The Difficulty with Quotas

And, why white people think there is reverse racism

I was reading this article about how Lesbians Who Tech (a tech conference aimed at lesbians) put in a quota system for their speakers. 50% had to be women of color, 20% black and latinx, and 10% non-binary.

And I got to this line here:

It meant saying no to very successful and established white women.

and I was all, oh my god, I think I just understood Trump’s America.

Actually, that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, well, I guess I’m never speaking at Lesbians Who Tech.

To back up a minute, I have no doubt that the POC speakers will be very good and deserve their spots as speakers (I’ve been to the conference several times, and I think it’s great.) Often, white people direct their anger towards the qualifications of people of color when discussing affirmative action, and I believe this to be misguided. The problem isn’t that POC are being represented in reasonable numbers, the problem is that all the white spots will be taken up by ringers. Or, like, that was my intuitive fear anyway; I’m not actually sure what LWT’s speaker-choosing process was like (please don’t be mad at me, lesbian overmind, I still want to have sex with some of you.)

But, when I read the “turning down successful white women” line, I was just like if Lesbians Who Tech turned down a bunch of very successful and established white women, what the hell chance does some nobody like me have? Even if I had a very good idea, or a really good technical talk based on my decade as a programmer, I don’t work at a big name company, and I’m not prestigious. Even though 50% of the conference is still white, I kind of had this inner feeling like yeah, but they’re don’t want white women like me. They want someone who used to be CTO to president Obama, or like, some founder of a company, or some trendy lesbian with good hair.

Anyway, I’m not saying I’m right about this, I’m saying I think this is how a lot of white people are feeling right now. I’m saying, I think this is where this whole “reverse racism” thing is coming from.

To be clear: I do not believe in reverse racism. I believe a lot of people are misdiagnosing classism as reverse racism.

In the context of this tech conference: I am a low class white person. I don’t have the grandeur that a lot of these other white tech women will have, and let’s say we assume half the white spots will go to “grand” or “well connected” tech women (possibly an unfair assumption, but just for hypothetical purposes) that leaves the other half open to women like me. Now, if we consider that “well connected” white women are a significant minority of women in tech, and that tech is about 75% white (based on this stack overflow survey) you have about 75% of the tech population competing for 25% of the spots. This sounds a lot worse to me than the 75% competing for 50% of the spots.

I may have pushed this conference example a bit too far (and, the 50% of “non-POC” spots going to “well connected” women was totally pulled out of my ass) but if we were talking about affirmative action at prestigious colleges, those numbers don’t seem too far off to me.

The problem isn’t that POC people are getting too many spots; it’s that excessively privileged people are way more likely to be white and these people take up an oversize portion of the white spots. Consider the specific case of Harvard: Harvard has a preferential admission policy for legacy admissions, meaning that 1/3 the incoming class had family members who went to Harvard, and these students are overwhelmingly wealthy and white. If Harvard implemented a 50% quota for POC (and, this year, they did admit more than half non-white students) and we assume nearly all that 1/3 legacy students are white (probably a fair assumption, given that Harvard didn’t used to even accept people of color) that means non-legacy white students (about 50% of the US population) will be competing for 20% of the spots at Harvard.

This creates significant competition for less privileged white people when they are competing in systems with quotas, and this is why they’re getting angry.

Now, I disagree with directing this energy towards people of color because they’re not actually the problem. The problem, is that there exists a class of white people with a shit ton of privilege on top of their whiteness who are throwing less privileged white people under the bus.

But, the reason white people are directing this anger towards POC is that POC are a lot more vulnerable than highly privileged white people. If you are straight up self interested, and you are a “regular joe” kind of white person and want to get into a fancy pants university, what do you think is going to get you better results? Try to get Stanford to chuck out Bill Gates’ daughter, or to take advantage of centuries of entrenched racism in the US to roll back affirmative action?

Here’s a hint: Bill Gates has enough money to destroy you.

But, to authentically fight affirmative action, you have to believe it, so your brain convinces itself that really affirmative action has gone too far so you can start building up the rage necessary to start suing schools over it.

And so, the battle starts between pro affirmative action people and anti affirmative action people, all the while the people causing the problem — all the rich well connected white people who will get in with less merit (even with legacy, though, you still have to be pretty good) — are sitting pretty with their unquestioned advantage. A perverse side effect is: many very qualified “affirmative action” admits at places like Harvard get imposter syndrome guilt while neglecting to consider their advantage was probably less than the legacy advantage, which the majority of white students are admitted with.

I should also note, that there may not actually be very many highly privileged connected people “unfairly” getting into universities on a wide scale (though, frankly, I doubt Harvard is an outlier in this) but the perception that there are could be just as damaging. Like in my earlier example, I have no idea that I’m necessarily a worse candidate than any other white lady for Lesbians Who Tech, but my first instinct was to believe that I was, and that would have influenced my narrative if I’d applied and been rejected. The perception that “I am different from the white people who will be admitted” could influence people to believe in reverse racism similarly.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer is: we need more universities — more opportunities, more ways to make it. You actually can’t just get rid of legacy admits, because (for better or worse) being connected to the “influential people” is part of the benefit these universities offer, and those people are the legacy students. But, we need more options. We need getting rejected by Stanford to be NBD, because there are so many other ways to be successful that you’ll just do that instead. (Note: this is probably already true, but we should start believing it on a cultural scale.) We should keep some degree of affirmative action in the “classic” schools, but also look into increasing the prestige and respect of institutions like historically black or female colleges. We need to create new classes of “influential people.”

Fundamentally, this problem is about monoculture and there only being one path to success (university!) and people with high privilege being able to control the monoculture, and being able to assure their own success within it. We don’t just need diversity in races, we need diversity in celebrated and respectable life paths. That’s something we seem awfully short on, these days.