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May 25, 2004

Proportional Representation?

The New York Times' Robin Pogrebin reports here that there are surprisingly few blacks on the boards of a lot of NYC arts organizations. He gives Asians and Hispanics a few mentions too. But the article is clearly focused on arts boards and blacks.

I read the piece in an agreeable state of grumpy self-satisfaction, happily muttering to myself things like, "Those damn leftish elites can't even bring themselves to practice what they preach. Hell, they can't even practice what they love imposing on the rest of us! It's the New Hypocrisy!! Didn't you always know this would be the case? ..." Grump, harumph.

But a few hours have passed and my thinking about the piece has grown a little ... well, the word "nuanced" certainly overdignifies it. "Confused" is probably closer to the truth. But maybe in a fun-to-rummage-around way.

In the first place, while it's certainly true that people in the arts are generally ultra-left, it may also be true that the board members of arts organization aren't so leftish. Board members, after all, are usually people with tons of dough, and may well be rightish. So my grumpiness about hypocrisy may have no basis in fact, darn it. And hats off to Pogrebin, who refrains from mentioning the "r" (racism) word too, too many times.

Still, I find myself wondering about a few Larger Questions. As is my wont, I'm going to dodge the immediate and obvious debate about whether or not fields (and boards) should be making big efforts to go out and diversify themselves in racial terms. ("It's up to them but shouldn't be enforced by law," is my general feeling, FWIW.) I'm going to plow into a few other questions instead.

Larger Question #1: Why on earth should we expect every field or organization to look like a representative sample of the American population generally? What an odd presumption. If, say, we had ourselves a look into the oceanography field and we discovered that there aren't a lot of Latino oceanographers, should we instantly leap to the conclusion that something must be amiss? On what basis? Accuse me of working on nothing but raw hunch here, so be it. But I for one wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that there aren't too many Latinos going into oceanography these days.

I lift this point from the great Thomas Sowell, who has often argued that we look at the topic of racial representation from an entirely mistaken point of view. We shouldn't come to the topic asking, "Why are there so few people of Race X in this particular field?" The attitude we should bring instead is, "Why should any field be expected to look, racially speaking, like the population generally? How absurd."

In his wonderful and helpful Ethnic America (buyable here), Sowell uses German-Americans as an example. This group arrived in America bringing, as you'd expect, a history and a culture with them, as well as a distinctive set of talents and skills -- among which were expertise in the beer and piano businesses.

Given these facts, why should anyone be surprised that German-Americans entered the American beer and piano industries in high numbers? Why should we be amazed to learn that they did well in these fields? And why slap our heads in outrage over the fact that the American beer and piano industries are still staffed by lots of people of German-American descent? Which of course necessarily means that there are other businesses that have fewer German-Americans than are present in the general population. Such is life, no?

Given that every group comes equipped with its own history, talents, skills and ambitions, wouldn't the really odd thing be to find a business that does have a racial makeup that reflects the general population's ethnic ratios?

Repeat: given reality as we know it, the weird thing isn't to find a business with an ethnic imbalance. The weird thing is to find one that has what we think of these days as a correct ethnic balance.

Another Larger Question: time, as in "What about the fact that time's gotta pass?"

I'll take an example from the days when I was following trade-book publishing. Eightish years ago, there was a moment when the business realized that few black people work in the field. The predictable usual followed: meetings, headlines, chest-beating, worried discussions about institutional racism, resolutions of purpose, and vows to do "outreach." You know the drill.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing to the crisis whatsoever. While it's certainly true that you can spend entire days haunting the trade-book business without seeing a black face, it's also true that this is a business that's populated by people who are about as well-meaning and sweetly soft-leftish as can be imagined. Racism of the traditional sort is not only not to be found, it's one of the business' handful of rally-around-it political causes. In the trade-books biz, "Racism is Evil and Must Be Fought" is not a hard sentiment to get people nodding in eager agreement with.

Yet for months the business lashed its back and issued calls for self-examination. Why? Well, if there are so few black people in the biz, the cause can only be racism, right? And where is this racism to be found? In our hearts! So it must be dug out, 'fessed up to, and purged. Only in that way can the tragic lack of black people in the field be overcome ...

Amused as I was by the spectacle of well-meaning people in the throes of a guilt attack, I was even more amused by the way no one saw fit to make reference to some basic facts -- external, objective things that go a long way towards explaining current conditions.

Call me unimaginative, but I found myself thinking about money. The trade-book biz is not a field anyone goes into expecting to score a big paycheck. Entry-level jobs don't even pay living wages, at least in NYC terms; substantial dough isn't to be seen until the very, very top of the totem pole has been reached. As a consequence, many of the people who work in the middle and lower levels of trade publishing receive financial help from their families.

(Isn't it bizarre, by the way, that the financial help families give their arty grownup kids is never counted when people talk about how much Americans donate to the arts?)

Conclusion? People coming from strata of society that can afford to subsidize their kids for years after college are going to be a strong presence in the books business. And people whose folks are unable to help out in this way are going to be in relatively short supply. Hence the field is full of people from upper and upper-middle-class backgrounds.

