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Race Is a Reality in America. Here’s How We Deal with It.
A communiqué from Clifton Roscoe
More people are growing skeptical of programs, policies, and politics that prioritize race above all things. To my mind, that’s all to the good. We should want an even playing field in hiring, college admissions, and most other domains of public life, where the person who gets a position is the person who’s best qualified for it, who earns it on their own merit, or who out-competes everyone else. As more people see our present orthodoxies about race for what they are, we will hopefully move closer to that ideal.
But race is a social fact in America and has been for hundreds of years. It’s not going away any time soon. And I’m not sure it should. As I’ve said elsewhere, I draw sustenance from traditions particular to my African American heritage, and I wouldn’t give those traditions up for anything. Given that race will likely remain a social fact for the foreseeable future, what part should it play in our society?
My man Clifton Roscoe has been thinking about this very question. On the one hand, he’s a critic of the kind of programs, policies, and politics I refer to above. On the other, he doubts that the goal of “deracializing” public life is a realistic one. In the following piece, he suggests some ways of thinking through the problem of race and meritocracy. How do you think we should move forward? Let us know in the comments.
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Race Is a Reality in America. Here’s How We Deal with It.
By Clifton Roscoe
I’ve noticed that a small but growing number of voices want to “deracialize” America. Dr. Loury has talked about this with some of his recent guests (e.g., Rajiv Sethi, Reihan Salam). Coleman Hughes has a new book about this, Racialized, that will be released soon. No offense to those who think we should deracialize America, but that train left the station long ago. We can’t deracialize America any more than we can eradicate Covid. The best we can do is to learn to live with both.
In fact, I would argue that the racialization of America is just as pervasive as Covid. We are now at a point where most aspects of our lives have been subjected to racial dissection and categorization. Here are a few recent examples that show just how far people are willing to push this, ostensibly in the pursuit of social justice:
California has become the first state to break down black employee data by lineage. The goal is to determine which of the state’s black employees are the descendants of slaves and therefore might be eligible for reparations.
The new contract with the Minneapolis teachers union says that white teachers will be reassigned or laid off outside of seniority order before “educators of color” if Minneapolis Public Schools needs to reduce staff.
LGBTQ advocates say the federal government is missing communities of color in its monkeypox response. The data is limited, so there’s no real proof that something sinister is afoot, but those who focus on social justice are already sounding the alarm.
Perhaps the best argument for why we can’t deracialize America is that activists won’t allow it. They use race as both an offensive weapon (“Everything about America is racist, and so are you if you don’t agree!”) and a defensive weapon (“You’re not black, so shut up and listen to us!”). They even use race as a weapon against black people who disagree with them (“You’re not ‘authentically’ black, so you shut up, too!”). Consider this excerpt from a long article about Clarence Thomas that was published in Esquire:
The question is: What then is Clarence Thomas to this Black man?
To that, the man himself may well say, “Black man, all you see is race. You’ll never get anywhere that way.”
Nah. All America has ever seen is race. To pretend otherwise is to deny the truth of your and my life. Ain’t no amount of Federalist Society cant or jurisprudence dressed up in novel and abstruse legal theories or self-serving advice cautioning Black people to cease talking about race is gone change that. How can we stop talking? It boggles my mind that you fetishize a document that held in its original form that women were not and wouldn’t ever be citizens, that your/our people were not and wouldn’t ever be humans.
The writer, Mitchell S. Jackson, is a black man.
So what should we do about today’s racialized America? Let’s start by acknowledging that not all efforts to racialize America are harmful. It’s important to know when groups within our nation are being mistreated. We’re better off if we acknowledge and address injustices in a straightforward and timely manner. What we can’t do, however, is lower standards in the name of racial “equity.” We can’t create double standards either. That creates divisions, jealousy, and cynicism. Double standards create incentives for special interest groups to “game the system.” Last, but not least, they lessen the odds that marginalized people will ever become the equal of their peers.
All of us have to hold the line when it comes to standards—standards of behavior and standards of excellence. We can’t accept antisocial behavior because we think that enforcing the law might disproportionately ensnare this group or that group in our criminal justice system. We can debate the best ways to hold people accountable for their actions, but we can’t ignore obvious misbehavior. We shouldn’t ignore the harm done to victims and communities or embrace social justice ideas that are essentially “pro-criminal.” We shouldn’t lower standards of excellence within our institutions either. Nobody wins when we do this.
America’s competitive position in the global marketplace is tenuous at best. We should strive to level the playing fields within our institutions and do all that we can to ensure that our best and brightest are nurtured and rewarded for their efforts. We should do all we can to ensure that all of us are given an opportunity to reach our full potential. That means the people who run our institutions should call “balls and strikes” when evaluating talent, no matter who's on the mound or who's in the batter's box.
