Say yes to affirmative action (s03e11)

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[00:00:00] Chris Hartgerink: Hi, and welcome to another episode of the Open Update.

For Liberate Science. I'm Chris Hartgerink, joined by my co-host Sarahanne Field.

[00:00:08] Sarahanne Field: Hi there.

[00:00:09] Chris Hartgerink: And as always, in the open update, we talk about power imbalances in research and the societies we live in, to better understand and imagine alternatives. So thanks for joining us on this journey.

Today specifically, we will talk about affirmative action. This has been a hot topic just in general. You probably have discussed this with family over, over the decades. Just last week, the Supreme Court in the US said university of Harvard and University of North Carolina are no longer allowed to do affirmative action in their selection procedures for new students.

While we are not lawyers, so, we are not gonna dig into the specifics of that case. It is a very interesting development because what happens in the US affects also, other cultures around the world. And we thought it would be very worthwhile to talk about, well, is there a level playing field? Why would we need affirmative action? Or in some countries it's called a positive discrimination. Why would we need this to begin with? Is it creating new forms of discrimination or not?

And we thought we'd have a conversation about this to also share some of our thoughts and to go in a bit deeper, and to Take that news, try and process it, and get us just a few steps down the road, hopefully in the right direction.

So Sarahanne when you hear affirmative action, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

[00:01:40] Sarahanne Field: Basically, affirmative action refers to when we favor certain individuals in policy decision making and that kinda thing, in order to level the playing field.

So in the case of, for example, women in some programs like college admissions, they have got favoritism to some extent when they've been selected in order to make it a little bit even because historically men have performed better in certain selection processes.

What do I think about when I, when I hear affirmative action? Honestly, I have mixed feelings, but they're mostly positive. So, you know, as I just said historically in, you know, relevant for me, males have been favored in terms of getting career benefits, getting selected for certain positions, getting admitted to certain more exclusive programs and that kind of thing.

I would say that affirmative action is a kind of a systematic over steer where we're attempting to write past problems of, of systems that continue by going a little heavier on the other side to sort of even out the playing field. So that, that's sort of my, my predominant feeling. I think it's good.

[00:02:56] Chris Hartgerink: You highlight the aspect of male-woman. There's also the aspect of race over the centuries and whether somebody, was somebody's great, great, great grandparents were slaves or not, and the resources they had back then and ultimately how that affects where you are today.

So this idea of you might have a very small divergence 20 generations ago, but if that difference keeps Increasing over time each generation, then, you know, at some point there's gonna be a huge gap. And we see this, for example, with the wealth that people have. White people overall have way more capital or assets than black people in the US for example. I don't know how it splits out to different countries, but we, we have all of these differences.

If you're in a car and you have under or oversteer, you also need to correct it. Otherwise, you just keep slipping and potentially crash.

In this situation, I think it's very similar where if somebody didn't go to university for six generations and is now the very first one in their family, after all those generations to go, they are not starting at the same point or with the same benefits, whether that's social capital or anything else.

So if you wouldn't over steer in the correct direction or oversteer and have affirmative action, you run the risk of selecting the people who have, you know, benefited so much more over time.

Affirmative action ultimately is very positive because in a way, if we do this, Correctly, if we do this conscientiously and we, then over time, we will need to correct our course less and less. And so I feel like this argument that we start discriminating against white people, for example, or against men, is ultimately, it's a moot point because this is helping us move in the direction where we don't need to consider these dimensions as a factor anymore.

It's also not the case that if you have two students who would get admitted, potentially that there that somebody plays the gender card or somebody plays the race card, that's not at all the case.

There's also a component of, in these specific court cases, that it's simply another point that is evaluated. It's not the overall evaluation. So it also very much depends on how affirmative action is implemented, because yeah, the devil is in the details.

So overall, I personally, I'm happy that this notion, this idea exists.

[00:05:40] Sarahanne Field: I like affirmative action for a long-term vision or a long-term idea.

The history of science has supported gender identity and racial inequity, right? And institutions have allowed this discrimination to continue. Which for, for me, thinking in terms of ethics and responsible research, I'm concerned that this results in a suboptimal or a narrow research agenda because we're just missing out on a bunch of voices that really should be there.

