Wednesday Reading List: The Only Thing Abigail Fisher Had to Give Up Was a Fantasy

Today is the day that I realized how hard it's going to be to do a daily reading list of education articles throughout the summer. It's not impossible, it's just that I'm going to have to resist sharing every substance-free piece about summer enrichment in the interest of "content generation!" That said, there's some legitimate news today.

Pew just released their latest polling data on racial attitudes in America, and the data are telling:

A new Pew Research Center survey finds profound differences between black and white adults in their views on racial discrimination, barriers to black progress and the prospects for change. Blacks, far more than whites, say black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life, from dealing with the police to applying for a loan or mortgage ... An overwhelming majority of blacks (88%) say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites, but 43% are skeptical that such changes will ever occur. An additional 42% of blacks believe that the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights with whites, and just 8% say the country has already made the necessary changes. A much lower share of whites (53%) say the country still has work to do for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites, and only 11% express doubt that these changes will come. Four-in-ten whites believe the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights, and about the same share (38%) say enough changes have already been made.

The attitudes about how folks get treated by institutions is devastating as well:

This is the sort of data that ought to persuade White folks to think differently about race. When more than eight in ten Black Americans say that they experience prejudice in dealing with the police, it's hard to shrug that off as a rounding error; when three out of four feel the same way about the courts, we do not have a justice system that can reasonably purport to enjoy the consent of the governed. Leadership diversity alone cannot solve those problems, but the Harvard Business Review looked at what does, and what does not, work in recruiting more diverse talent in the private sector:

It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity. Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better. Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person. In analyzing three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms and interviewing hundreds of line managers and executives at length, we’ve seen that companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics.

The tactics that seem to work are voluntary trainings, self-managed teams (with real accountability), recruitment programs, and serious organizational commitment to the ideas through task forces with authority.

I'm interested in hearing feedback about this, because my gut tells me that the research is incomplete. Please leave a comment, or shoot me an email, if you have a perspective on the HBR research.

Despite active work to generate more diversity, there still exist systems that work in the opposite direction. Jia Tolentino writes in Jezebel about her own experience helping students to game the admission system at the University of Texas at Austin, the college in question in the recent Supreme Court case that upheld that institution's mechanism of affirmative action:

Most of the UT student body gets in through the Top 10 rule. The rest—approximately 8 percent, the year [Supreme Court Plaintiff Abigail Fisher] applied—are admitted through a holistic evaluation process, which takes into account things like extracurriculars, leadership, personal essays (thus the $450), and race. This is the part of UT admissions policy that Fisher’s case was challenging. Note that it was easier for her (or the anti-affirmative-action zealot who bankrolled her) to take a margin of UT admissions to the Supreme Court than to envision a version of justice in which she had, along with 92 percent of admitted students, straight-up earned her way in. Because UT Austin is a terrific place—the rare kind of school that radiates both capaciousness and prestige—it is the top choice for many Texas high school students, and its unique admissions policy carries a lot of weight. It is discussed ad nauseam during application season; however, the reasoning behind this policy—behind the 10 percent rule, behind affirmative action—is not. I figured that part out only after I left the state and saw how much about my previous surroundings had been determined by the fact that rich white people can still game the system simply by living—that they are still reaping the benefits of centuries of preferential access to everything that sets a person up for success. Today, certain measures have been enacted to level the playing field. But, as the Abigails among us can’t seem to admit, the mere existence of these measures does not mean that the need for them has expired. White people remain uniquely able, in a monetary sense, to game the system. For a summer, at $150 an hour, I was paid to help.

There is so much discussion about the Fisher case, but Tolentino's piece gets at the fundamental selfishness that is at play when privileged folks push back against cultural heterogeneity. Folks with privilege, myself included, can be obsessed with the idea that they don't want to have to "give something up" in order for other individuals to have opportunities. Abigail Fisher thought that she was entitled to enroll in the college of her choice, even though she did not perform as well as thousands of other students. That's privilege. The only thing she had to give up was a fantasy.