If You Believe In Structural Racism, You Believe In Pipeline Problems (Unlocked)
The idea that in-the-moment discrimination drives inequality is a major cop-out that keeps privileged people comfortable
This article was originally sent to my paid subscribers on November 12, 2021. If you like it, please consider becoming one.
On Monday I did a Zoom event with Jonathan Haidt’s Ethical Systems organization, which, among other things, “makes academic research accessible to businesspeople, helps them assess their company cultures, and guides them in applying research-based strategies to improve trust, integrity, and cooperation[.]” It was basically a short book talk and a Q&A, and I felt bad at how negative I was — these guys (and gals) are in the tough position of being tasked to apply behavioral science insights to their organizations, and my book is largely about how fraught an exercise that can be, and how unlikely it is that psychological interventions can really deliver when it comes to any but the simplest types of problems.
I forget the exact context, but equity in hiring came up. And I ended up talking a little bit about how my views on that subject have shifted.
Way back in May 2014, almost right after I started at New York Magazine, I wrote a piece headlined “Kill the Cover Letter and Résumé.” In it I said that we should, well, you know. My argument was that both cover letters and résumés are rife with potentially biasing information that doesn’t necessarily bear on a candidate’s actual ability to do the job he or she is applying for. Ooh, they went to Harvard!
And so on:
The problem is that the résumé-and-cover-letter bundle — call it “the packet” from here on — is an inefficient, time-wasting way for employers to sort through a first wave of applicants. It doesn’t provide nearly as much useful information about potential employees as we’ve been led to believe, meaning that firms that overly rely on it are likely missing out on talented applicants whose materials get overlooked. What’s worse is that it’s discriminatory — it exacerbates many of the biases that fuel a winner-take-all job market at the expense of minorities and people without fancy connections.
At the very least, I argued, during the first round of hiring, firms should blind hiring managers to potentially biasing information like the names of applicants or where they went to school. But that might not be enough:
[F]or jobs in fields like academia, journalism, or coding that require concrete outputs, there’s a case to be made to go even further: have the first step of the application process be a full-blown sample work assignment, submitted anonymously. Either you can do the work, or you can’t — your potentially biasing race and gender and educational characteristics aren’t even revealed until at least the second round, if you make it that far. (Some companies, particularly those in the tech world, are starting to move in this direction.)
On a basic logistical level, I don’t actually think this works. You can’t really ask people to do a full-blown work assignment, gratis, when they’re about to jump into a pool with 500 applicants — it’s just unfair and will introduce its own sorts of biases (who has that kind of free time?), not to mention cause more stress for whoever has to make the initial cuts.
Anyway, setting that aside, it also seems a bit naive, in retrospect, to imagine that this shift would do much to address diversity issues in hiring. Well, maybe half-naive. I still believe it’s quite likely that hiring managers are swayed by ultimately extraneous information, that their minds — like all human minds — can get snared on shiny but irrelevant objects. Most people would probably agree that if two applicants, one from a state school and one from Harvard, appear to be close to equally qualified, Mr. Harvard shouldn’t advance out of the first round of the hiring process, and Mr. State School shouldn’t be left behind, solely on the basis of their respective alma maters. So to the extent you can reduce the likelihood of that happening, that’s good.
What I’m much, much more skeptical of in 2021 than I was in 2014 is the likelihood that merely shifting away from “the packet” and toward early skills tests will address the various demographic discrepancies companies increasingly claim to be concerned about.
The theory that ditching the packet would help address such disparities, which I more or less endorsed in my 2014 article, goes something like this: Hiring managers are beset by biases, many of them implicit, that cause them to favor those who are similar to them or who tout “traditional,” white-centered credentials, to disfavor those who are different from them or who lack such credentials, or both. Therefore, qualified candidates are being punished simply for not “looking like” a good hire, even though they can perform at least as well, if not better, than their more credentialed, or more traditionally credentialed, brethren. Getting rid of the packet and moving toward skills tests can help address this problem.
This is a pretty sunny view of things: It suggests that there’s a glitch in the system, and if we can fix it, we can get the diverse offices we’re looking for. It’s also not very realistic.
If You Actually Believe In Structural Racism, You Have To Believe In Pipeline Problems
(Before I unlocked this article, my copy editor pointed out that I failed to define pipeline problems, assuming readers would be familiar with the phrase. A pipeline problem is a situation where disparities in workplace or academic settings might partially reflect disparities in the pool of qualified applicants for these positions rather than discrimination in hiring. To take an extreme and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine Company X lacks any Lithuanian American employees. It could be because the company’s hiring process is biased against Lithuanian Americans, but it could also be because it received few or no competitive applications from this relatively small group. Of course in most contexts, pipeline arguments are more fraught than this because they involve groups that have experienced widespread and brutal discrimination in the past — that’s why this idea is the subject of so many “debunkings.” I hope this article nudges people away from the idea that pipeline problems are always cop-outs and/or inherently reflect conservative ideas about the nature of merit, fairness, and structural inequality.)
