Friday, April 3, 2015

The Pernicious Problem of [fill in the blank] Discrimination

Think you're being discriminated against?  Of course you are. More observations and confessions of a TV news director.

Syndicated Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus assures us she is the victim of gender discrimination.  How does she know?  During an annual evaluation, a supervisor once accused her of having “sharp elbows.”  Well, could the sexism be any more obvious?  What, you don’t see it?  I’ll bet many of you do, but for those who don’t, stand by.

I know I was not alone in thinking, until about last summer, that race relations in this country were improving.  Then Ferguson exploded.  You can debate the merits of the shooting case but you can’t deny the anger on the streets.  Obviously something is going on, and it’s been going on invisibly to some of us.  How could we have been so blind?

I’ve been struggling with this, trying to wrap my brain around how we got to this point and what small role that I, as a radio commentator, can play in doing something about it.  As I’m sure happened all over America, a vigorous discussion about this broke out in my social media circle.  My liberal progressive friends, many of whom are white, assured me that whites were the problem.  Caucasians are benefiting from a thing called “white privilege.”  And some of these progressives told me that unless I was willing to man the barricades and demand the removal of this alleged privilege, then I was part of the problem.  One sent me a tract assuring me that the burning buildings in Ferguson represented not a riot, but rather a “justified rebellion.”  Apparently such soldiers for social justice need a lot of beer and cigarettes, judging from the looting videos.  No one actually came out and said that if I and other whites didn’t join the movement we’d be racist, but that was their point.  If you are white, then just by sitting there, you are oppressing people.

I had a hard time accepting that.  But recent events have finally crystallized the situation for me.  I came to a cathartic realization, and it is this:  We have become a nation of victims.  All of us.  

Yes, everyone.  Every man, woman, and child in this country has, and will continue, to experience discrimination.  Get a sheet of paper.  Draw an underlined blank.  Fill it in with your age, gender, sexual orientation, race, national origin, religion, weight, or whatever else you’d like.  Now add the word “discrimination,” and there you go.  That summarizes your life, or at least flavors it.

No group is immune.  No, not even white people.  We’ll get to you in a moment.  Yes, of course, some of us experience more discrimination than others—in many cases, much more.  But no one is free from its shadow.

Let’s start with the Marcus column.  She says when she first heard the “sharp elbows” criticism on an employee evaluation (which are, themselves, soul-defeating, morale-crushing, life-sucking exercises in on-the-job cruelty and counter-productivity, but that’s another bloviation for another day), she thought it was unfair, but she tried her best to change her behavior.  “It wasn’t until years later,” she writes, “that it occurred to me how much this critique had to do with gender.”

How does she now know that the comment was sexist?  Because supervisors told Ellen Pao the same thing.  Pao sued in a now-famous sex discrimination case.  She lost, mind you, but she proved her case to Marcus, who points out that one other colleague who was also criticized for aggression wound up being promoted to partner.  Well, there you go.  I know nothing about the other relative merits of the two individuals in question (and if Marcus did she didn’t say so), but if this isn’t sexual discrimination then I don’t know what is.  And now you know:  “sharp elbows” is a code term for behavior that’s unacceptable only if exhibited by a woman.

You can tell by my tone that I don’t believe she’s right, but my point is that I can’t prove she’s wrong.  If nothing else, her feelings show how assumptions about various fill-in-the-blank “isms” grow up like vines and proceed to entangle and choke our society.  It would be surprising only if such suspicions were not so rampant.  Our country practiced out-in-the-open in-your-face discrimination for so long that it’s easy to believe it hasn’t ended, but only gone underground.  Any perceived disappointment can get framed, in the mind of the disappointee, as discrimination.  And who’s to prove it’s not?  This creates a paranoia-inducing environment.  And to paraphrase Joseph Heller and others, just because youre paranoid, it doesn't mean youre wrong.

The same week Marcus’ column came out, another headline caught my eye.  This one was on CNN, and it involved the promotion of Trevor Noah to replace John Stewart on The Daily Show as one of the most followed voices in America.  Noah is biracial; a lot of people considered the promotion to be a huge step forward for diversity.  CNN’s headline blared, “ ‘The Daily Show’ missed an opportunity.”  What?  Yeah.  Author Gene Seymour lamented that Comedy Central had a chance to put a woman in the role, and blew it.  Interestingly—and this is my point—the author threw out the names of three women the channel could have promoted, but did not attempt to compare the merits of their talent against Noah’s. 

You see, it was not about who Comedy Central picked.  It was about what.  In that scenario, everyone experiences discrimination.

Don’t think so?  I have a news flash for you.  Especially when it comes to talent decisions, which are intensely subjective in nature, discrimination is not so underground as you might think.  As a TV news director, I worked hard to build diverse staffs and to do it fairly.  In yakking with recruiters, often I would get asked this question:  “What are you looking for?”  Notice the word:  what.  My answer was always the same:  “Good talent, and of course diversity is a plus," and I would leave it at that.  But take it from me, conversations that result in hiring managers putting in a recruiting order for candidates of x gender and y ethnicity and z whatever else do happen.  They are, in fact, entirely routine.  And don’t think that if you’re a minority, this will always or even often benefit you.  You may not be the right minority.

