Diversity as divide-and-rule

Allen Neuharth, who was CEO of Gannett Co. Inc. from 1973 through 1989, was a great journalism pioneer. At a time when newspapers were in decline, he founded two newspapers, Florida Today and then the widely-imitated USA Today. He combined graphics, pictures and text to present information more effectively than could be done text alone. He broadened the definition of news. He was in the forefront of advanced newspaper technology.  He built from Gannett from a regional to a national newspaper chain.

He was a strong proponent of diversity in the newsroom and in news coverage.  While demographic diversity is irrelevant in some fields (for example, air traffic control), it is definitely relevant to journalism. Newspaper readers represent a wide range of opinions, social classes, educational levels and ethnicities; having a balance between men and women, blacks and whites, Anglos and Hispanics, gays and straights ensures, at least, a wider range of life experiences than you would got from a group of straight white Anglo males.

But I am sure Neuharth was astute enough to realize that his championing of diversity gave him cover from criticism for other policies – paying wages below average for the industry; striving to crush the Newspaper Guild, the reporters’ union, at all costs; downgrading investigative reporting in favor of “lifestyle” coverage; subordinating everything except union-busting to corporate profits. The story is told that when Neuharth was asked whether the corporate name was pronounced GANNett or GanNETT, he replied, “The emphasis is on the ‘net’.”

Our “diversity training” sessions at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle seemed to me to stir up antagonism rather than promote understanding. At one such session, a guy from the art department said that gays (I hadn’t known until that moment that he was gay) should join forces with women and people of color against straight white males. Nobody rebuked him for this.  His statement was forgotten by everyone five minutes later, but it certainly was not calculated to foster teamwork and unity.

In the business news section, where I worked, we had a young black guy thrown into a job for which he did not have the experience or training. He floundered, and was given no special training or help to improve. He responded by appointing himself the enforcer of racial correctness within the section. We had a young black woman who did a good job for which, in my opinion, she never was given sufficient credit by the then-editor. At the same time higher-level editors pressed her to take a supervisory position for which she knew she was not qualified.

Eventually both these people got new jobs and quit the D&C.  The last I heard, they were doing well in the new jobs, so the problem was not with them but with the false positions they were put in.  It can be good to put talented people on a fast track for promotion so they can exercise responsibility at a young age, but if so, they need mentoring and apprenticeships to prepare themselves. It helps nobody to hire somebody, in order to meet a quota, for a job they may not be able to do, and then leave the person to sink or swim on their own.

Newspaper Guild Local 17 had a clause in our contract barring discrimination race on race or gender. We wanted to add a clause based on sexual orientation, but management refused to agree. My assumption is that they wanted gay employees to think of equal opportunity as a gift handed down from on high,, and not as a contractual right enforced by their fellow employees.

It is interesting that President Richard M. Nixon is the father of affirmative action in the sense we understand it today.  The 1970 Philadelphia Plan set racial quotas for apprenticeship and training for the Philadelphia building trades unions until they had 20 percent minority membership; the idea was that this was necessary to make up for racial discrimination in the past.

I think President Nixon was in fact a sincere supporter of civil rights.  He supported the 1965 civil rights law, which was opposed by Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush and William F. Buckley Jr. But he had another motive, which was to drive a wedge between civil rights organizations and the U.S. labor movement.  I think that also is the reason why so many big U.S. corporations can be pro-diversity and anti-labor.

I recall that the African-American diversity enforcers at the D&C were not particularly sympathetic to labor or to the underdog.  Their goal was not so much a more just society as a seat for people like themselves at the table of the elite.

Of course there is nothing wrong with that ambition, nor with reaching out to  African-Americans, Hispanics, women, uncloseted gays or other under-represented groups.  But this has to be within a context of equal justice and increasing opportunity for everybody.  Otherwise diversity becomes not just a zero-sum game, but a game nobody can win.

Click on this for a Boston Globe article on diversity training.

Postscript. I think the institution in American society that strikes the best balance between meritocracy, diversity and equal opportunity is the U.S. armed forces.  My peacetime military service, from 1956 through 1958, was the first time in my life, and for a long time thereafter, that I had black people in authority over me, and that was at a time when black people were denied the right to vote in the South and denied access to good jobs in much of the nation.

Click on this for a discussion of affirmative action based on economic class.

[Added 7/7/11]  None of this is meant to deny the reality of racial discrimination against black people.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via Mother Jones.

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