I found myself thinking about family expectations -- which are often, after all, big factors in the career choices young people make. Most young people entering the trade-book publishing biz on the editorial side have degrees from fancy colleges; yet these expensively-educated kids now work in a business where they're unlikely to make a ton of dough. What kinds of families tolerate this kind of approach to careers? It's no secret -- I've heard this story from black, Asian, and immigrant friends -- that hustling, still-on-the-rise families have a horror of genteel, idealistic behavior from their kids. Expensive educations have been paid for, and bitter sacrifices have been made -- so financially-rewarding careers are going to be pursued, dammit. Anything that isn't law, medicine, or business is going to be discouraged, if not forbidden.

I found myself wondering not just about blacks in book publishing, but about other races too. Er, ethnicities. Er, population groups. Whatever. Anyway, I found it odd, during this brouhaha, how seldom it was mentioned that Hispanics and Asians are thin on the ground in publishing too. Are they simply not to be worried about? Still, I was curious, so I asked an Asian woman friend who's well-situated at a major publisher why there are so few Asians in the business. She burst into laughter. According to her, she'd had to fight -- and fight furiously -- with her family to let her go into such an impractical field. Her folks wanted her to become a doctor or, at the very least, a scientist. In order to go into the trade-book biz instead, she'd had to instigate and prevail in what she described as a family civil war. She got her way finally only because she has a couple of siblings who took more conventional career routes. It was no mystery to her why the business employs so few Asians.

(Actually, the group that to my eyes is in the most strikingly short supply in the business is straight, white, non-Jewish males. Talk about numbers that don't correspond to the general population!)

I found myself wondering about the way some cultures are more bookcentric than others. In "Immigrant America," Sowell takes note of the fact that, while Italy has a great literature, Italian-Americans are seldom terribly driven in a literary sense. Why? According to Sowell, it helps to understand that most Italian-American immigrants came from the south of Italy. Northern Italians were more likely to be cultured in the urban sense, while southern Italians were often suspicious of Northerners and hence of book-learnin'. An Italian-American buddy of mine has told me about the screaming fights that took place in his working-class family over whether he'd be allowed to pursue a college degree in lit.

African-American culture hasn't been very reading-and-writing-oriented. Those on racism-patrol might want to pause and consider the fact that I learned this from the great Ralph Ellison and the great Albert Murray, both of them black, both of them major writers, and both of them among the brainiest cultural critics America has ever had. Ellison and Murray take the point of view that every culture has its stronger and weaker points. How could this not be true? Where verbal skills go, for instance, American blacks have created rich oral traditions and forms -- storytelling, jokes, preaching, oratory -- but are relative newcomers to written traditions and forms.

(For Ellison and Murray, the fact that American blacks are only now putting together a written literary tradition is exciting; they're upbeat about it. And why not? Look at what African-American writers have to draw on: not just the oratory, folk tales, blues and jazz of their own culture, but also the great Euro and Asian lit traditions too. Which, BTW, is exactly what Ellison and Murray did in their own writing.)

I buy their argument; I'm an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Ellison-Murray team. I also notice that a perfectly sensible conclusion to draw from their argument is that relatively few black kids grow up in bookish families. So why, I find myself wondering, should anyone be surprised to discover that the book business is currently populated by relatively large numbers of Jews -- there are, after all, lots of bookish Jewish families -- and relatively small numbers of black people?

Is this a desirable or undesirable state of affairs? Does anything need to be done about it? And, even if something does need to be done about it, is there anything that realistically can be done about it? All good questions that I'm avoiding for the moment. And happy to admit that my various, woolly musings may or may not be applicable to Pogrebin's NYTimes story about racial diversity and the boards of NYC arts organizations. I don't have the experience to know.

But the story does prompt me to raise three questions. 1) Why should we expect, always and everywhere, proportional racial representation? How nuts are we? 2) Shouldn't we be more cautious about turning to the "racism" explanation than we often are? And 3) Don't we have to give these things some time, after all?

Throwing around accusations of racism and indulging in vast and narcissistic crises of conscience about racial matters may have become a high-rated American entertainment form. But it may also be one that hobbles attempts to engage with actual facts. In a few decades we'll have a black gentry that's been established for several generations; we'll have prosperous Asian and Hispanic families too that have aged and grown willing to let offspring enter frivolous fields. Why don't we put off the moral agonies until then?

Of course, even after the passage of a couple of generations, perfect racial representation is unlikely to prevail in every single field. Why should we expect (or even want) it to? But the future will no doubt be full of surprises. I, for one, suspect that the trade-book publishing biz won't be around in a couple of generations, at least in a form that we'd recognize today. I bet there'll still be plenty of arts boards, though.

posted by Michael at May 25, 2004


There WILL be arts boards. And boards are selected, "constructed" so to speak, and not simply a result of the folks who choose to work for that organization for a living. The fact that employees do not mirror the racial profile of the country might very well have lots of explanations. But Boards...they might want to take a second look. Partly because arts claim to want to be inclusive, and their Boards are one way for them to keep in touch with all the societal constituents that they claim they want to reach. Also, a person of color might be able to illuminate reasons why a given organization's employees aren't more diverse, if they aren't, and then separate out what is inborn---like, your argument about certain fields being financially accessible only to rich kids---vs. those elements which are in fact controllable.

