Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Christians, Affirmative Action, and Institutional Racism

David Blatt and his successor, Tyronn Lue
I only listen to a sports show today, discussing the firing of Cavs coach David Blatt and hiring of
Tyronn Lue. Host Dan Lebatard--in a fit of speculation wildly unbecoming a journalist, which I always enjoy--was speculating that Lebron James was secretly behind the firing because he wanted to replace a white guy with a black guy; this is based on a series of tenuous connections, such as Lebron being black and his management team being mostly black and the existence of a Public Enemy song in a Samsung ad. All told, it's rather ridiculous.

What was interesting, though, is that this kicked off a series of discussions about hiring practices and race--is it okay for someone to pretty much hire people of the same race? If not, is it okay if the person is a minority, or is it always wrong?

The responses were pretty predictable but unfortunately very few points of validity were made.

As I've never discussed this on the blog, I thought it would be good to take a Christian view of this idea of affirmative action and institutional racism.

Neither Jew Nor Greek

Virtually any Christian would tell you that racism has no place in God's Kingdom. All men were created as the image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26); all tribes and nations will stand before Him at end times (Rev 7:9; also see previous post here); and much of the books of Acts shows God consistently breaking down racial barriers in concentric circles around the Jews--first with the Samaritans, then the Ethiopian eunuch, then with the barbaric Gentiles.

Furthermore, Paul explicitly states in Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are all united in Christ, and have become new creatures. Our differences do not go away--indeed, the shape us tremendously--but we become something new which is not divided by prejudice.

So I think we can take it as a given that Christianity teaches no racism. The question is how to put that into practice.


The "Hire the Most Qualified Candidate" Idea

How is this generally applied by Christian business leaders and universities?

Typically the idea is to make it simple--hire the most qualified candidates, regardless of race. Admit the most qualified students, regardless of race.

Maybe you even give preference to diversity and minorities; in that case this is stated thusly: "All other things being equal, give the job/school admission to the minority. But if they aren't qualified, they aren't qualified."

This is how I used to believe, too.

It is certainly not racism--you are making decisions based upon qualifications. Written, clear, no gray areas.


What do we mean by "Most Qualified"?

It was that attitude which I had in my mind as I took a job managing over 500 people a few years back. In that role, I was surprised to find that we had something like a 70% black workforce and yet only 3% black management team.

That seemed strange to me, so I began to look into it.

We had done no unfair hiring--everything was based upon qualifications. And yet as I looked through the list of who had been denied interviews based on lack of qualifications, I was startled to see a great many people who would make great managers and supervisors but didn't have the qualifications needed.

Why?

Well, let me use one example.

One of the qualifications for leadership positions was simple--you had to have a four-year college degree from an accredited school.

Now this seemed logical to me. I learned a lot while in college: I learned how to communicate well, how to be take care of myself; how to work together with others to achieve goals; and downloaded into my brain a lot of career-relevant facts.

Most everyone I knew from my circle growing up who didn't go to college was either (to be honest) either not very bright in high school, or unmotivated about their future--neither of which would make good leadership qualities.

So it seemed to me to be a good set of qualifications. And we applied it fairly: again, we made no unfair hiring practices; my predecessor made a qualification that seemed logical and followed it fairly.


But then on our production floor, I knew several black individuals who were exactly what I wanted in leaders--smart, hard-working, reliable, high integrity, knowledgable about our product. They were not able even to interview for management jobs because they didn't meet the qualifications.

When I spoke to them, I found that their background was so fundamentally different from mine that it changed the equation.

For example (and I won't use his real name), consider John. John was a thirty-something black man who was a tremendous worker, a great leader, and could be relied upon in an instant for anything. He was extremely intelligent. I asked why he hadn't been to college--everyone I had grown up with in my circle who had his character traits had a degree.

Well, his dad was a non-factor in their lives; his mom worked two jobs and was trying to support three kids plus a grandma in the house. They lived in a poor neighborhood and from the time he was 16, John--being ultimately responsible and hard-working--got jobs after school and during the summer to support their family. He did not have time for homework or a family who would help him, and certainly didn't have time to take ACT prep courses to prepare for college prep exams. He still did well--a B student in high school--and had an average ACT grade.

But that's not enough for scholarships. What does a responsible kid who loves his family do at that point? When he graduates high school, do you think he takes out $60,000 in loans to spend four years in school?

Not John, and not many others. He went to work full time to support his family. As such, he never got a degree.

The very same qualities that made me go to college -- the desire to support a family, intelligence, and being hard-working -- are why in his situation he chose not to go to college. The only difference between John and I is that my family could afford for me to spend five years in college, and his needed money immediately.

I heard similar stories over and over again. Sicknesses in the family so they had to work instead. Coming from really poor schools and not qualifying for college even though I could tell how intelligent they were. One had dyslexia as a child and no one figured it out until he was 15, so he was too far behind and only catching up in his late 20s, despite his exceptional IQ. One guy was Latino and always worked more than one job, sending home most of his money to his family in Costa Rica rather than saving it for college.

You see, my company was hiring people based on their qualifications...but in my opinion, we were defining qualifications wrongly.  What we are doing was looking at our backgrounds and saying, "Anyone who was raised like I was raised would have done X, Y, and Z, so let's make X, Y, and Z the qualifications."

This is what is meant by "institutionalized racism" -- it is often not even seen by those who are institutionalizing it,  because they are by writing the qualifications based on their experience, excluding those who had different experiences, unintentionally.


Fixing the problem

Fixing the problem does not mean we have to abandon the idea of hiring the most qualified candidate.

I'm not a fan of hiring quotas (take X% black and Y% women, etc.). Nor am I a fan of what places like the University of Michigan do, where they simply add a "race factor" to incoming applicants (being black equals a "bonus" of a certain number of points).

These are the things that are often derided as 'reverse racism'...and they are. They are simply institutionalizing race in the other direction.

Only slightly better are systems like the NFL's Rooney Rule, which require that a minority candidate is always interviewed--always has a seat at the table. This has helped, but can sometimes be just for show and also allows an owner to "check a box" but still hire who he wants.


No, the correct way is to redefine the qualifications. Make sure the qualifications are ACTUALLY the things that define the type of person you want...rather than just the easiest measurable ("easy" is what we normally do in these scenarios.)

At my company, I cancelled the institutional rule about a four-year degree. Instead, I created a more difficult program for the hiring manager, but a better one. I wanted leaders in my management team, and what I wanted in leaders was a combination of: (a) certain personality traits, (b) experience leading teams, and (c) detailed knowledge of our product and processes.

So I created an interview process which required leadership experience, plus a personality test (Myers-Briggs, focusing on certain personality types that made strong leaders, such as ISTJ and ENTJ), plus a written exam about our products and processes.

That now became the new qualification. A year later, the percentage of minority salaried positions rose from 3% to 37%; the total minority representation (including women) was now 60% in leadership roles.

I didn't give anyone extra 'points' or hire with fewer qualifications--but I matched the qualifications to what I actually wanted.

This is why I rather like the approach of the University of Texas. What do they actually want? They don't actually care about someone's score on the ACT, or what grade they made in school. They want competitive students who outperform their peers--people with that attitude are likely to be successful at UT and successful as alumni, and also to place a high value on their education and one day give back.

So at UT, instead of solely focusing on ACT scores or GPA, anyone in the top 10% of their class from a Texas high school is eligible for admission*. This evens the playing field...it's not about who happened to be at a better prep school by the luck of birth or parent's money; it is about who--all things being equal--will outperform 90% of their peers.

They defined the qualifications properly, so that it ignores institutional privileges and instead focuses on the actual character traits desired.

It is the same in the NBA example from above. What does it mean when you say "hire the most qualified candidate?" If you mean--someone who has been a coach for 20 years and has had success, that's fine...but that means that you are excluding anyone who actually played at the highest level, because they were...ya know...playing in the NBA while your coach was leading a Division III school in backwater Montana to a regional championship. If you require as qualifications years of coaching experience then guys like 11-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson would have been excluded, as he was busy winning titles as an NBA player, a leader on the court, while others were getting their experience coaching.

So maybe a better qualification for your NBA coach is someone who has had success at the highest level, knows how to relate to players at that level, and understands schematics in detail, and has demonstrated leadership qualities. That set of qualifications will hire a LOT more black coaches who were former players than if you only consider coaching a qualification.



My main point is that, if we wish to avoid institutional racism and give everyone a fair chance in life, then we must be clever enough to write the qualifications for the character traits and experiences the job/school actually requires, not simply the way qualifications were written historically.

We must be careful as Christian educators and businessmen to look at the way we write job qualifications and ask ourselves, "Can I imagine a person who would be great at this job but does not have these qualifications?" If the answer is 'yes' then you need to re-write the qualifications.

The only way to battle racism is to stop "playing the result" and instead look at the process people used. An average student from a wealthy family has the means and opportunity to afford getting a degree, where an average student from a poor family does not. Playing the result by looking at the degree as a qualifier by definition then gives unfair preference to the wealthy person, at the expense of the one raise in poverty.

Instead, do the hard work of looking objectively at the process the person took...how did they compare to their class? did they not get a degree because they were working two jobs, which they held for years and performed well at and therefore has experience that is of value?, etc.


It is tougher. Seeing clearly and being empathetic is always tougher.

It is also the right thing to do. Only by doing that and judging based upon the circumstances a person faced can we truly bring healing to our broken world.




* Note - this is my understanding the UT system but I haven't done much research. If I misstated something let me know.

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