For the purposes of simplicity, let’s boil things down to the black-white dyad and imagine that all job applicants are one race or the other, though most of what I’m saying here applies to relatively advantaged versus relatively disadvantaged groups more broadly.
As of 2019, despite the fact that the country is getting increasingly diverse, there were still about five or six times more white Americans than black ones. The numbers get fuzzy because not everyone is just one race — let’s just call it a 5-to-1 ratio for the sake of our exercise.
Under these conditions, if white and black people apply to the same jobs in the same numbers, employers can expect about five job applications from white people for every application from a black person. But of course, white and black people don’t apply for the same jobs in the same numbers. If you are economically marginalized, there are a million reasons you are unlikely to apply for a job at The New York Times, just like how if you are economically advantaged, there are a million reasons you are not likely to apply for a job at Foot Locker (especially a full-time job, as an adult). In the U.S., race and class are forever intertwined — white households have about 10 times the wealth of black ones — so we should expect that actual ratio of white-to-black applicants for jobs at rather elite institutions to be much higher than 5-to-1. What’s a reasonable estimate here? Ten to one? Higher?
Of those applicants, how many will be truly competitive, in the sense that they will be able to demonstrate to a hiring manager that they can do work at the level required of the Times or, well, Insert Elite Institution Here? This is where people get uncomfortable, because it’s assumed that any claim about one racial group “beating” another in terms of the number of qualified candidates comes down to a belief in that group’s “supremacy.”
But that isn’t how it works at all! It’s genuinely insane to make this leap. In fact, we should be looking askance at people who believe in structural racism but don’t think it leads to proportional black-white discrepancies in how many well-qualified job applicants are produced.
Here’s one angle that I think helps make this point: Surely many people’s life outcomes are determined, in part, by their grandparents. I know that’s true for me. On both sides, my grandparents worked very hard to provide material security, education, and so on to my parents, who in turn passed on those advantages to me, which helped lead to my ability to do cool stuff like work at New York Magazine, write a book, and — most importantly, of course — build up this newsletter to where it is now. I’ve been exceptionally lucky. People could argue forever over how much of a given person’s success is the result of luck versus hard work (I find it silly to pin success on hard work given how many billions of people work hard without getting very far, but your mileage may vary), but the point is you’d have to be pretty nuts to deny that the role of grandparents and their opportunities, wealth, and so on, doesn’t make a pretty big difference for many people.
If you’re old enough to read this, your grandparents entered the workforce and/or started raising kids at a time when racism of all sorts influenced the United States much more profoundly than it does today. Racism obviously, obviously, obviously affected whose grandparents got what — we really can set aside the question of its present role. My grandparents, despite being poor and working class and having to do a great deal of scrapping, had significant advantages by dint of being seen as white rather than black. It’s just undeniable, and it’s part of why I get to live a comfortable life, and it’s part of why some black people don’t get to.
Because my family had money, I could build up a résumé by doing unpaid internships after college. Those unpaid internships led directly to an entry-level job at the Center for American Progress (it paid a grand total of $33,000 per year, if I’m remembering right, but I had no student debt and was happy to live in a gross group house, so whatever!). That, in turn, led directly to a(n also low-paying) job at Washington Monthly, which led directly to a contractor position at The Boston Globe (still no real money), and then grad school and New York Magazine (my first genuinely adult salary, at age 30) and now here (meaning the bar where I started this post, drinking and working on my own schedule, and the apartment where I finished it).
I’m not trying to pretend there’s no “merit” involved here. But it gets extremely fuzzy, doesn’t it? Surely there are millions of people in the U.S. who had as much latent potential as I did to become a writer or podcaster but who couldn’t get a crucial early job because they lacked connections, or couldn’t take a job they got because early career pay in media is so low. And so they ended up elsewhere, likely somewhere that didn’t take full advantage of their skills or passions.
Race-wise, I’m no essentialist. And I don’t like when people throw around the term “structural racism” loosey-goosey, as a way of implying race is an important causal driver of some outcome without actually making that argument. Race, like any other term, can be invoked sloppily, including in a manner reminiscent of responding to the question “Why did that happen?” with “Uh, a ghost did it!”
