Affirmative Action is Important

I was trying to fit this into a tweet and failing, so here’s a blog post instead.

I’ve been hearing a lot of whiny buzzing lately around affirmative action. I assume it’s just in my circle because I haven’t been seeing it get any additional play online. Nevertheless, it gets my teeth grinding.

The commentary generally follows this line:
Person A: We’re looking for a [job title] and [division head] wants us to hire a black person, but all of the best applicants so far have been white. Ugh, it’s so frustrating.

Shame.

Let’s assume that “best applicant” generally means the following and not consider additional biases like “but he had nice eyes”, which I’ve legitimately heard before:
1.   Went to the best school
2.   Went to the best university
3.   Worked at the best companies
4.   Demonstrates the most knowledge in the field

The majority of white South Africans are economically privileged enough to attend top private and public primary schools in the country, which would gain them enough cultural capital to be accepted to the best high schools. This background, combined with a high likelihood that their parents could afford it, would result in them going to whichever university was their first choice with the only real determining factor being their marks. If they’d been in a decent high school then they would have received plenty of support from teachers, parents, other students, extra-mural tutoring, and programs like Master Maths in order to make sure they received the marks they needed. They wouldn’t have studied while hungry, and most likely would not have had to worry about their home environment at the time either.

So these white students now get into UCT, Stellies, Wits, Potch, Rhodes, or whichever South African varsity they’ve picked based on where their friends are going and the courses they’re interested in. After university they go straight into a company like Quirk, Kalahari, Takealot, or Woolworths because they have the degree from the university that those managers actively seek out or they have contacts inside the company.

Their non-white counterparts may have had to get student loans to attend UNISA, UWC, or Cape Tech. Maybe their classes were disrupted at KZN by the annual protests and they had to drop out because they couldn’t afford to pay for another year of studies to make up for lost time or they lost their bursary because they were called home to deal with family issues. Yes, these events affect white students too, of course. Not all white students would be coming from a financially privileged background, but black students are disproportionately affected. Furthermore, although there is a new black middle class in South Africa this first generation wealth still lacks the intergenerational support white families would be more likely to receive. This puts a lot of pressure on the resources of those families, making issues like university fee increases difficult issues, as we’re seeing at the moment with student protests around the country.

For more info on this issue of increasing university fees see Johan Fourie’s post:

By my estimates, at least 95% of South Africans cannot afford to spend R100 000 a year to send their kids to varsity (which would include tuition fees, accommodation, textbooks, and spending money). To give some context, only 4% of South African households earn R500 000 per year or more. Most students need a loan, as I did and almost all of my friends. But we were the lucky ones. Many students’ parents simply don’t have the collateral to get loans. Some parents saved throughout their adult lives, forgoing many things to give their kids the opportunity of a better life.

Getting into the head office of a household-name company in Cape Town is hard and it can be even more impenetrable when you don’t have the “acceptable” credentials to back up your application. Even someone with, say, a Bachelor of Business Science Marketing Honours degree from UCT needs to be trained up to operate appropriately and efficiently in their first job. However, white applicants with that background will interview “better” because their manager is likely white. She won’t struggle to understand the applicant’s accent and they’ll be able to bond over a chat about how great the sushi at Willoughby’s is. This is what an episode of FiveThirtyEight’s What’s the Point podcast phrased as wanting “someone who reminds me of me”. A homogeneous culture breeds more of the same because people get along easier with the familiar. There are several great studies demonstrating this. To mention one, an orchestra conducting blind auditions recruited more women than previously, indicating unconscious gender bias in the original selection process. Interviewers had been judging female applicants more harshly than their male counterparts.

This is why affirmative action is important and why [division head] is correct to request that the most suitable black applicant be chosen to fill the vacancy. The applicant may not have the preferred background (Herschel > UCT > Kalahari) but to dismiss her on those grounds would be to re-entrench the systematic issues affirmative action is working to correct. To hand-wave and say, “This white applicant worked at Kalahari but this black applicant didn’t”, doesn’t suitably address why that may be the case. It’s not impossible that the same hand-waving happened at Kalahari because of the black applicant’s background. And so it goes on.

Diversity, and I’m not just talking about racial diversity here, can benefit a company in so many ways. To continuously hire people with the exact same degree from the exact same university, for example, can lead to stagnant, tired points of view that don’t challenge existing ways of thinking. A culturally diverse workforce could lead to greater cultural sensitivity and empathy, and that type of compassion could make people better workers when dealing with the day-to-day stresses of office life. It could also benefit a company’s turnover. Consider, for example, how a company of primarily white English staff would know how to create an advertisement that would appeal to the whole country. They might not make a complete mess of things but chances are they’ll miss the mark enough never to be quite as successful as they could have been if they’d widened their hiring pool in the recruiting process.

Eventually things will turn around. A black office worker in the Pick ‘n Pay head office may have entered in part because of affirmative action but she’ll gradually work herself up the ladder and be able to afford to send her kids to the best schools available. They’ll get into the top universities and gain access to top companies. It will take a few generations though and that’s why starting now is so important.

I’m not sure how I ever thought this would fit into a tweet.

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2 responses to “Affirmative Action is Important

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