Covering the new diversity debate
Does race still matter on campus? And should it matter when today’s students head out into their careers?
For all the talk about our “post-racial” era, I’m sure you can start a lively debate by posing those questions. Now would be a good time. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday about race-conscious college admissions policies, so you can count on some national buzz about affirmative action.
Let’s be blunt. Perhaps today’s college students, already safely enrolled, aren’t terribly interested in future admission policies. But they will be interested in how race will be used in hiring decisions. Wednesday’s debate will be repeated in the marketplace for years to come, regardless of how the court rules.
Bear in mind we’re not talking about “affirmative action” as your parents knew it. As Justin Pope of The Associated Press explained very nicely, the debate now is whether a college may take race into account in order to achieve a “critical mass” of diversity.
Diversity, not affirmative action, will be the issue for tomorrow’s grads in the marketplace. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come as a nation that many business leaders believe it’s important to have employees of varying backgrounds (race, gender, age, military service, etc.) to form the best teams. So how should that come into play when a new grad with the proper qualifications applies for the next opening on that team? Is it fair for her to be passed over in favor of another applicant with less job-related experience and/or education who has diversity factors that the team lacks?
Here’s a hypothetical: You open a small restaurant in a neighborhood predominantly Race X. You know people in that neighborhood — your prospective customers — are alert to whether new businesses hire locals, who of course are mostly Race X. You need to hire three servers, and immediately you receive applications from three members of Race Y from another part of town. All have extensive restaurant experience. Are you justified in passing over any or all of them in favor of less experienced applicants from your target neighborhood?
If your answer is “No, employers should always hire the most qualified applicants,” here’s a non-hypothetical question. Should a certain restaurant chain featuring female servers in tight-fitting costumes be forced to hire male servers if they have more experience than female applicants? The company in question prevailed by conceding that the servers provided “vicarious sexual entertainment.” But isn’t that just another way to sell food (and beer)? Wouldn’t the proprietor in our first scenario say that’s also the goal of a “local-only” hiring policy?
The law would treat these scenarios differently (probably) because the bar for racial preference is higher than for gender. But the law is less and less involved in these diversity issues. Race in everyday life is mostly a social, not legal, question. Your readers are as entitled as anyone else to debate how society should handle it.
I think you’ll produce some interesting coverage if you create some scenarios and ask students to comment — in interviews and/or through your website and social media.