11.24.2009

Back to Race, for a Moment

Bet: I'll get zero comments here.

Topic: professional/work culture, whiteness, blackness, and racism.

The Washington Post reported today that 34.5% of young black men (16-24) are currently unemployed. That's a stunning figure, isn't it? The same article quotes Princeton professor Devah Pager:
Black men were less likely to receive a call back or job offer than equally qualified white men... Black men with a clean record fare no better than white men just released from prison.
So now imagine you're on a hiring committee at your average bank. You've narrowed it to two applications. One is from a guy named Delonta Spriggs (borrowing a name from the article just cited); the other is from Bradley West (a made up name).

Obviously, it would be "racist" to just pick the white-sounding name. And, just as obviously, it happens all the time. Setting the racism aside momentarily, the question is, when money (via "performance," and "productivity") is the bottom line, is betting white a rational gamble?

To answer this, we would have to examine white and black culture -- starting with the admission that such a distinction exists. I've written about this delicate, uncomfortable, difficult distinction before. In the post just linked, I nervously suggest a few starters. Basketball goes to black culture. Golf goes to white culture. Veganism to white culture. Loud music goes to black culture. I tried in that post to achieve a neutral perspective, so that these distinctions appear as value-neutral as possible.

But the question of "professionalism" rears its head in a very interesting way in this discussion. If we were to discover that white culture has--always already embedded within it--a greater emphasis on things like dress shirts, timeliness, and so on... then... ? If things like "turning papers in on time" come more easily to white students because of their background in white culture, which values timeliness, then won't a greater percentage of white employees handle the demands of the professional world with greater adeptness than their black counterparts?

All of this is seriously touchy, obviously. And all of it seems problematic. From what I can tell, the source of much of this difficulty is the fact that (increasingly?) people are identifying first by racial group and second by nationality. In other words, there is a decreasing overlap between white culture and black culture -- those identities seem to tug against each other.

Hmmm.

[Note: Obviously, we're all adults here. Exceptions are so prevalent that they're almost a rule. We all know black people who are more professional than white people and blahblahblah... but gambling, which business is, must function even in the presence of exceptions.]

So... solutions? Comments? Accusations?

6 comments:

T.A.N. said...

mostly messing up your "comments bet" here.

but, yeah, it's a tough delicate situation. requires nuance, and finesse. but it's also very real, especially for black people

i was most struck by how often delonta (sp?) via the article references selling drugs as The Alternative....

Wishydig said...

i guess i don't quite understand how exceptions being so prevalent can leave the culture features intact. it sounds to me like you're saying that because people believe that they're just playing the odds, their decisions should be understood as smart business rather than as racism. or naive prejudice.

Casey said...

Wishydig: would you bet that there's no statistical difference between behavior patterns among races? As you know, black men end up in prison disproportionately... whether that's "solely" a feature of black culture, "solely" a feature of white power/racism, or some dynamic mix, the data remains significant, doesn't it?

Exceptions are so prevalent that they're almost the rule... but if exceptions become the rule, then the rule no longer applies. Are you saying we've crossed that point? If so, then terms (even terms of identity) like "African American" and "White" have become antiquated and irrelevant? That hardly seems possible.

Eminem and his imitators have proven that white people can rap... but that doesn't make rap not a "black thing." Does it?

Maybe it does? In which case, it's difficult to explain the hiring discrepancies... should we say that the mythology of cultural difference has outlasted the fact of cultural difference? Or are you saying there never was a cultural difference?

Casey said...

And T.A.N. -- interesting blog! Thanks for finding me.

Back to Wishydig: sometimes I get the feeling that "college" as an institution is really "white." And I don't think I'm the first to say this; certainly there was some criticism of Booker T. Washington's effort to build higher education facilities for black men in the same model as colleges that had been built for white men.

Of course, I've written before about how messy these distinctions are... indeed, I suspect that two generations from now, the terms "black" and "white" will remain useful as descriptors of brands of culture, even if they do not survive in relation to skin-color-identification.

But if "college" is white, then--?

Wishydig said...

you're using the entire population based on skin color to claim that there is disproportionality of prison time. that statistic is safe. even with caveats and explanations and the acknowledgment that it's not a cause/effect thing, it's not a biological thing, it's not an inborn evil or weakness etc. so i'm with you. that statistic holds.

but then you extend that statistic to two people who have been through some sort of school/training and have shown themselves to be part of a new sample set. but you defend the perseverance of the original groups as relevant, even tho the whole point of the interview process is to move beyond that.

put simply: don't you think that the correlation falls apart when you're comparing, for instance, the black and white "cultures" that have graduated from a 4 year university?

my guess is that they do. it's a different bet. so to extend the metaphor of gambling: why do you think counting cards is so successful?

Wishydig said...

i didn't read your next comment. it seems to sooorta anticipate part of my point. right?