You know, voices of people of color, voices of women, voices of people with different sexual identities. And I think it's really important to sort of make sure that at the very start, starting with, you know, things like education, that those voices are represented heavily in the mix. Because you see attrition, you tend to see that, although, you know, men and, and women tend to be half and half, they tend to be half and half when admission begins. By the time you're at full prof level, it's mostly males, white males. And so you see that attrition. So I think it's really important to make sure that these voices are heavily represented so that when that attrition occurs, you still have a representative proportion of people in that ultimate sample that ends up making it in "all the way."

It's just really important to take care of that research agenda as we go forward. Making sure that, you know, the research we conduct actually genuinely has the interests and priorities of, of all of society, which involves trans people, which involves disabled voices, which involves women, and just making sure those needs are represented.

[00:07:16] Chris Hartgerink: And here also comes a difficult part, right? Like what are the dimensions upon which we determine, okay, we need to have a mechanism to correct to prevent this attrition. Because for a very long time, and I think to this day, most gender-based systems still think in a binary way. Like how frequently I go into a form and I just see it's required and it has to say sir or madam, especially here in Germany, they're super binary that way.

If you don't include anything beyond the binary, then you're not even gonna see it. I don't like using race because race is actually a construct that was created during the era of eugenics, to sort of be able to separate out people and So there's a whole history there.

But then people might say, well, why do we only separate between black, white, and Latinx? Why don't, why is there no category for Middle East, et cetera. So using that point to then say, we can do the, we can make these subdivisions indefinitely, so why should we do it to begin with? And I think the flip side of this is, well, if we don't create these subdivisions and understand whether there's a problem to begin with, then we will not understand whether we need to do something either.

I did read the court case, so I'm referring to some bits and pieces here and there. One of the things that I really liked and I think is a very important thing in a good affirmative action situation or process is that the people making the decisions, About who enters and who doesn't, and sort of the admissions in this scenario.

But in other scenarios, it might be who gets the job or who gets the position, is that the people making those decisions should not know the overall composition of the applicant pool or the pool of selected applicants , the final stages because then you might get indeed this distortion.

Think that's a valid point where a lot of processes fail is that they, you know, in that specific grand scheme, they provide maybe some details on, you know, the current state or how many applicants, like percentage wise, That you should not provide.

But at the very end to provide the system level's perspective, you should evaluate how the grant has done, in terms of, for example, gender or anything else. And so then, you know, okay, we didn't do enough, or we did do enough and we need to watch out next time. Because also we don't wanna be in a system where it's just 90%, in a binary world, women. Like we want a certain balance there. Of course, I think, you know, do women deserve it? For a while, for sure. But not indefinitely either.

[00:10:19] Sarahanne Field: One thing that really stuck out to me, so I took a look at a couple of different news articles for this case or this decision. And I came across the article in the New York Times on this from June 29th this year, and the first paragraph makes me think, so they say in the Supreme Court decision, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, the admissions processes were called elusive, opaque, and imponderable.

Imponderable is a fantastic word, but it is interesting to think about how to make it, how to make affirmative action fair for the other candidates, right? How to sort of lift a little little bit on what's actually being, how these decisions are being made. So I think it's easy to say, oh, okay, we are admitting 12% extra of this particular demographic or this particular demographic, then it's kind of quantifiable.

There are certain ways where one might be able to quantify how this affirmative action is carried out in practice. If affirmative action is going to be used, I do think it's really important for it to be made as open as possible. So it shouldn't be a matter of a closed door, a panel of people, and at the end you end up with, A bunch of candidates that have been selected, I think it needs to be made clear about how that process is gonna differ as a result of the affirmative action.

[00:11:48] Chris Hartgerink: It's very worthwhile to dig into this court case a bit. Of course, this is the instigator and there's many different instances of where affirmative action takes place, but really this key point of, you know, what is the process by which this is done?

So, as you say, it should be transparent. It should be, articulated as well, how these decisions are being made so that there is no ambiguity. And we've mentioned this before in the podcast, is inambiguity is where power resides. And so by, by making the processes by which affirmative action happens clear, they also become disputable.

The fact that this court case goes this way, or even if it went the other way, it does not mean that there's a blanket decision or that we should have blanket decisions that all affirmative action cases are either, you know, good or bad, or they work or they don't work.

I really like how one of the, one of the justices who dissented says, you know, you can't just announce colorblindness for all by law. Because in essence, if we throw affirmative action out of the window, We are just saying we're colorblind. Which, was a mechanism by which people said, you know, we're all equal at this day and age, and we're colorblind for each other's histories.

And so if somebody sits across for me, and let's, let's just transpose this for a moment onto being trauma blind. We're just sitting in this room, we talk with one another, and your trauma doesn't matter for me. Then I might act in a way as a result because I'm just being oblivious to it.

That, that might be very detrimental to the other person, and I think that's what's happening with affirmative action here as well. If we throw that out of the window, we're just saying, well, let's forget all of those different histories but that doesn't make it such in life. We still have those different histories.

Affirmative action tries to take into account those histories. But then also what is the history that is being articulated as being taken into account?

[00:14:01] Sarahanne Field: One thing that really makes me think about the example you just used now about the trauma blindness is that someone might have had, you know, some kind of trauma in their past, but, hopefully for that person that trauma is past and it is a history or is historical for them.

But what I think really gets me is that even if it were possible to be colorblind or or whatever, blind, we're still hearing cases where blatant. Open racism is being practiced everywhere, microaggressions, even in supposedly equitable workplaces and that kinda thing. So I think by by acting colorblind, you're also allowing other things just to thrive unchecked, because there's nothing to challenge them.

[00:14:49] Chris Hartgerink: We've covered various topics in this podcast where we showcase that the day-to-day events, the lived experience today is still very, very different.

Think of, you know, the, the case with Suzanne Täuber, that in itself is highlighting how affirmative action is failing as well. And we have, of course, the whole experiences in the US where with, with George Floyd, the protest, but they go back way further. Or the fact that this week there was a 17 year old kid shot by the French police and now there's massive riots around that as well. So there are still these day-to-day histories being written that are completely different for people.

Which we've talked about many times, so I feel like we don't need to dive into that again.

But one question I have also for the listeners is what are concrete situations where affirmative action has has happened for you? Not has it affected you directly per se, but where has there been a process where that has played in? Like what comes to mind for you? Because we very often talk about these things and it becomes very ominous. We start talking about hypotheticals and in imaginary situations that, you know, suck us into these debates, but then they completely don't relate to the everyday life anymore or what's actually happening.

I submitted grant proposals, I've submitted funding proposal, I've submitted, job applications and maybe it happens there, but I'm not sure how.

And I think that if anything, this case and this decision highlights that this transparency very often isn't there and the safeguards or what, what organizations do around it. I would actually like to see organizations double down and do better. And to really convince people that how they're doing it is actually, very well thought through.

[00:16:59] Sarahanne Field: When I'm thinking about how, like, just back to this, this court case we've been talking about in the articles, they're reporting that there are people who are defending the choice to get rid of the affirmative action in these colleges.

They're saying, you know, we're, we're happy using quantifiable metrics like grades and performance in X, Y, and z. They're, they're all fine. And they would be great if it were the case that people were all arriving to the start line with the same kind of benefits, the same kind of, you know, Privileges and, and, and help in life.

But we're not, you know, people who are in wealthy families, for example, in the US who are sort of slated to go to Ivy League schools from the, the, basically since they're born who have been put with money into all the best programs. They're tutored, they're given options in sports. You know, they're all given these options and, and these benefits from the very start.

And so that feeds into these quantifiable metrics like grades and performance in sports for scholarships and that kinda thing. All that sort of stuff. So I think, okay, metrics are fine, but, but we can't pretend like we're all starting at the same start point. So I think that's, yeah, the university admission scandal, that's, I mean, The most disgusting example of how stuff is totally rigged.

But that's, that's a whole other podcast that is. If we are going to use any kind of system, it should be transparent, it should be really thought through. Doing it in the spirit of equity, I don't think is enough. I think it has to be thought through and, and, and really clear and transparent what's going on.

[00:18:39] Chris Hartgerink: We hope that we provided enough nuggets to think about.

We'll link to the actual Supreme Court decision as well in the show notes be warned, it's a very long document. If you're gonna read it, I recommend starting at page 209, which actually provides a very good overview by one of the justices of why affirmative action is relevant.

But with that we're already at the end of the open updates. It always flies by. And we're very happy that you're joining us for this ride. We hope that, you know, the time that you listen flies by just as quickly.

But you'll hear from us again in two weeks. We'll be doing another episode and in the meantime, hope you have a good summer or winter, depending on your hemisphere, and thanks for taking the time to join us today.

[00:19:29] Sarahanne Field: And don't forget to join our Signal group if you're interested. The link to join is in the show notes.

Say yes to affirmative action (s03e11)
Liberate Science GmbH July 3, 2023
Plurality in research (s03e10)