Here’s another news flash for you:  even the word discrimination is discriminatory.  The commonly understood definition of discrimination is that it’s an act perpetrated on minorities by white people—usually, white males.  Every now and then a white person will raise a hand and say he or she is experiencing discrimination.  But even if true, you can’t call it discrimination, because it doesn’t fit the definition.  You have to call it something else, and society does:  reverse discrimination. 

And don’t for a minute make the mistake of thinking it’s the same thing.  One of the issues in our culture today (I don’t call it a problem—I leave that to you to decide) is that society and the media do not react the same way to race-based criticisms directed against whites.  A recent case out of my state shows this principle in action.  Perhaps you’ve heard about an Arizona State University course called “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness.”  Whiteness is a problem?  Apparently.  After Fox News outed the program, the university issued statements intended to assure everyone that nothing improper was going on.  But if you dig down into the latest Arizona Republic article about the course, what you find is that “the problem of whiteness” really means the problem of privilegewhich, of course, would be a problem if all whites, and only whites, had it.  The course is about helping students understand and accept the pervasive reality of white privilege and ally themselves with blacks (which was the only other race mentioned in the article) to fight it, starting with white professors repenting their own sins.

Now, perhaps you have no objection to the idea that, indeed, whiteness does present a problem.  A lot of  people don’t; the reason the Republic ran this update at all is that white extremists have begun sending hate mail to the professor (thereby, of course, proving the point that whites are a problem).  But can you imagine a college class criticizing African-Americans, and doing so under the course title “The Problem of Blackness”?  Maybe you can.  If you have a problem with neither title, or with both, then I salute you; you do not operate under a double standard.  But of the two course titles I just mentioned, which one do you think would be most likely to dominate the news headlines every single day until outraged critics succeeded in beating the university down?   Hint:  the former certainly has not had that effect.

So where does all this leave us?  The currently accepted narrative—it’s seldom spoken aloud but it definitely guides the agendas of certain politicians and journalists—is this:  If you’re a minority or woman who’s reached a measure of success in life, then congratulations, somehow you found a way to defeat a system designed to keep you down.  If you’re a minority who hasn’t succeeded, well, need I say more?  You are a victim.  If you’re a white male who’s succeeded, you did it through white privilege and should be ashamed of yourself.  If you’re a white male who hasn’t succeeded—what kind of loser are you that you couldn’t make it with all that going for you?  And absolutely everyone now has to worry they may not be “what” hiring managers are looking for in recruiting for that next job or promotion opportunity.

Starbucks was right a few weeks ago when its executives said we need to have “uncomfortable conversions” about race.  Of course, the program blew up when it quickly became obvious that the company had a specific political agenda, thereby flavoring the “conversation” with indoctrination.  But the point remains.  We do need to talk about this.  If only we had the leadership in place to make it happen.  We don’t.  What we have now are platitudes and strident voices, punctuated by the occasional angry demonstration, burning building or fatal exchange of gunfire. 

We have these things this because those are the behaviors we have chosen to reward.  Angry politicians attract angry followers, leading to political clout.  Loud demonstrations and burning buildings get news coverage, thereby commanding the nation’s attention.  Mind you, meetings do take place where people sit down, talk, shake hands and reach agreements, but those tend not to get covered.  Why?  Their lack of outrage kills them.  Video of a bunch of people sitting around is boring; quite literally, it’s known in the TV biz as a “BOPSA” and news producers embrace such stories like a tax audit.  Only items that fit within the parameters of the media’s Outrage Industry can be guaranteed to grab the headlines and stay there.

Weve come a long way, but we can do better.  And we must.  But how?

Part of the journey will be individual.  We must all put aside our victimhood.  Just refuse to accept it.  Do what you have to do and deal with what you have to deal in a spirit of fairness, equality, and—yes, I have to say it—brotherhood and sisterhood.  As Americans we used to have affection for one another, or at least it seems that way to me.  I refuse to believe it’s so far gone as to be irretrievable. 

Part of the journey will have to be societal.  I wish I had an answer as to how we’ll pull that one off.  I don’t see any leaders on the horizon who are showing any real willingness, or talent, for inspiring anything other than divisiveness.  However, I do know what the country will look like if we ever get there.  As I think someone once suggested, each of us will be judged by the content of our character, not by whatever box we check on a census form.  In fact, it could be that we’ll know we’ve arrived when those checkboxes disappear. 

Imagine a future where, if someone were to get stopped or arrested, no one would have to suspect anything other than a fair and just reason.  If someone were to suffer an on-the-job setback, then that person could be confident it was just a matter of personal performance, and nothing else.  And if someone were to get a nice promotion, we would all celebrate that person’s good fortune—and not lament that the hiring managers had missed an opportunity.


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Curious about how the news business got where it is?  Worried about what the future might hold if current trends continue?  Check out my book page on my website at and find out why Kirkus Reviews recently named me as an "Author to Watch."

And you can find more bloviations about politics here.

© 2015 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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