It just seems to me that "Boards" vs. "employees" might be different issues.

Posted by: annette on May 25, 2004 07:50 PM


I agree with you that arts organizations ought to consider diversity in board composition, and generally for the reasons you cite, though I'd *heavily* qualify that statement, as follows.

Trustees are needed in non-profits for complex and conflicting reasons--including, as Pogrebin's article makes clear, money and influence--but one of those reasons relates to the tie between governance and mission. And in that respect, yes, a healthy respect for constituencies, including a respect for, and representatation of, diverse groups, can be a good thing.

That's not what a lot of entities do in practice, however. There's a lot of beancounting, white guilt assuaging and a boiling down of a rich stew of diversity-properly-understood to a couple of simple proxies: more blacks, maybe some more Hispanics, too.

Once you go at the problem ass-backwards in this way, there's no end to the trouble you can get yourself into.

And Michael: in my experience at least, rich people who want be on non-profit boards, especially arts boards, show no outward signs of right-wing drift. I think if they could locate and land appropriate minority board members (interested, connected and, hopefully, wealthy) it would make their day, if not their year. So racism in the traditional sense, or even conservative views, are not in my mind a major cause for the shortage.

It's more what you write about with Sowell: arts are not a first generation choice for college age kids or rich trustee prospects. So there is a built-in shortage that is, strictly speaking, voluntary, and related to the free choices of individuals.

That goes further too: note how the two black-oriented arts boards cited by Pogrebin have done better in recruiting minority board members. Why is that? How much is racism and how much the voluntary choice of prospective members in favor of arts groups with an explicit minority orientation?

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Just that it's worth remarking on, since when white people favor their own, it is immediately branded as racist.


Posted by: fenster moop on May 25, 2004 09:04 PM

You look like you've covered all the stuff I might comment about.

Thomas Sowell says these things so well.

(Ever wonder why Blacks are so rare in the NHL, or so common in the NBA? surely it can't be racism...)

Posted by: steve h on May 26, 2004 12:13 AM

Lack of ponds in the projects?

Posted by: P. Johnson on May 26, 2004 12:58 AM

steve h, the "obvious" answer why there are so few blacks in the NHL--Canadians are more racist than Americans! I need to try that one on my touchy-feely soft-lefty Canadian friends.

Posted by: raymund on May 26, 2004 10:01 AM

It is so obvious that racism has next to nothing to do with the unequal representation of members of different racial groups in different fields of endeavor that it barely merits discussion. The only reason I say next to nothing instead of nothing, is that an individual who enters a field in which few of his "kind" are present may feel some discomfort. But that is hardly evidence of racism.
I came to the conclusion decades ago that the left uses blacks (accusations of racism against blacks) as a kind of battering ram behind which to advance its insane egalitarian agenda. Is it racism that accounts for the fact that a college or university library on a Saturday night is loaded with Asian students, with nary a black (or, for that matter, white) in sight? Or am I a bigot for pointing that out?
Switching gears, it fascinates me that whenever you hear people talking about what constitutes happiness in life, there is general agreement that an important ingredient is a person finding and then doing what he/she loves to do. But do people really believe this? Think of all the families that put immense pressure on their young to go into law or medicine or business, and who would be mortified if their child, who let's say had shown a great love for engines and tinkering with engines, chooses to be an auto mechanic. Clearly this relates to a loss of status for the parents, which trumps the chances for their own childs happiness. I mean, how can parents, seeing that their child has a strong bent in one direction (likes to work with his hands, the arts, etc.) force him into a field he manifestly is unsuited for?! Just wondering.

Posted by: ricpic on May 26, 2004 10:15 AM

"I mean, how can parents, seeing that their child has a strong bent in one direction (likes to work with his hands, the arts, etc.) force him into a field he manifestly is unsuited for?! Just wondering."'s their happiness they're worried about...not his! Although they will tell themselves it's for his sake. I think it happens all the time.

Posted by: annette on May 26, 2004 10:37 AM

"Switching gears, it fascinates me that whenever you hear people talking about what constitutes happiness in life, there is general agreement that an important ingredient is a person finding and then doing what he/she loves to do. But do people really believe this?"

I recently had a similar conversation with my youngest daughter who was a freshman at the local community college here this past year. As a child, she played "ballerina", took dance classes, and in high school, she was a 4-year member and officer of the dance/drill team. She and I discussed the pros and cons of various majors, and she first decided on pediatric nursing with my frequent admonishments about the difficulties in life without money and the safety that comes with large paychecks. We talked about salaries and discussed how the odds were stacked against making big bucks in the dance field; how dancers physically do not have long careers.

For her fine arts credit, she enrolled in African dance. In the evenings, her eyes shone with excitement when discussing the newest movements she was learning. No such animation from her chemistry class lessons. Watching her perform in the spring recital, her passion and her natural talent was very obvious. I have watched her dance over the years, but this time I saw something different, a kind of life "spark". She takes command of the stage, she leads, and she glows with joy when performing. No, she will never make fortunes in the performing arts field, but she will be rewarded in doing something she excels in and cares deeply for.

I have encouraged her to make her own decisions, and come fall, I would bet her major has changed. To be corny and quote a Lee Ann Womack song:

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance.

Sorry, I strayed a little from the topic. Thanks, guys.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 26, 2004 11:20 AM

Annette - The distinction between employees and board members is a good one. Funny to think about too -- what are the board members of a nonprofit arts organization? Employees of a certain kind -- they're paid after all, aren't they? Maybe not, though: what do I know. Interesting to read in the Times article (as well as hear from the one person I know who actually sits on a few such boards) that it's 90% about donating your own money and scaring up donations from friends and connections. I wonder how much influence arts-org boards and boardmembers actually have over the activities of the organization.

Maybe Fenster knows and can enlighten? Do arts boards really set much in the way of arts agendas?

FWIW, I wonder about the "diversity" thing. I mean, why not? On the other hand, it mostly seems like window-dressing and symbolism. Why should every arts-org board be diverse in this sense? Even if the idea of diversity makes your heart melt (mine does a little), isn't there another form of diversity too, which is lots of organizations with lots of different kinds of boards? For instance, I wouldn't expect the board of, say, an Asian-American-novelists organization to be doing its best to be "diverse"; I'd expect it (and probably want it) to be heavily Asian-American.

But that shunts me off onto another track. Still, curious how y'all feel and think about it. It's this: OK, women should be able to have their own organizations. African-Americans should be able to have their own dormitories. Gays should have their own clubs. And it's all being done in the name of "fair's fair." Well, given all this, why shouldn't whites (or, say, Scandinavian-Americans) have their own dorm? Why should we frown at men having their own exclusive clubs? How about an organization exclusively for heterosexuals? Remember all the fuss about women reporters being allowed into the male jocks' locker room? They were being held back, their careers as sports reporters were being crippled, etc. Ok. But if the gal reporters are to be allowed into the male locker rooms, why shouldn't male reporters be allowed in the gal-jocks' locker room?

I'm not advocating any of this, by the way. I'm giggling a bit over something. Obviously, the African-American-dorm thing, and the women's club and the gay organzations -- all that was put together under a particular interpretation of "fair's fair," which was that these groups had been so oppressed that they deserved special privileges, and only via these privileges would fairness be achieved.

What didn't seem to be anticipated by those who crafted these arguments -- though the implications seemed apparent to many other people -- was that time would pass. Doors were being opened, and not just the door to the particular interpretation of fairness that the advocates argued for. Another door being opened was the thought that you and your kind could have your own group, and your group could make demands as a group. Another one: that you could define yourself as a member of a group, and that'd be cool, and it'd give you power.

I mean, wasn't it inevitable that, as time passed and the guilt and fear that was keeping some people silent and cowed evaporated, other people would stand up for their groups too? Some straight white kid is going to stand up at his/her college and say, "Well, if they can have the fun of identifying as a group and have their dorm or club, why can't I and mine do the same thing? After all, fair's fair?"

In other words, the people who played the identity-politics card were kinda asking for it, no? I can't see how the strategy couldn't blow up in their faces.

But I'm rambling. Still curious to hear others' musings about these topics though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2004 11:25 AM

Why would parents dissuade a child from going into the arts? How about this -- for every frustrated artist in business, there is an embittered one who tried and didn't get very far.

One of my childhood friends was a piano prodigy in Asia with quite a bit of success. He made it to one of the elite American music academies where he did fairly well. He won lots of smaller competitions but only 2nds or 3rds in the majors. Now in middle age, he curses his decision to go into music.

Maybe he should have smelled the coffee earlier, but it's not crazy of parents to believe that they are more likely to have a longer view than an adolescent who is enamored of dance, or piano, or acting.

Posted by: noh on May 26, 2004 12:10 PM


While corporate board members are compensated--some quite nicely--non-profit board members are not. Maybe a per diem, travel, etc. It's done for love. Makes sense too when you consider most who join expect to dish out money to the organization rather than take it in. In fact, a fair number of organizations have clear expectations, sometimes formal in nature, as to what board members are expected to tithe annually.

You raise a passel of other questions, too, about theme dorms, why whites are racist when they appear to prefer each other's kind but not blacks or gays, etc.

That's a good one for Steve Sailer to handle!

Myself, I am by inclination integrationist. That is, I tend to think culture ought to gently schmoosh together rather than tear apart. It just might be a temperament thing: some people, faced with a set of blocks, want to put them together, while others, faced with a radio, want to disassembke it and exult in the pieces.

