Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The racist thing I did.

A belief that white Americans often seem stuck with is the idea that racism necessarily implies at least some minimal amount of malicious intent.  The term has been associated so entirely with  clearly identifiable villains that normal folk who think of themselves as good people are unwilling to entertain the idea that something they said or did might be racist.  They're really saying they would never be racist on purpose, and they don't understand that most racism happens without any conscious intent to be racist.

Imagine for a moment some future dystopia in which most jobs are given out by a machine, and the machine identifies individuals by biometric thumb scan.  And let's say that this machine is less accessible to black people because it has difficulty reading darker skin and wasn't tested at the factory to work on a variety of thumbs.  The result would be that it would be harder for brown people to get jobs because they can't simply use the machine, they have to struggle with it - sometimes unsuccessfully.  This creates a systemic bias against them, and would be racism.  It does not matter that it was not intentional.  It does not matter that the creator did not want to make the machine discriminatory.  It does not even matter if the creator is black (although that would make this outcome much less likely, which is part of how racism works.)  The machine systemically hurts an oppressed racial group; it is therefore racist.  We can talk about what everyone intended to do later, but we must first acknowledge this fact.

It is easiest and most effective to be critical of ourselves.  Let's go there.

So, I am a white business owner.  (This is not hypothetical, I am describing reality now.)  I just hired someone.  I hired them out of my pool of personal contacts, selecting someone who I believe is capable of and will benefit from the job.  Because my personal contacts are disproportionally white compared to the population, it was overwhelmingly likely that this approach would result in hiring a white person.  This is racism.  It does not matter that I didn't intend it, or that I recognized and did not like it.  It is still a contribution, however small, to a system that stacks the deck against some people because of their race.  Do you understand?

I am not alone, of course.  White people overwhelmingly have the wealth in our country, are overwhelmingly in the positions of power to make hiring decisions, and overwhelmingly have their social circles populated by other white people.  Combine this with the (natural, not in and of itself racist) tendency to hire people personally known, and then from your network of contacts, and THEN from the anonymous public, and you have systemic bias.  Large companies and government agencies generally require jobs to be posted publicly to avoid exactly this kind of nepotism, but smaller companies generally do not and smaller companies tend to do most of the job creating.  Do you understand?

The decision was also sexist, for similar but different reasons.  Somewhere out there is an applicant, possibly someone more qualified than the person I hired, who does not even get to know that a job opening existed.  When I conjure a list of people I might want to hire, the list is comprised entirely of straight white men.  This is not intentional but it is also not a coincidence.  Do you understand?

The black unemployment rate is consistently double the white unemployment rate.  Do you understand?

I have a lot of Very Good Reasons* for making the hire this way; good enough to sway me against the fairer approach of making the opening public and interviewing applicants.  But those reasons don't change the impact of what I've done.  That stuff is just explanation of intent, of what I meant to do and why I meant to do it.  The fact is that this practice contributes to racism and sexism, and I consider myself under a moral obligation to change it as soon as practical. 

When you're a white guy growing a company in a racist and sexist society, developing that company with real diversity probably requires deliberate effort on your part.  It isn't going to happen "naturally" in most cases.

*The reasons, if you care, are: fear of risk, change, and uncertainty; convenience; lack of confidence in my ability to choose a candidate based only on a resume and interview; and cost savings.

In short, I made the decision out of self-interest, choosing what seemed easiest and best for me and the circle of people I care most about - which includes the person I hired.  There was no malice, no "intent to be racist", but it was still a racist thing.  Running a company is hard, and I do not begrudge myself the freedom to do what keeps my company from becoming a statistic, but nepotism from white people amounts to racism.  I know this, and it sticks in my throat some. 

Do you understand?