Fighting discrimination

By Sean Carroll | November 11, 2005 12:31 pm

This feisty blog has occasionally talked about issues of discrimination against minority-group members and women, in science, or in academia, or just more broadly. We have also, one must admit, occasionally taken the Bush administration to task for this or that example of egregious malfeasance. Thus, rigorously fair folks that we are, it’s only right that we also mention those instances when the administration takes time off from its busy schedule of intelligence-doctoring, operative-outing, deficit-growing, and hurricane-ignoring to actively fight the pernicious effects of discrimination.

So, here we go: the Justice Department is going to sue Southern Illinois University for discriminating against white males.

No, you can’t make this stuff up. SIU, like almost every university in the country, is seriously under-represented by minority groups among its graduate students; out of 5,500 graduate students, only about 8 percent are Latino or African-American (compared to over 20 percent of Americans). So they have a few fellowship programs that specifically target women and minorities, and help out a tiny number of people — perhaps 40 per year. The Bush administration, tireless warriors for social justice that they are, will stop at nothing to squelch this manifest anti-white bias:

“The University has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” says a Justice Department letter sent to the university last week and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The letter demands the university cease the fellowship programs, or the department’s civil rights division will sue SIU by Nov. 18.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to discriminate against someone, I would be able to do a much better job than that. You know, like actually having fewer members of the discriminated class at my university than in the surrounding society, rather than significantly more.

Sadly, this is an issue that (even) scientists don’t always think very clearly about. There is a feeling in some circles that perfect fairness consists of taking the tiny part of society’s workings over which you have control, and pretending within that part that there is no such thing as race or gender, everyone should be treated equally. But in the real world, where we are not all born into equal circumstances and presented with equal opportunities, it makes perfect sense to recognize that and account for it when we recruit and train students.

Of course, people will complain that singling out minority-group status forces us to treat people according to some external characteristics rather than as individuals, and amounts to an insidious form of reverse racism, ultimately hurting the people it tries to help. This philosophically appealing position has the downside of being in flagrant contradiction with the evidence. Although it’s true that programs typically aim (small amounts of) resources at people because of minority-group status rather than a detailed understanding of their personal history in overcoming obstacles, the fact is that this clumsy strategy actually works. People gain access to education and training that they otherwise would not, and the result is that the pool of highly-educated and successful people grows more diverse, which helps both the people in those groups and the society as a whole. As crude as it is, the strategy of targeting fellowships at under-represented groups is both cheap and effective.

Deep down, nobody likes affirmative-action type programs. Nobody. We would all much prefer it if universities and other employers could truly ignore the race or gender of applicants and workers, because they were treated completely fairly throughout all of society. But that’s just not reality. And until it is, making a tiny little effort to help out people who have faced systematic bias throughout their lives — even if the efforts are clumsy and imprecise — is the least we can do.

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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