But whatever you think of the precise way race continues to shape things today, and how much it can be fully separated from class, race has obviously shaped the transmission of wealth and opportunity across generations. Again, we’re talking just two generations ago. There is no wild conspiracy theorizing going on here. It’s just not credible to deny this. So the tl;dr version of all this can be boiled down to: “I am successful in part because my grandparents were able to accumulate wealth on an uneven playing field, and millions of other white people can say the same thing.” This is not a knock on the grandparents in question, who really did work hard. But, again, everyone knows that a lot of people work hard. People travel tens of thousands of miles, on foot, just for a chance at a slightly better backbreaking job. “Well, they worked hard!” is a cop-out that doesn’t really explain who gets what.
You’re telling me that this stuff doesn’t matter and that it can’t help explain things like the racial wealth gap?
So, let’s root ourselves firmly back in the present. These days, things are more competitive than ever before. You need more education, more training, and more expertly tuned job applications than you used to if you want a genuine shot at a financially comfortable life, let alone an affluent one (everyone should seriously, seriously read The Meritocracy Trap). Who is in the best position to have these things? The wealthy. Who is the least likely to be wealthy? Black people. None of this means every white person is rich or every black person is poor — again, we are talking averages — but I don’t see how anyone can deny any of this.
If you believe in structural racism but don’t believe that white people are better positioned than black people to produce competitive job applications, on average, think about what you’re saying:
1) White people have, over the generations and on average, been endowed with opportunities black people have been robbed of
2) This extends well past K–12 education and into the elite corners of higher education, which white people have much more realistic access to than black people, on average — and degrees from top-tier schools are much more advantageous than degrees from middling ones
3) White people are also, relative to black people, endowed with more of every conceivable sort of training, tutoring, career guidance, access to young professional networks, and other benefits associated with successful job-searching, on average
4) Despite all this, white people and black people produce about equally competitive job applications.
I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could believe this sequence of claims. To do so, you have to think that all the stuff you were (rightfully!) yelling about 30 seconds ago — the vastly unfair and discriminatory apportionment of wealth and opportunity in America over the generations — just doesn’t matter when it comes to job applications. That, for example, the fact that members of one racial group are, on average, given much more guidance with regard to how to craft an attention-getting résumé makes no difference for the ultimate quality of the resultant résumés. You basically have to nod along to points 1–3 — all blandly orthodox among those of us who believe in structural racism — and then ignore a fourth point that is the inevitable consequence of the first three.
It’s almost like:
Me: So you see I’m holding what we both agree is a functioning match?
Me: And we both agree matches create fire when struck against certain surfaces, like matchboxes?
Me: And we both agree that I’m about to strike this match against the matchbox from whence I procured it?
Me: Okay, then we both agree that after I do so, a flame will be produced, right?
You: What? No! That’s completely ridiculous!
This is magical thinking. And it’s very beneficial to privileged people, because it draws attention away from that privilege, away from how much they have and how much other people lack, and toward the idea that whoops, some bias infected some people’s brains (coulda happened to anyone), and once we banish it, diversity will bloom within our selective institutions.
I think people really, really don’t want to actually dwell on just how ridiculously unfair the playing field still is, and focusing on discrimination — in theory, an in-the-moment problem that can be solved with the right tweaks at the level of individual firms, nothing grander required— is much more comforting than actually zooming out and seeing the big picture, which is tethered both to history and the ever-accelerating meritocracy, and which is not easily redressed. So in a weird way, saying “Our firm has a discrimination problem” is actually preferable to saying “Our firm is, realistically speaking, going to be hiring almost exclusively from the richest 10% of Americans.” The former is a problem that, we have been told, just about all right-thinking people suffer from, without knowing it — that’s the result of the runaway success of the implicit bias meme — while the latter is, well… what are you going to do about it? Are you going to start hiring kids who just graduated from community colleges, putting yourself at a serious competitive disadvantage relative to the other firms in your space that continue hiring from Harvard and Princeton?
The other reason people want to pretend that if we get rid of discrimination, we’ll get the demographic outcomes we seek in hiring is because to acknowledge pipeline problems is potentially to give oneself an out, diversity-wise. I started this post Monday night and had no idea Matt Yglesias was going to mention pipeline problems in a slightly different context, but as he put it on Tuesday:
Over the past few years, we’ve seen growing impatience in progressive circles with institutional leaders who flag a “pipeline problem” as a reason for their institution’s lack of racial diversity.
And I understand where this impatience is coming from. When I started out in political journalism, the whole world of small D.C. magazines was overwhelmingly white, and while the white people who worked at the magazines were mostly very good journalists, the overall quality of the journalism was badly compromised by the lack of diversity in the room. Eventually some of the relevant leaders stopped crying “pipeline problem” and started trying harder, identifying great journalists as a result and improving the product.
In some circles, though, “don’t make lame excuses for inaction” has hardened into the idea that the pipeline problem is a “myth.”
Not just a myth, but a racist one.