Many Americans share these views. New research from Populance suggests that a lot of Americans are afraid to share their true feelings about contentious issues in public. Consider this excerpt from their research:
Racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational system
Based on a March 2021 poll conducted by Ipsos, a majority of American adults (61%) believed that racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational system. More than one year later, in June 2022, Private Opinion in America’s public opinion polling revealed a slightly lower majority (53%) of Americans endorsing the belief that racism is ingrained in American institutions. However, private opinion polling revealed a potentially false majority: when guaranteed privacy, only 44% of American adults agree that racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational system.
Use this link, download the report titled “Private Opinion in America,” and go to pages 29 and 59 if you want to do a deep dive.
We’re not at a place where folks feel free to speak their minds openly, but we should keep chipping away at the misinformation and wrong-headed ideas that inform public policy. We should push back against cancel culture and demagogues. There’s a hidden reservoir of support that can be tapped if more of us keep pointing out the obvious and others gain the courage to speak up.
There's no easy answer to what comes next regarding race if we could get to purely meritocratic standards. There are a couple of issues that need to be addressed beforehand:
We have to level the playing field for everybody. Even colleges with multi-billion dollar endowments (e.g. Harvard, Princeton, Yale) tend to favor jocks, '“legacies,” and the children of wealthy donors over other kids applying for admission. They're also reluctant to ignore the push to make our institutions reflect the broader society. Harvard doesn't want to be Caltech, a place that mostly ignores race when making admissions decisions, but it needs to move in that direction.
Hiring decisions are never totally based upon merit. The old way of evaluating job candidates involved:
Can this person do the job?
Will they do the job?
Will they fit in my organization?
Determining whether a candidate is qualified for the job is often straightforward and can be done with rigor, but that's not always the case. We can ask if a civil engineer is licensed, but how do we determine if an inexperienced recruit would be good in a customer-facing role? Deciding if a candidate is a good worker and a good fit for your organization involves a lot of subjectivity. Management gurus like Jim Collins (Good to Great) talk about the need to get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) as a necessary step in transitioning an organization towards superior performance. Most successful organizations have a unique culture and set of values. Leaders can strive for “inclusion,” but it's impossible to be totally inclusive while trying to instill and maintain institutional values and culture. This complexity means that diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations will be part of hiring and promotion decisions for the foreseeable future.
Black leaders have to be more judicious with the race card. They have to acknowledge that there are fields where the pool of black candidates is small. Their efforts should be focused on developing a bigger pool of talent instead of hiding behind racism as the reason why there aren't more black people in STEM fields, for example. We've got to get away from this idea that these fields aren't “open” to black people. Here's an example of what I'm describing from Pew Research:
There's no doubt that organizations have struggled to recruit and retain diverse candidates for STEM jobs. Concerted efforts have been made to make STEM more inclusive and welcoming, but there are those who say more needs to be done. I won't argue the point, because the real issue is that the pool of available black STEM workers, for example, is small. Not many black college students pursue and earn degrees in STEM subjects. Use this link if you want to do a deep dive into an analysis titled “African Americans: College Majors and Earnings” that was done by researchers at Georgetown University a few years ago. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:
While more African Americans are going to college, new research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (Georgetown Center) finds that they are overrepresented in majors that lead to low-paying jobs. African Americans: College Majors and Earnings notes that while this reality reflects personal choice, it also reflects the fact that African American students are concentrated in open-access and four-year institutions that often offer a more limited menu of major choices.
“The low-paying majors that African Americans are concentrated in are of high social value but low economic value,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and co-author of the report. “Meaningful career planning before college can provide transparency about major choice and potentially prevent onerous debt and underemployment down the road.”
African Americans comprise 12 percent of the US population, but they are underrepresented in the number of degree holders in college majors associated with the fastest-growing, highest-paying occupations—STEM, health, and business. African-American students account for 7 percent of STEM majors. And even though they account for 10 percent of all health majors, they are clustered in the lowest-earning major: health and medical administrative services.
Developing a robust pipeline of black talent for STEM would take a long time, at least 15 years but probably longer. Black leaders generally don't come from these fields and they tend to have short-term orientations. Not many of them are open to the suggestion that creating a bumper crop of black STEM workers would require working with a select group of middle school kids and maintaining the effort for 15 years or longer. Many of them wouldn't buy the idea that kids who haven't pursued STEM in earnest by high school are unlikely to become doctors, engineers or scientists. They wouldn't say “lower standards,” but they would argue that STEM needs to become more “inclusive” and “welcoming.” They would argue that there are plenty of black people who could do STEM jobs if employers, colleges, laboratories, etc. were willing to be more creative in the ways they acquire and develop talent.
They have a point, but there are limits to creativity. You might be able to take somebody off the street and teach them to code, but you can't do that when it comes to medicine, engineering, math, or most scientific fields. There's no way around that basic point.
It's unlikely that we'll ever get to a perfectly meritocratic system. There would be trade-offs even if we could. There's a spectrum of potential outcomes. One end involves being inclusive and forcing our institutions to reflect America's demographics. The other involves an uncompromising pursuit of excellence. There are pros and cons to both. I don't know how to resolve this ideological tug of war in a way that works politically, but fact-based discussions would be a good place to start.