I am reminded constantly when I read Sailer that, in such matters, one's temperament ought not be taken for the Good. There are sound biological reasons why people affiliate and identify in the ways they do (didn't you link to Sailer's recent piece on nepotism?), and you can't make these urges disappear with a wave of the hand, a judge's edict or a well-written essay. As Sailer points out, that slides all too easily into what Pinker calls the "moralistic fallacy."

But the moralistic fallacy is a play on words, alluding the its opposite number, the naturalistic fallacy. Both principles are true, I think: it is a mistake to ignore biology in favor or the world you would like, but it's a mistake to assume that the only correct world is the one biology seems to suggest.


Posted by: fenster moop on May 26, 2004 01:02 PM

Know nothing about art boards and not going to attempt to suggest any "diversity" policy (or non-policy)tips there.
The problem with politically correct makeup affects me in a different area: college financial aid. After got hit (and beleive me, it was quite an impact) with bill from our college of choice, my family spent last month trying to apply to max number of scholarships in hope to ease the burden.

What I've found out: in order to get his tuition paid by the third party, my son should be Native-American Lesbian Army/Navy veteran marathon runner who wrote an excellent essay on the topic "How Higher Education in African Studies will help me build small-village communities in rural areas of Iceland".

And since he's still white heterosexual Jewish-American citizen of Russian extraction, we'll have to second-mortgage the house, empty our saving accounts and force him to get into the work-study program (instead of learning, which I thought what the college was for)just to get him thru the first year.

And you ask, why not let the kids to go into an arty low-paying field? Eugene is great with digital camera, he's a photo-editor of his school newspaper and designated sports photo-journalist; but to push him into that field with student loans piling up - I have to be insane.

Just for fun, Michael and Co, go here pretend you're entering college of your choice, enter your data and try to get as many scholarships as you can.
Out of advertised "24mln scholarships worth over 14 bln dollars" my son was eligible for 8.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 26, 2004 01:55 PM

This discussion is being carried out at a fairly shallow level.

A priori, we don't know whether a field (or profession or industry)'s skewed demographic makeup is that way due to current prejudice, historical prejudice, historical freely made choices, current freely made choices or any number of other things. Any combination of those things is possible (even likely), so having the discussion and investigation, which Michael poo-pooed, is not only positive, but critical. Without that investigation, people end up babbling pablum like "Y group doesn't like to read" (yeah, right, sure, and your expertise on Yian literature comes from where, precisely?).

Then, too, we have to mention that simply because the people currently in a profession, field or industry aren't virulent racists, doesn't mean that historical racism (sexism, etc) doesn't have a powerful hidden influence. Let's say that Prestige Press currently likes to hire graduates from, say, Harvard. There are many potential reasons why this is so. But we notice that Prestige Publishing does not actively recruit from Howard or Fisk. Why? Part of the reason is likely to be historical racism - in 1920 or 1950, Prestige Press simply couldn't hire from Howard. Now we're in 2004 and Prestige still doesn't recruit actively at Howard, decades after they could have. It's more likely that Prestige isn't recruiting at Howard simply because Prestige has no history of doing so rather than any current racism. But the effects of the past racism are possibly directly contributing to the current demographic skew.

It's quite possible that Fisk students (unlike Harvard students) for their own good reasons respond comparatively less enthusiastically to publishing. It's also possible that the fact that Prestige Press has never recruited there is also a factor. It's misleading to try to disentagle all these countervailing influences with a flippant "Publishing don't bring in the bling bling and that's why blacks don't work in publishing". University-educated African-Americans work in lots of professions, some seemingly even less well-paid than publishing. Of course, I personally have no idea IF African-Americans ARE actually under-represented in publishing to begin with (I would suppose they are, but having no personal knowledge, I'm talking out of my ass too..........). African-americans may be scarce at Simon & Schuster and not so scarce outside of those circles - I would assume that they're not scarce at all at a nice publishing house focused on African-American literature.

To determine this type of thing takes real work, not hand waving and suppositions.

Posted by: burritoboy on May 26, 2004 05:03 PM

Looks like future opinions will have to await some serious empirical analysis.

Posted by: fenster moop on May 26, 2004 05:53 PM

Fenster -- Thanks for info and thoughts. Like you, I suspect temperament has a lot more to do with these things than is generally recognized. Question? To what extent should the law take temperament into account?

Tatyana -- Time to change ethnicities! I guess yours is out of fashion this week.

Burritoboy -- I guess there's no chance that what much of the discussion here represents is a well-thought-out response to the kind of "deep" thinking your comment represents, is there?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2004 06:50 PM


Uh, no, actually. I see a lot of hand-waving, some vague references to Thomas Sowell, and semi-related but actually off-topic comments. No one elicted a single new fact. More than one poster decided to indulge in a mini- "Minute of Hate" against affirmative action. Ok, everybody's free to say their piece, but I wouldn't call it exactly penetrating.

Here's some more "deep" criticism:

"Throwing around accusations of racism and indulging in vast and narcissistic crises of conscience about racial matters may have become a high-rated American entertainment form. But it may also be one that hobbles attempts to engage with actual facts."

