Yale University

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Empathy for President Salovey

Sam Francis

January 13, 2016

Category: Society > Campus Issues

Here are some reflections on President Salovey’s quandary.

Once I led a 900-person technical organization at Bell Labs whose demographic was predominantly white males, half in NJ and half in NC, none of whom thought they were racist or sexist but all of whom were both. How did I know?

Hell, I’m racist and sexist too, as I realize every time I visit Best Buy and opt for the white male clerk because, subliminally, I think a white guy will have a bit more technical expertise than a black guy or a white gal. Overcoming this bias requires conscious effort, time after time, or else the subconscious stereotype drives my behavior. I’m not very good at overcoming that bias. After all, who would notice?

In a corporate setting, such conscious effort to offset subtle bias — when institutionalized as policy — is called affirmative action. It’s a way for management to put their thumb on the scales, preferably gently and fairly, to offset the hidden unbalance. But nobody likes affirmative action — neither its “victims” nor its beneficiaries — for reasons I needn’t elaborate. It treats symptoms, not causes. However, without affirmative action or something like it, the stereotypes control our behavior. The hidden unbalance of the scales persists.

Now consider a college campus in which every member of the dominant demographic (white professors and students) is subtly racist in the same way. These folks are kind-hearted, don’t suspect their racism, and would deny it vehemently and honestly. But the affected minorities sure see it, relentlessly, in small and subtle forms (death by a thousand slights). How often are minorities called on in class, or stopped by campus police? The trivial affronts accumulate, and when emotions reach the tipping point, the professors and white students don’t understand what caused the fuss, and are likely to think that the minorities are overreacting and are “narcissistic and self-absorbed” (in the words of the evangelical Christian president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University). After all, each slight doesn’t amount to much, does it? Can’t “they” just suck it up (a tempting thought for a white male)?

When a spark in a tinderbox causes an explosion, do you focus on the spark (Erika Christakis’s email), or the explosion (the screaming student in Silliman courtyard), or the tinderbox (the root cause)?

Places like Oklahoma Wesleyan University specialize in simple answers (“the Primacy of Jesus Christ” and “the inerrant Word of God” and “this is not day care” and if you don’t like it go home). Places like Yale know that there are no simple answers. Yale can’t “fix” the problem. Yale didn’t cause the problem. The problem is everywhere — in society and in the world, in human nature’s ineluctable instinct to stereotype the “other” and cling to familiar ground. You can’t “fix” human nature. All you can do is treat the symptoms. Or choose not to.

President Salovey had a choice. He could have done something to address the uproar, or he could have done nothing. If he did nothing, he’d be disrespecting a large student contingent. If he did something, it would inevitably look like some form of affirmative action (with lower-case A’s), and nobody likes affirmative action. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

I’m glad I don’t have his job. I’ve been to that rodeo.