That is the theory of a legal process wending its way through the Iowa court system. A class action suit filed on behalf of African-Americans in the state alleges that an insidious pattern of unconscious racism led to whites being preferred over African-Americans in thousands of decisions over hiring and promotion.The suit does not allege that the officials who made the hiring and promotion decisions were conscious racists or even that they had any intent to discriminate. No single act by a single person is cited as grounds for damages. Instead, the plaintiffs’ evidence comes from statistical assessments. Whites were chosen more frequently than Blacks with “similar” qualifications for interviews, hiring and promotion, according to the charts and graphs and studies brought to bear on the question.At Via Meadia, we don’t doubt that unconscious preferences for ones own racial or ethnic group can affect human behavior and decisions. And we don’t doubt that minorities sometimes suffer unfairly as a result. We expect many will be unpleasantly surprised when the recording angel reveals our good and bad deeds at the end of time. But we also suspect that there are some truths too fine to be caught by statistical nets and perhaps even some wrongs for which no appropriate legal redress can be found.A lawsuit like this one depends on the ability of courts to show that people equally qualified for particular jobs were treated differently based on the color of their skin. But that is not as easy to measure as it might appear. “Similar qualifications” is a loaded word. Does it mean people have the same degree? If so, what about the difference between people who have degrees in difficult subjects from tough colleges as opposed to those who majored in softer subjects at Pass ‘Em All U? One plaintiff named in the suit has the following story to tell:
Among those who joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff was Charles Zanders, of Urbandale, who was passed over for an interview for a position with the Iowa Communications Network in 2008 despite having worked 29 years in the telecommunications industry.“I was very angry at that time and felt like I’d been stepped on,” Zanders, 60, said.
For all Via Meadia knows, Mr. Zanders may have it exactly right, and if so, he has our full sympathy. On the other hand, we know plenty of people who have worked for 30 years in a field that we wouldn’t hire on a bet. Seniority and experience can be excellent qualifications; they may also mean that someone has just gotten by with minimum effort in a bureaucratic institution.The search of an “objective” set of qualifications that can replace the subjective factors in hiring raises hard questions. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly true that without some check on favoritism, discrimination and petty abuses of all kind will flourish in many workplaces. On the other hand, people with the same paper qualifications often have little in common, and those who specialize in accumulating paper qualifications and formal certificates can be (and, sadly, frequently are) much less good at many jobs than others. In academia, government and at many corporations, there is much too much formalism, empty procedural ritual and lawsuit-avoidance. This is one key reason for the poor performance of many American institutions and for the pervasive blight of mediocre formalism that blights so much of American society today.The study on which this legal case rests reflects work by University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald which claims to find that 80 percent of whites are biased against African-Americans. Greenwald, a well known and well respected scholar in his field, has developed the Implicit Association Test, which measured bias in whites. (VM is unaware if similar tests have been developed for other groups; at the least, the results would be interesting.)If the Iowa plaintiffs win their case, expect similar lawsuits against governments, universities and private employers all over the country. Expect also yet another wave of deadening bureaucratic paperwork and “official qualifications” to descend on the already heavily burdened American workplace. That may be the price of a more racially just society, though I am not quite sure it is a price America can — or will — pay.The problems of discrimination are real; so too, though, are the issues surrounding the best ways to fight it. Competence, honesty, energy, commitment: these qualities cannot be measured easily by objective yardsticks, but the ability of an organization to hire and promote based on them is the key to success. The way to fight discrimination while improving the performance of American institutions and enterprises is to make these qualities, wherever and in whomever they are found, the basis of personnel decisions.The goal is surely to motivate employers to look more aggressively for talent and ability wherever it can be found. Smarter employers will discriminate less — the passion for quality and success that drives great businesses should drive them to overcome prejudice and develop methods to make sure that the applicants with the talents they so desperately need don’t slip through their fingers. No professional sports team would miss out on a prime draft prospect because the athlete came from the “wrong” ethnic group these days; no business should want to do the same either.Fighting discrimination with intelligence, focus and a relentless concentration on quality and results isn’t easy to do, but as the global economic competition heats up, this will be the rationale that will keep the fight against prejudice healthy and alive in the American workplace. The more the cause of racial justice is tied up with cumbersome procedures, legalistic qualification categories and pro forma paperwork, the less success it will have as organizations of all kinds strive to become more competent and nimble.