But you didn't engage with actual facts either. You threw out a hypothesis that everybody else latched onto, not because it was supported by anything, but because it fit more pleasantly into their own preconceptions. Sure, has racial concern many times turned into mental masturbation? Absolutely. On the other hand, the mental masturbation probably usually doesn't seriously damage those it was supposed to help (in this case, African-Americans), while - IF it IS true that racism of some form is skewing the demographics of publishing - then mitigating that racism might help African-Americans in real, tangible ways in the near future.

"In a few decades we'll have a black gentry that's been established for several generations; we'll have prosperous Asian and Hispanic families too that have aged and grown willing to let offspring enter frivolous fields. Why don't we put off the moral agonies until then?"

I'm sure YOU (and I) can wait a few decades to see whether your hypothesis is right. If it's not, hey, it's no skin off your nose. Meanwhile, somebody else might have had their entire career aspirations shot completely while your experiment runs. What if you're wrong? Should we wait 40 years before EVEN investigating the possibility?

"And 3) Don't we have to give these things some time, after all?"

Easy. Because, if racism IS a factor, there are people whose aspirations are being destroyed today, right now, because of it. We're just going to grind their dreams into dust through negligence because it would be more pleasant for US to wait?

"2) Shouldn't we be more cautious about turning to the "racism" explanation than we often are?"

No, what we should be cautious about is shallow, flip explanations of all kinds (which include "Publishing don't bring in the bling bling and all the blacks/Hispanics/Asians want the bling bling" just as much as "Publishing whiteys always keeping the black editors down!").

Posted by: burritoboy on May 26, 2004 07:55 PM

Tatyana, as I'll be a university freshman returning to school after a 15 year absence, I did the scholarship profile thingie you linked (it's one I hadn't seen yet). As a white male, returning student, married, bisexual, non-immigrant, ethnic Euro-mutt, lower class, high SAT score, entrepreneurial math/physics student with a parent who died of cancer (the most memorable attributes it wanted to know about), I get 14 hits total, most of which I'd seen already elsewhere, very few of which I actually have any chance in Hell of getting.

It wasn't much better 15 years ago when I went to college the first time, but now I don't have to worry about Mommy and step-Daddy's high income fouling up my 'need based' financial aid. But there weren't any scholarships for me last time around either.

On the other hand, a very good friend of mine who went back to school last year (a 27 year old freshman, white, mechanical engineering student) got, unsolicited, out of the blue, a 2 grand scholarship from a local endowment for "non-liberal arts students", which are handed out at the Dean of his depts. discretion. The very wealthy past holders of the Coke bottling franchise here in Tucson established it when they sold their license to give a boost up to local community college students who were studying something 'real', to counterbalance the preponderance of scholarships for all those other fun groups that the average science/engineering/machine-shop student just can't get in the door for.

burritoboy's acusation of a lack of rigor isn't really germane in my mind, as this is a freakin' blog comment section, not a peer-reviewed journal. What're we supposed to do, defer this entire topic to number crunching bureaucrats, most likely measuring the wrong things, and squishy social 'science' professors who have a guilt-driven axe to grind?

I don't think that the family pressues Michael and others mention can be discounted, and are in my experience a MAJOR reason for lots of skew from the ethnic mix of the general populace in many fields. I grew up in a neighborhood that was very heavily populated by 1st generation immigrants from all over, and any of their kids who wanted to go into arts of any kind most certainly got read the riot act, if not completely out of the family will.

My personal experience with charges of various '-isms' for lack of diversity was with a consulting company I founded 5 years ago. After it died a couple years later, one of my higher level employees slammed me with a tirade about how I was evil for only having women working in low level jobs (admin and cleaning), and not having any non-white employees aside from the Hispanic woman who did our books. I asked him how many freakin' resumes I'd gotten for technical jobs from non-white, non-male applicants. He replied with the truth, zero. He couldn't give me any advice for what I should have done, only that I was an evil capitalist for them not magically falling in my lap. Heh, with WHAT recruiting budget, at an under-capitalized startup?

Why the hell is it my fault if I don't get 'diverse' applicants? I would have GLADLY hired any minorities with the right skills, but none of them even without them applied. And we got un-solicited resumes ALL THE TIME. It was damn near the only thing the fax machine was good for.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 26, 2004 07:57 PM

Burritoboy -- Seems to me you're dismissing a lot of on-the-ground personal experience rather cavalierly. Shrug aside Fenster and Tatyana and David Mercer if you want to; shrug aside my 15 years of following the publishing biz. But on what basis do you disqualify what we've all said as factual? If you were to cite personal experience in a comment of yours, would it be OK for us to dismiss it as "hand-waving," and as nonfactual?

Seems to me too that you're making a lot of assumptions.

