Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A back-handed justification for affirmative action

I've been reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a wonderful book, smart and funny and insightful, with ideas of significance and the most engaging stories. I want to be Malcolm Gladwell when I grow up.

The basic premise of Blink is that people are constantly making snap judgements with apparently very little information, sometimes for ill (like racial prejudice) but often better than you'd ever expect (like soldiers under fire, or doctors in an ER, or traders on a stock floor). He makes the rather remarkable claim that often less information is better than more information when it comes to making decisions.

For all the many years that we've heard about unconscious racial bias, Gladwell is the first person I've ever read who forwarded really solid scientific evidence to measure it in individuals. He describes how the Implicit Assumption Test (IAT) can measure associations we have between two ideas (such as "African-American" and "bad") simply by measuring how long it takes to sort lists of words. The measures are consistant and repeatable, and very difficult to fudge even when you know what's at stake. People with very progressive and tolerant philosophies (including Gladwell himself, by his own admission) find that they have measurable biases against blacks. (You can take it yourself on the link, above; try it out for yourself.)

What's even more remarkable, though, is the studies on what can change one's implicit biases. If a person has lots of experiences that directly contradict their prejudices, their unconscious associations will change. One track-and-field competitor found that his prejudice against blacks measurably reversed after watching Olympic competitions in which black runners were dominating all the events.

You would think that this would provide a good theoretical underpinning for policies of affirmative action. After all, the explicit purpose of putting more minorities into positions they historically did not occupy (like elite universities, or officer positions in the military, or executive business positions) was to change people's attitudes about those minorities, by giving them direct exposure to those people to counteract their prejudice.

The only problem is, that rationale only works if the people installed in those positions are consistently and noticeably better than their peers. But the way most affirmative action programs operate guarantees that won't happen, because they effectively lower the standards for the minorities they serve, in order to get a predetermined number of minority applicants through the door. So, instead of people thinking better of the minorities they meet, they think worse of them, because the people they are exposed to, on average, only confirm their prejudices. Such affirmative action programs would do better to activitely recruit a smaller number of truly superior minorities, so that everyone's impressions were consistently positive.

If you're skeptical of whether this would really work, you should realize that it's already happened in our culture, with a different minority: Asians. Most people in America have positive associations with Asians, at least as far as intelligence. We generally think Asians are smart. The sight of young Japanese students conjures up images of progedies playing violin concertos, or acing the SAT. Is it because Asians really are smart? I didn't think about it much, until I was working with an Chinese colleague to help her daughter apply to a prep school I had attended. She told me at one point, exasperated, "You people think Asians are all brilliant . . . but that's just because only very, very best managed to make it out of China and come to United States. There plenty of stupid people in China! But in United States, if you are really good, everyone say, 'Of course. She's Chinese.' "

Only witnessing real excellence will create associations with excellence. I got my own taste of it, as I was happily reading along, and Gladwell dropped the fact that he was half-black -- his mother is Jamaican. I felt a sudden jerk in my thinking: really? him? There is was, the prejudice exposed, and Gladwell's own living example shrivelling it up.



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