Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Time Marches Slowly

So the firing of Google engineer James Damore for his lengthy treatise challenging Google's diversity programs and the echo-chamber/code of silence that's built up around them has been all over the place this week. And in one (non-public) social media post I was reading on the topic, one of Damore's defenders claimed that "since the seventies" we'd effectively traded one form of discrimination for another, and asked when would it stop?

So - in the 1970s, my mother applied for a teaching position in the town I grew up in - a distant suburb of Chicago. She was rejected, because at this point in the early 1970s, they weren't hiring Black teachers. I hadn't quite started school at this point. I didn't have any Black teachers until college. Because what were the schools going to do? Fire some of the teachers they already had to make room for the people they hadn't been hiring previously? Unlikely.

But it's interesting. Because many the kids I went to school with looked at the world in the same way, even if it was over a much shorter timeframe. When I was a freshman in high school, the senior class were mostly of an age where they were born in 1964. As in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The number of my classmates who felt that in less than 20 years, all vestiges of racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States has been wiped away was astonishing. And this idea, that things outside of our own living memory don't matter, takes some maturity to get rid of.

Because would you expect that an organization that started off with no non-White employees would now have an employee makeup that matches the community around it without some continuing measures? Especially given that numerical quotas were not allowed? A new teacher who started working in the public schools of my hometown when I was in first grade could conceivably still be working there. I know that some of my high-school instructors are still with the school (although they've moved up the hierarchy in the meantime). When would you think the last school administrator who was an active participant in "no Black teachers" finally left the district? 1975? 1985? 1995? And let's not forget the last teachers hired under that rule. And in that timeframe, how many people do you think they influenced? There is an idea that in order to harbor negative stereotypes about one or another group of people, you have to be a snarling bigot, with a pointy hood folded up in the bottom dresser drawer. And that to be influenced by such people, one has to live in a place that modernization took a pass on. It's a convenient stereotype, but not an accurate one. There is a tendency to see people as immune from being influenced by bad ideas unless they somehow show themselves to be monsters. And to the degree that the monsters are viewed as relics of the past, the bed ideas are often assumed to have died with them. Even though it's understood, for example, that there are still people who believe that the Earth is flat... And in my own life, I have been much more likely to encounter people willing to share (and attempt to sell me on) the idea that people's life outcomes are shaped, wholly or mostly, by nature than the idea that the South Pole is a hoax.

In the end, the problem with diversity may be that it's not attempting to solve the right problem, because it takes, as a starting point, the intractability of scarcity. If you view various "isms" as responses to scarcity that take on lives of their own after being allowed to take root deeply enough, then it seems that the best way to combat them is to do something about the scarcity. And that's a difficult thing to tackle because so much of our culture is designed to run on scarcity.

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