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Affirmative Action Win

by erik on April 19th, 2010

Geek Feminism, my new favorite blog, just posted a link to a fantastic essay from NPR Ombudsman (!) Alicia Shepard, wherein she calls NPR out for poor female representation on the airwaves.

It’s not going to be easy. “Unconscious bias flows through our lives in many different ways, and it is not easy task to disentangle all strands,” said Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain, a book about unconscious bias. When he worked at Knight-Ridder’s Washington, DC bureau, two editors insisted every story have at least one female source.
Initially he resisted.
“By month two, I for one was happily following the directive, not in the interest of equity but because it was allowing me to write better stories,” said Vedantam, who is now a Washington Post reporter. “The spirit in which these policies are implemented and followed matters a great deal. [But] the number of females sources in our stories rose, our stories got better, our jobs got easier.”

One passage really stood out to me as an incredible statement about affirmative action.  On correcting bias, Alicia writes:

It’s not going to be easy. “Unconscious bias flows through our lives in many different ways, and it is not easy task to disentangle all strands,” said Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain, a book about unconscious bias. When he worked at Knight-Ridder’s Washington, DC bureau, two editors insisted every story have at least one female source.

Initially he resisted.

“By month two, I for one was happily following the directive, not in the interest of equity but because it was allowing me to write better stories,” said Vedantam, who is now a Washington Post reporter. “The spirit in which these policies are implemented and followed matters a great deal. [But] the number of females sources in our stories rose, our stories got better, our jobs got easier.”

This is the point that people miss about affirmative action.  When representation poor, there are two possible explanations: A) the marginalized group is simply not as good, or B) the selection process does a poor job at measuring how “good” people really would be.

People who are against affirmative action on principle are essentially saying it’s always A).  And people who are for affirmative action are saying it’s at least sometimes B).

In this case, even though they thought they had a fair selection process, they didn’t.  They were choosing boring men, and neglecting fascinating women.  Affirmative action was a success for them, not because it equalized the numbers, but because it helped them find better sources.

This is why I support affirmative action.  Because poor representation is a red flag.  I believe that more often than not, people of one gender, race, sexuality or disability are just as capable as people of another.  I take this as a starting point, and I refuse to accept that some group is “just plain worse” without serious, serious proof.

If you think affirmative action is unfair to men or white people, you should really spend some time thinking about what evidence you have that the selection processes involved are so fair.  In many cases, they’re not.

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