Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Discrimination: Discrimination seems to be in the news a lot lately, what with Dr. Rice's appointment and the recent lawsuit settlement against Abercrombie & Fitch.

I've always been sort of skeptical about discrimination. Only twice in my life has my boss ever been a white man. Every other person I've ever had to answer to has been a woman, a minority, or both.

But every time I want to say racism is dead and buried, I encounter it again. I recently overheard a couple of white kids in "thug" attire mocking a black woman at an ATM who had asked them to step back a little while she finished her transaction. Though they were polite to her face, once she walked off they muttered about how insane her request was.

"It's not like we're the n----rs."

I was shocked. I've never really been around that attitude. Even in a high school as racially charged as mine was, I was in mostly advanced classes, so every everybody I knew or was friends with, of all races, were intelligent, witty, clever kids who were as nice as anybody you'd want to meet. If any of them were racist or held racist attitudes, they had the good sense to keep it to themselves.

But I know that racism is real, and that it's ugly, and that even though it isn't the 1960's anymore, ignorance is still alive and well.

But there's a catch-22 in trying to enforce non-discrimination laws. Since all the law can do is change behavior, and not actually modify beliefs, what did these kids in this lawsuit win? The right to work for someone who wants to oppress them? Why is that something they would even want to win?

I had friends deal with some degree of this as a kid. When they'd try to get into Christian private schools, many would be excluded simply because they were Mormon, and the common idea among Protestants at the time was that Mormons weren't Christians. Ergo, there was no room for them at the inn.

My feeling at the time was, why fight it? If they don't want you, why would you want them?

Groucho Marx is famous for his quip against one club that wanted to exclude him for being Jewish, only to accept him later--"I would never belong to any club that would have me for a member."

The answer to that was, and still is, that people want to work for people who would otherwise oppress them have something to prove. They want to prove that they can be as effective, as profitable, as good an employee as anybody else out there.

I must admit to feeling some of this sentiment myself. On one occasion, I was told by a store manager that having a black employee in their store was a bad idea. "The people in this community will be very uncomfortable with it."

So I deliberately left the employee in the store, hoping that by exposing such a community to a friendly, helpful black girl would go a long way to softening up some attitudes. Did I lose some customers because of it? I sure hope so. I hope I lost every one of them whose support I don't want.

With all of that said, I must say I have a hard time believing in any means of enforcing anti-discrimination law that isn't, in and of itself, discriminatory. People need to be free to hire who they want, for whatever reasons they want.

If you, in your business, want to make it a goal that you're going to help teenagers who are just starting out to get business experience, and so you hire nothing but teenagers, should you be sued for discrimination against the Elderly?

If you, in your business, want to help out little people by giving them work, should the tall be able to sue you?

If you, in your movie, are casting Abraham Lincoln, should little people and women be able to sue for a chance at the role?

By telling any of these people they can't hire who they want, aren't we discriminating against those groups as surely as we're trying to avoid discrimination against anybody else?

Supporters of affirmative action programs would say yes, but that this "reverse discrimination" is carefully targeted to only affect those who traditionally have had it the best off, been given a "free ride," so to speak, up until now. The "free ride" the opponents of affirmative action claim people get with its practice is just a way to equal the playing field.

Such is definitely the case with the Abercrombie case. There's no doubt in my mind there was racism there.

There's racism in Hollywood, where they can't let an actor like Jackie Chan or Will Smith open a movie by themselves, unless it's an "ethnic" movie--they always have to pair them with a "popular" white actor or actress(although I, Robot and Ray should both go a long way to changing some minds on this).

Well, in the end, I still say power to them. Let the ignorant run their companies in ignorance. Let them limit themselves and their possibilities, so that I can be as free as I need to be to offer whatever help I can.

And I'll keep supporting every means that teaches every man, woman, and child how to succeed, so that not even the ignorant can stand in their way.

And thank you, Dr. Rice, for proving it can be done.

No comments: