I’ve never really decided how I feel about affirmative action. As a filthy liberal, I know I should be all for it. I know that the intent is not to give minorities preferential treatment, but rather to give minorities the opportunities more commonly available to those in the majority. Historically, black kids are more likely to come from poorer neighborhoods, and it makes sense that more scholarships and financial aid should be available to encourage them to attend college. They need it more than the white kids in the rich towns with the great high schools.

At the same time, I believe strongly in meritocracy: everyone needs to work for what they get, and no one should get preferential treatment or handouts simply because of their race, sex, or nationality. But, as in the case of the kid from the underperforming high school, affirmative action can help level the playing field and remove the leg up that the white kids had just for being born the way they were.

I’ve had a few experiences to make me question how I feel about all of this, though.

The first was the career path of someone I know. Twenty-some years ago, after finishing up a degree in (if I remember correctly) criminal justice, he applied for the police academy. He was denied when they chose someone with lower scores in order to meet diversity quotas. To him, this was reverse racism (or reverse sexism - I don’t know who ultimately got his slot at the academy). I never quite felt right about this, but realized recently that it’s likely that the exams favored white guys - not intentionally, of course, but the police force has been made up primarily of white guys. It’s not unreasonable to expect that their exams would aim to find the people most like the best cops, and will thus be slanted (however slightly) in favor of those in the same demographic as those cops they already have. Enacting diversity quotes could correct for that bias.

A bit of a stretch, maybe, but it makes sense.

The second experience that has shaped my views happened to me about seven years ago. I was working for Tech Crew at college, running sound and/or lighting for all sorts of events around campus. One of the few events that I still remember was a diversity presentation, maybe some kind of award ceremony. The part that stuck with me, though, was a brief speech given by the president of the university. He was extolling the virtue of the school’s diversity program and citing the changing makeup of the student body. Now, I ran the PA for a lot of presentations like this, so I zoned out until he said something that caught my ear: if two students applied to the school with exactly the same background, financial situation, and grades - but one was black and one was white - the black student would be offered three to four thousands dollars more, per year, in financial aid or scholarships.

That’s not at all the same thing. That’s preferential treatment based on race, not level the playing field - the field was already level. I guess that, like socialism, affirmative action sounds good in theory, but doesn’t necessarily work out as well in practice.

Mike and John

I got to thinking about all of this again because of a kerfuffle on Twitter this evening. Mike Monteiro made a few comments about conferences with all-white, all-male speaker lists, and John O’Nolan made a poorly conceived, poorly worded reply, and then things went a little bananas as dozens of people jumped into the fray.

In short, I agree with Mike, and think that John may have had a valid point but worded it so terribly that it didn’t matter. It’s true that most tech conferences have mostly-white, mostly-male speakers lists because that tends to be the makeup of prominent experts in tech-related areas. But this is a case where the merit doesn’t necessarily lie with the white guys. If I may use John’s own examples, it’s not a given that white people make better swimmers than black people, or that black people are better sprinters than white people, or that men make better fighter pilots than women. But, if we keep looking for white people to swim, black people to run, and men to fly, then no one should be surprised if that’s what we find.

Tech conferences are exactly the same: white guys speak at them because they are the big names in that world. That doesn’t mean that they’re better than those who aren’t white guys, it just means that they have been more prominent up until now. If we keep looking for white guys to speak at tech conferences, we will miss out on a lot of different views and opinions. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a homogenous population will quickly turn into an innovationless echo chamber.

In the middle of all this back and forth on Twitter, John made a brief blog post that did little to help his position, by offering this absurd scenario:

Hypothetical scenario: I’m putting on a conference. I’m trying to fill my keynote slot and I have to choose between two people. One is a white, middle aged man, who is a fantastic speaker and a highly talented individual. He’s spoken at conferences all over the world and has a great track record. The other, is a black, lesbian female who’s just come out of college and is doing an internship for an advertising agency.

Mike is suggesting that if the rest of my speakers are “white dudes” then I should choose the second person, out of those two options - purely for the sake of having someone from a minority as a speaker.

John knows damn well that Mike wasn’t suggesting a talented expert should be replaced with a recent graduate. Several other people have chimed in with comments that conference organizers have asked women to present, or that they simply want the best people for the job and those people turn out to be men (the discussion became more about gender than race). I won’t argue that some of the best possible speakers for a conference won’t be men; most of them probably will be, just due to the current makeup of the community. But if an organizer is only able to find one or two qualified women willing to speak, they clearly aren’t casting the net wide enough. Women are becoming more prominent in the tech world, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean that the only ones who are qualified are those that everyone has heard of.

I don’t really have a conclusion, and didn’t know where I was going when I started this. I will echo (by paraphrasing) something that Mike said: white dudes sure do get defensive when anyone challenges the throne. Mike also excoriated all-female conferences, but based on the responses he’s been getting, you’d think he suggested that white men should remain uneducated and unemployed until the age of 35.