* One's that, until proven otherwise, "racism" ought to be held to be responsible for all ethnic-ratio oddities. That's quite a presumption to make, as well as one that many of us are challenging. Why shouldn't it be up to you (or whoever) to prove racism in the face of all other factors instead? An example: one of the most striking things about the ethnic/gender-ish makeup of the editorial side of the trade book biz is the lack of straight white males. (I'd be surprised if more than 20% of the people in the biz are SWMs.) Given your prefs, would it be OK for us to assume that, until someone proves (with tons of studies, I guess) otherwise, this is because straight white males are being discriminated against?

* Two's that it's possible to measure, sift and sort these matters in a truly objective way. How do you propose measuring the influence of, say, a given culture's bookcentricity, let alone putting a number to it? And to whom do you feel confident giving this responsibility? Yet it's certainly true that there are a lot of Jews from bookcentric families in the publishing biz. (Question: what's wrong with that? And why should we worry about it?) If we're going to talk about the ethnic composition of the publishing biz, the bookcentricity of people's backgrounds is a nontrivial factor that demands to be taken into account. Yet how to do so objectively and numerically? To whom do you give this responsibility? And how to make these decisions in a way that guarantees that the people behind the study aren't imposing their own biases on the results?

You're assuming that something urgent is wrong; you're assuming that this can be measured objectively; you're assuming that something urgently needs to be done about this wrong; and you're assuming that there is some agency somewhere that is capable of righting that wrong in a fair and efficient fashion. You're also maintaining that, until definitive proof is given to the contrary, we ought to proceed as though all your assumptions are true. That's a pretty audacious position to take, let alone to expect anyone else to get on board with.

I wish I lived in such a cut-and-dried world myself. But, I dunno, life as I've found it seems more complicated, if not "deeper."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2004 08:24 PM

First generation African-American immigrants do not do worse than the national average, academically while African-Americans as a whole, do. Of course, that's not a proof that there is no racism involved (and such a proof would, I suspect, be impossible), but it is evidence that there are differences in success caused by cultural differences, or, by genetic differences, due to selection bias in the immigrant population.

If you're not willing to accept personal experience as fact, isn't it a bit much to expect to expect new "facts" i.e. a new study that proves or disproves the existence of racism, on an internet message board? Such a study must be at least somewhat difficult to design, since it has not already been done. If I'm wrong, then please, point me towards the relevant journal article. Even if someone reading the article conceived of such a study while reading the initial post, it would probably be difficult for them to complete the study within a day.

Posted by: di on May 27, 2004 12:43 AM

Back to burritoboy's complaint about this conversation being flip and not grounded in the facts--

I don't object to the idea that burritoboy, or anyone else, should toss this kind of complaint into the mix and see how people deal with it. When people of generally like mind converse, there is always a tendency toward insular thinking and even bias, so it's good to request a self-audit.

I myself perform this function with some regularity at the college where I work, given the relatively rigid set of beliefs that pass (without even a wave of the hand) as conventional wisdom on campus. Now, I think the conversation at 2Blowhards is a lot more self-critical than what I find on campus but nonetheless: one cheer for burritoboy!

Now to an actual response to burritoboy.

African-Americans comprise about 4% of the student body at art and design schools in the US. Further, they comprise less than 1.5% of faculty.

Most of these schools are relatively non-selective, so it's hard to imagine the lack of numbers is a matter of institutional racism. And the idea that it would be a function of actual racism is laughable--most admissions officers bend over backwards to get the numbers up. The faculty numbers are even more telling. You could argue that the low percentage here is also a matter of institutional racism, and if you want to really, really, really water down the definition of institutional racism you might have a point. That is, it is possible that a given black prospective faculty member might tilt away from art toward some other field due to lurking biases in the way art is studied.

But the numbers are so low, especially the faculty number, that I still find it more credible to attribute a bigger portion of the gap to different choices made by different ethnic groups, depending on the mix of cultural values and the social situation facing each.

I hope that's a little more empirical at any rate. I still could be wrong, but there are some numbers anyway. Got a better argument?

Posted by: fenster moop on May 27, 2004 11:32 AM

Fenster makes good points, and I apologize for my testy tone in my previous comment.

Let me add another couple of examples to Fenster's.

I work in an arty branch of the mediabiz that's inhabited by "progressive" people who do much active diversity outreach. It's a world that's become very feminized in the last 30 years, and more-gay-than-the-average in the last 10. But there are still rather few blacks in it, and almost no Latinos. We're not exactly aswarm in Asians either, though there are a few around. Yet this ethnic/gender balance exists despite lots and lots of active outreach. Any suggestion that "racism" plays a role in this state of affairs can't be a reference to the people who actually work in this world. So, if you're determined to stick with "racism" as an explanation, you've got to crank it back a level or two, to bad educations, or lousy local libraries, or maybe the Civil War, or whatever. But it really has got nothing whatever to do with the people currently in the business. They've made wildly generous attempts to find black and Latino employees. Qualified candidates just aren't there these days in anything but tiny numbers.

Another example: I helped put out a small, edgy media thing some years ago, and made it a point myself to do my best to chase down some nonwhite, nonmale contributors. (I'd had enough with brainy white dudes.) But I had very little luck. Most Black, Latino and Asian talent simply didn't seem interested at the time in going into the low end of the media field. Knowing what I do about the field, I can't blame them, to be honest.

BTW, and FWIW: I ran into something else I found interesting, which was a distinction between guys 'n' gals. This was an edgy mediathing that paid very little money -- a showcase for bravura young talents eager to make an impact, in other words. And I found very few women who fit the bill. I found a lot of women who were smart, capable and responsible, more so than guys. But I found almost none who had the kind of wildass risktaking bravado we were selling. (Given our tiny budget, we certainly couldn't compete by selling "solid and responsible.") Again, this was a situation where active efforts were being made to drum up ethnic and sexual diversity.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2004 01:46 PM

David Mercer,
I don't see that your "scholarship test" proved me substantially wrong in my impressions. What it shows in your case as well as my son's - you're still not "underappreciated minority" enough to get help with tuition bill. One clarification, though: you said 15 yrs ago your "need-based" financial aid was screwed by your wealthy parents income. Financial aid that colleges provide (grants, loans and college scholarships) is different from private scholarships I was talking about: private scholarships are not based on need but aimed at diverse groups, where eligibility for application described by grantees, and as such it is relevant to current discussion. IMO.

fenster moop: what you say makes sense, at least in my experience as former design major at FIT. We had only one black women in my class, who was constantly helped along the way by faculty and students to the extend of special asignments, different from the rest of the class. She didn't graduate as designer, I heard she transfered to the business division. On the other hand, I had extremely well-organized black professor in Design-300, whom I admire and try to imitate hence. He showed us slides of his work, and as much as I liked some of them, I noticed many had obsessive "Protest the Racism" theme (mural at some Southern airport, community center in African country - sorry, don't remember which one). When asked (with compassion, by students) if this topic has personal history with him, he replied - not really, that was his tactic to get the commission - and he won the bids every time.
Writing this, I recall that he also founded organisation dedicated to promotion of black students in the design field; have no idea how that turned out. He organised public presentation of our final course project in top architectural company (Switzer Group), led by a black architect, and that was the most down-to-earth, helpful, practical and non-threatening critique session in my design years at FIT.

My conclusion - if only overblown social constructs were put aside and people were judged on the merit in their field of expertise, lots of bitterness and unfairness will simply disappear.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 27, 2004 02:50 PM

Did I skim the comments to quickly? Am I alone? The only one who has served on boards or been wrangled for board and committee duty? Been dragged off to facilitate discussions at a pricy retreat?

Board members should have money, or at the very least the ear of those who do. (There are also letterhead board members – prominent types who agree to have their name on the org’s stationary and brochures in exchange for never have to do anything for the org.)

NYC boards are not like boards in the dirty South or the Pacific Northwest. One must be the son of the son of sailor to play their reindeer games. NYC boards are very competitive. And M. Blowhard is spot on about the hypocrisy. Board members spend hours and hours going on and on about diversity this and covert racism that and the power of the arts to show the value of all cultures and mission blah blah blah – and yet these well-meaning, high-minded folks do not seem to know any non-white people.

NYC is the only place I've seen this pattern of very white people spending a great deal of time and energy talking about promoting the arts for non-white people. L.A. may be the same. (I’ve just realized that not one of my Hollywood friends does anything volunteerwise. A creepy development? Or just an odd sample??)

Politically, board members I have known were most likely, by quite a margin, to be lefty … perhaps with libertarian leanings. At least that’s how they talk it.

From my seat at various pricy retreats (or lavishly catered round tables), it does seem logical to put on a show for the folks who can endow – they’re used to having a good feed, after all. Nonetheless, there is a bit of a disconnect when the topic is summer lunch and arts programs for the kiddies and how will we find the funds when the obvious answer is maybe don’t spend so freakin’ much on our little get-togethers.

I see no reason for perfect racial representation in every field. This does not make it easier to deal with people who make great speeches about equality and diversity and yet do little or nothing to have those grand values in their day to day lives.

If it helps, I feel the same way about liberal nitwits who complain loudly and long about greedy conservatives and yet perform no good works and write no write-off checks for the unfortunate.

Let's hope there will be art boards in the future - this is a bad time. Lot of groups are folding or merging or scaling way back.

Posted by: j.c. on May 28, 2004 12:14 AM

Tatyana: I'm very familiar with all of the types of aid; my result on the scholarship thing you posted WAS meant to be in furtherance of your point: That I'm not ethnic, or gay, or crippled enough for all those scholarships.

j.c.: I've got a few relatives in Hollywood, and they only seem to participate in volunteering for charities and suchnot if/when it can help their career, either with media exposure or connections.
For instance, my aunt used to (still? not sure, I avoid these people, they're insane!) be in charge of the Larry King Heart Foundation annual benefit lunch. Were she not trying to get folks to look at her scripts, I very much doubt she's give a damn.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 1, 2004 05:19 PM

lots of well meaning discussion, but no one mentions the reason for the disparities: IQ.

Posted by: gc_emeritus on June 5, 2004 05:52 AM

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