After New Haven: Random ruminations on subject of race

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Rick Horowitz
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
--At some point, the surgeon has to pick up the knife. When that time comes, the only thing that matters—or more precisely, the only thing that should matter—is whether the surgeon knows his stuff. Or, for that matter, her stuff.

The surgeon’s gender, the surgeon’s skin color: irrelevant—of no more importance than the surgeon’s eye color, or hometown. Cast the widest possible net to locate undeveloped talent, to encourage it, to nurture it. Give that talent every reasonable opportunity to emerge.

But at some point, the surgeon has to pick up the knife. The fire captain has to send his people into the burning building.

They need to know what they’re doing.

--If the hiring test doesn’t measure what the job actually requires, why give the test? Why rely on the test?

If the hiring test does measure what the job actually requires, why ignore the test?

--White victimhood is highly overrated. Which doesn’t make it impossible.

--Consider a sliding scale, with two assertions paramount: “Anyone can do this job.” And “If somebody messes up, it’s no big deal.”

To the extent these assertions are true about a particular job, then the more acceptable it ought to be to use hiring decisions to promote other laudable social goals—equality, diversity, community.

To the extent these assertions aren’t true—that everyone can’t do that job, and that messing up has serious consequences—then you’ve got to go with skill.

--Anyone who thinks that this is a simple case of either/or—“Either you’ve got the talent, or you’re a minority”—hasn’t been paying attention.

--Anyone who hasn’t been paying attention needs to ask himself why.

--When a particular field of employment is historically populated by people of just one type—one race, one gender, one ethnic group—it might not be simply a matter of coincidence. It might not even be simply a matter of skill, or interest.

If might be, instead, that people tend to hire people who remind them of themselves. It might be the lack of plausible role models.

Or it might be something else.

--Is a decision to hire someone, to promote someone, to admit someone to college, a reward for past performance? A prediction about potential?

If it’s the former, the people who start out behind will almost always be left behind. That’s unfair.

If it’s the latter, somebody’s stellar record will almost always be passed over. That’s unfair.

--Consider the “level playing field.” The playing field has been tilted so far in white folks’ favor—in my favor—for so long, and in so many ways, that we’ve grown used to thinking of that tilt as the real horizontal. We’ve reset our internal compasses accordingly. So anytime somebody tries to rebalance things even a little, we’re convinced—or at least we pretend to be convinced—that the playing field is being tilted hard in the other direction.

--The people arguing for pure meritocracy in all things will have a much stronger case the day the boss’s no-account son doesn’t take over the business when the boss retires. The day the college admissions office stops making room for the quarterback and the Canadian, for the alumna’s daughter and the big donor’s nephew.

It’s never been only about “merit.”

Besides, there are all kinds of merit.

--Difficult? Incredibly difficult—and we’ve barely begun the conversation. After all the years, and all the progress, race is still our true grand canyon.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.

Last updated: 10:33 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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