Advertising

Originally published Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Jerry Large

Looking at the state of race

It's almost enough to make me believe in ghosts. Something is monkeying with the machinery of racial equality.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Comments
No comments have been posted to this article.

advertising

It's almost enough to make me believe in ghosts.

Something is monkeying with the machinery of racial equality.

Most people believe they have the best intentions and the highest ideals, but the results keep coming back the same.

You saw the story Sunday about the lack of diversity in Washington state government.

An Associated Press reporter pointed out that Gov. Chris Gregoire's newly reshuffled leadership team looked just like the last one, all white, as is her entire senior staff. And of 26 Cabinet officers, all but two are white.

Sure, Washington is not the most diverse state, but we have a lot more color than we used to. More than a quarter of the population is either Latino or of a race other than white, while 18 percent of state employees are minorities, the AP reported.

Chris Gregoire is not George Wallace, and maybe that's part of the problem, assuming there is one.

It could be that white people are just the most qualified for all of those jobs, but if you really believe we are all essentially the same under our skins that doesn't seem likely.

And when Gary Locke was governor, a quarter of his Cabinet consisted of people from minority groups.

So what gives?

Wallace was the Alabama governor who rose to fame in the 1960s for his impassioned defense of racial segregation.

Gregoire has always spoken out in favor of inclusion. I'm confident she finds discrimination repugnant. But would she always be aware of it, especially when it hides in decision-making systems, established networks and so on?

Wallace's words and actions were obviously and intentionally prejudiced. Later in his political career he repented and gained the support of black voters who helped him win a fourth term as governor.

We can recognize the most blatant signs of racial distortion, but the subtle stuff trips us up.

Statistics abound with the effects of racial discrimination, but no one is a racist. The term is so odious, that no sane person wants any part of it. That's great, but it also means everyone denies any thought or action that might be judged as racist, which makes it hard to identify and correct racial distortions in systems and by people who are not haters.

Research-grant applications to the National Institutes of Health from black scientists are much less likely to be approved than those from other researchers, according to a study in Science magazine. I don't think the people making those choices are out to get black scientists. Applicants aren't identified by race, but something, maybe the names, or the topics are affecting choices. If unconscious biases play a role in that, they need to be teased out, which is not always easy to do.

Even dealing with more obvious problems is a challenge. Washington state began a push for greater diversity in government in the 1960s with an affirmative-action program. Businesses and governments around the country did the same.

Thirty years later, The Seattle Times ran a package of stories about the progress, which was pretty limited. In fact the analysis found that in one of the key affirmative-action programs, half the people hired were white.

Even that limited effort toward diversity seemed like too much. That same year Washington voters approved the anti-affirmative action Initiative 200. Laws changed but some things in people's thinking did not. Laws affect rule-based discrimination, but researchers say we now are faced with deep cognitive biases, informal decision making, networking patterns — all the stuff laws can't change.

Key Sun, a law professor at Central Washington University, wrote an article in which he said two pillars support behaviors that contradict moral education against bias: lack of access to accurate information, and constant exposure to inaccurate information.

Entertainment media and news media often reinforce stereotypes. Journalists adopt language from critics of diversity, such as "racial preferences" without considering the implications. Stories about I-200 said its purpose was to end racial preferences in hiring, often without pointing out that racial preferences for white people, particularly white men, would be preserved under the usual practices.

Worse, the media tend to point out racism only when it is over the top. It's easy for people to believe race is not a factor unless the doer is evil or uneducated or possibly a tobacco-chewing Southerner.

Nationally only 13 percent of journalists are from minority groups. It is possible to do better. The Seattle Times newsroom does: 13 percent Asian American, 5.4 percent African American, 3.2 percent Hispanic.

But in all realms of society, too many people continue to be haunted by biases they don't see and are too frightened by the thought of being called prejudiced to look deeply for answers.

Breaking those chains by accepting the existence of biases and tweaking systems to account for that is the next step in moving forward.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

Advertising

NDN Video




Advertising