Visible diversity is first principles, the rest comes along behind.

October 14, 2013

A twitter observation from @tressiemcphd [her blog]

reminds me of a post I wrote some time ago that encapsulates my position on underrepresentation in science, affirmative action strategies, etc. It is informed by my participation on diversity-in-academia committees at every level so far from undergraduate, to graduate student and as a faculty member. It is also informed by seeing the nitty-gritty of affirmative action decision making when it comes to the hiring of faculty (the “Dean’s Hire“, etc), the treatment of said faculty once hired and the outcome (tenure/denied) of such faculty.

It is also a position that I take in reaction to anyone who goes on about how skin-reflectance based affirmative action policies are bad because it may select individuals for whom this is their only apparent handicap in academia. Thereby overlooking people who don’t share that particular handicap but otherwise beat out this person in the Oppression Olympics. Also my response to people who think that socio-economic lack of privilege is the only justifiable motivation for affirmative action policies.

This originally went up Aug 29, 2008.

Watching Michelle Obama speak at the Democratic Convention this week was awe inspiring and hope uplifting for many Americans and others worldwide. I was feelin’ it myself. But what really hammered home the real message here, for me, was listening to various media interviews with African-American women. They explained in both humble and soaring terms how important it was for their dreams, aspirations and parental hopes that Michelle stood up there, brilliant, black, beautiful, charismatic and, let’s face it, just plain fabulous. Her strength and will as an advocate for the downtrodden, her country and her family alike was a big hit for women everywhere who finally, finally see families that are just like theirs making a serious run at the US Presidency.

This reminds me of a phenomenon experienced by a scientist with whom I am familiar.
“The conversation usually ends with ‘Thanks Doc, it means a lot’.”

It is no news that US research science looks like a little bit of apartheid. White folks are overrepresented in the faculty ranks and overrepresented in the trainee ranks down to the undergraduate level, relative to the general US population. Frequently enough relative to local city or state populations as well. African-Americans and Latino-Americans are considerably underrepresented. [Don’t yeah-but me with your favorite allegedly overrepresented group in the comments, it is irrelevant to today’s discussion.]

In the service ranks, this is a different story. Visit a few Universities around the country, attend scientific meetings in the usual hotspots of Washington DC, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and unless you are in complete denial or completely oblivious you notice something. African-Americans and Latino-Americans (and some additional nonwhite ethnic groups) are considerably overrepresented in the service ranks. Administrative assistants, janitors, animal care techs, facilities staff, hotel and convention name it. These national realities are not just anecdotes, of course. Every time we talk about affirmative action issues in the Academy on a national level, the dismal stats are related.

I make my views on casting a wide net and dismantling artificial barriers to success in science pretty clear in my blogging. I argue this both from the perspective of an advocate for my scientific domain who wants progress made and as an advocate for the individual scientist and his/her career.
Michelle Obama and the scientist who receives the “Thanks Doc” conversations remind me of another important, perhaps more important, reason for dismantling artificial barriers to science career success.

It matters that “people who look like me, are like me, have families like me” are a highly visible part of the landscape. It matters a lot. And this is why I will smack down knuckleheads who bleat on about quotas and “taking slots from the more deserving” and crap like that. First, of course, because those types (almost hysterically, unbelievably, overrepresented in the fizzycyst population) display a fundamental intuitive misunderstanding of populations, central tendencies, variance in the distribution and the rarity of extreme talents. Second, because they disingenuously ignore the warm fuzzies, opportunities and biases associated with the vast majority of the Academy looking just like them. Third because these morally shriveled little wankers are just plain fun to tweak and can be tangled up in their inconsistencies and hypocrisy with little effort. But I digress.

Unsurprisingly, the scientist to whom I am referring looks somewhat other than the vast majority of independent scientists at the University in question. Actually, I think people have a fairly difficult time discerning just what ethnic association fits but lets just say “nonwhite”, pointedly underrepresented in science. Of a variety with which many people who work in support roles at the University in question identify. Ethnicity pegging is not helped in that this person does not speak, act, associate, recreate, hobby-ate, idea-ate, iPod-ate, etc in any particularly ethnically-specific or stereotypic ways that I can detect. This observation is quite important. Unlike Michelle Obama, for whom many aspects of the identity package are consistent with the women being interviewed on the radio this week, this scientist basically only looks “like them”.
My subject scientist relates numerous conversations which follow a common thread. Some staff person will drop by the office to say “Thanks Doc. It’s really important to see one of us in this office doing this job.”

That is the crux of the issue. Image is important. Identity is important. It matters to the larger issues of diversity that we have readily apparent, quotidian, barebones diversity. It matters to our social fabric of opportunity and fairness. It matters to the fundamental principles of what it means to be an American citizen when we are talking politics. It matters to the fundamental principles of the Academy as well.

Additional Reading:

A post on why NOT to make too much of visible diversity.

Quotas/no quotas

Underrepresented Imposter Syndrome (no, something slightly different).

Major, Jack, Willie and Warren

Take the Money and Run

Three Techs

6 Responses to “Visible diversity is first principles, the rest comes along behind.”

  1. Jim Thomerson Says:

    My impression, based on experience many years ago, was that black faculty were fairly quickly moved into administrative positions, and were no longer in the classroom or lab. One presumes the administration thought they were worth more as administrator roll models than as faculty roll models. I had very mixed feelings about that.

    I also know, from conversation with two black faculty colleagues, that they felt considerable pressure to “do something for your people.” A pressure that I, as a male white person, did not experience. I felt bad for them about it.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    black faculty were fairly quickly moved into administrative positions

    Well, I suppose that all depends on who is the primary driver on this.

    Remember, even though dean is a four-letter word to many of us, the world at large still sees administration as “better” in terms of academic careers. Some individual professor types may see it that way too.

    Just as Universities are under pressure to increase diversity at the faculty level they are *also* under pressure to increase diversity at the administrative level.

    Following from my points with this post, it is good to have the administration “look like” one would like it to look, i.e., fairly diverse. I am entirely sympathetic to a University that wants to showcase their underrepresented tenured faculty by moving them into administrative roles.

    It is unfortunate that this may fall afoul of the bigotries of the more heavily productive academic faculty that think that going into Administration is actually a step down and means you can’t hack it as a “real” faculty member (for example, a grant-winning, actively publishing scientist or economics big wig that gets on national tee vee all the time). All I can suggest is that the more Universities can diversify their faculty, the more they can have all aspects of the staff looking good to the outside eye.

    A pressure that I, as a male white person, did not experience. I felt bad for them about it.

    Isis wrote about this in the context of some Open Access discussions. I had a comment on the first version of this post that spoke to this issue as well. My response was that on an individual level, I’d never suggest or expect anyone to take any particular steps just to service this broader diversity goal that I share. On a population wide basis, sure, I think it is much to the good when people are willing to step up to higher and higher levels of achievement within academia. But asking someone to make personal sacrifices that they themselves do not want to make “for the good of the Academy”? hell no I can’t go there.


  3. Busy Says:

    Identity is important.

    Identity is very much a fact of life, and as such it is important we address it. I have had similar experiences in hotels to tressie mc (I’m from a different minority).

    At the same time, in Europe I find a much weaker self classification by identity groups, down to freer combinations in high school for clique formation, as compared to Asians, Whites, Latinos, Blacks, Nerds, the Plastics, etc that goes on in the USA.

    What I am trying to say is identity is a dredge from our racist past. We are still self-classifying by race more than we should, but this is not something that is about to be fixed any time soon.


  4. Jim Thomerson Says:

    Yes, about identity, when traveling abroad, I often identify myself as Texan, rather than American. Works for me!;-)


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