the company thriving and failing, diversity is essential.

While a good idea can come from just one person, there's no way to know who that person will be. A homogenous group of people with the same or very similar perspectives and experiences will sooner or later be faced with a challenge they're collectively unable to handle. A diverse group yields diverse viewpoints and diverse ideas, meaning that when a new challenge comes along, there's a better chance at least one person in the group will produce an idea to tackle it, an idea that the others might never have come up with.

Besides, discussion among a group of people with the same viewpoint tends not to produce any really new ideas. They just spend too much time agreeing with each other to come up with something different. A varied group discussing their viewpoints has to bounce ideas around, compare different approaches, and while meetings like that can take longer, they'll ultimately be more productive when an idea is agreed upon. Possessing a wide range of perspectives and experiences gives a company a much greater ability to adapt and survive.

Adapt or die. It's the rule of nature, and it applies to business, to the tech sector especially.

So, if I have a central statement to make here, it's that the problem of racial disharmony is one that all of us, including white guys like me, need to pay attention to and think about ways to alleviate it. That disharmony hurts all of us, and if we can't even acknowledge that fact, if we can't see something like the shooting of Michel Brown as anything more than a black issue, then the status quo isn't going to change. And if you're a white guy and the status quo has been pretty good to you, you need to recognize how things could still be so much better.

Conversely, if you're white and things really aren't so great for you, which I think probably applies to most of us on some level, you must understand that if you want black people to sympathize with your issues, you need to be able to sympathize with theirs. I'm not saying it's easy. The problem hasn't persisted this long for no reason. Relating to someone who is very different can be hard. Maybe their experience is something that those of us outside that community can't fully understand. That doesn't mean we can't try.

No comments:

Post a Comment