It’s a bit apples-to-oranges here because the world Yglesias mentions is so small; there are frightfully few staff positions, which means it’s really bad if you can’t find a few qualified journalists of color — it really does suggest you’re not trying at all. But in many other fields, this isn’t, in most cases, a lame excuse. It is the result of how society is structured. Things get ever more winner-take-all, and more and more opportunities flow to the wealthy, and wouldn’t you know it, it turns out the wealthy can produce the highest-quality job applications. We move away from all that discriminatory stuff, and they are still winning.
How is any of this surprising? What error am I making?
One more time: It is comforting to think that discrimination is what’s leading to the outcomes we don’t like. It suggests relatively easy, nearby fixes. No one wants to be discriminatory. What people do want — or what the sorts of people in a position to shape how companies look want, at least — is to win the meritocracy game. They want that for themselves and for their kids. That’s why the conversation will grind to a halt if you press people on the actual depth of their desire for racial and socioeconomic justice. As in, if the results you see around you aren’t generated by discrimination, but rather by a big, complicated machine, are you still going to be enthusiastic about trying to change things? What about when you reflect on the fact that this big, complicated machine has generated excellent outcomes for you and your family?
In my experience, this is where interest in fighting injustice starts to wane: There’s a bottomless appetite for DEI trainings (some of them genuinely quackish in nature) and self-reflection and endless iterations of number-crunching “proving” that in-the-moment discrimination is still ongoing — of course, a significant number of the studies showing this involve statistical cherry-picking, or later fail to replicate, or don’t factor in the blazingly obvious possibility that wealthy people are able to purchase more training and more ability — but that’s all there’s an appetite for.
To be fair, no one ever said companies are supposed to be major engines of justice. In fact, it’s pretty deranged to think they should be. America’s present reckoning is tied up tightly, disturbingly, with capitalism. It should worry anyone who cares about justice when, like, arms manufacturers are screaming in unison, “Yes, justice!” It suggests the form of justice that is presently in vogue is conducive to the interests of arms manufacturers, which is generally not a good sign.
It would be much, much more honest for companies to say, “We’re going to make some donations to causes we view as worthy, but we don’t see ourselves as having much of a role to play in the fight for racial justice. We’re going to leave that to the pros.” Of course, they can’t say that, because saying that — saying a thing that seems very true — is how you get fired, or get a vote of no confidence from your board, or whatever. So we keep pretending companies have a major role to play here, and they turn toward the easiest solution imaginable: claiming, albeit carefully so as to sidestep potential legal problems, that discrimination lies at the root of their issues, and that they can train and educate their way out of it.
The Good News (Sort Of)
Okay, let’s end with a half-full glass. The year 2021 is not the year 1961. The U.S. is much more diverse than it ever has been, and it’s getting more so. In one sense, pipeline problems are almost certainly getting better across many fields, simply because more and more members of various, traditionally excluded groups (as defined by race) are becoming members of the striving middle class. That Nigerians and Ghanaians can come here and have such success (on average, on average, on average) doesn’t in any sense disprove the historic importance of racism, but it does show that its grip has loosened somewhat.
Forced to choose between the two, I do certainly prefer a meritocracy with diverse faces at the top than a meritocracy dominated by white people. I think that all else being equal, diversity is a very good thing. I know it sounds like I’m reciting a mantra, but I’m a city boy and Jewish and so much of the culture, food, and literature that has meant the most to me has been the result of different groups colliding, mixing, and creating new things. America was always built to be a diverse place — it really is in our DNA, to borrow a phrase — and we’re at our strongest when it’s a cacophonous throng of voices from different backgrounds. So I don’t want to paint too dire a picture for those simply seeking to hire more diverse workers.
But we still have a system that’s deeply unfair, and getting more so. I’m very partial to Walter Benn Michaels (great and quick read right here), Adolph Reed, and others who have critiqued contemporary strands of mainstream anti-racism from the left. The idea that our end goal should be a society structured like ours, but with more diverse faces at the top, is perverse. And it flies in the face of everything we know about everything to say that wealthy people don’t have advantages when it comes to producing competitive job applications (not to mention competitive college applications, which, whole other subject).
Also: When people talk about the problems that beset black America, they usually mean “African Descendants Of Slavery” more than they mean “individuals who arrived here, or whose parents arrived here, from Africa or the Caribbean.” When it comes to structural racism and the vice grip of intergenerational poverty, it’s ADOS folks who are the worst off, by far. That’s who struggles the most, and it’s very easy for them to be left behind amidst the inspiring-seeming diversification of elite spaces. Colleges are a great example: As Freddie deBoer argues, “American-born descendants of African slaves fill a scandalously low number of affirmative action seats, and yet everybody pats themselves on the back for their racial progressivism.”
What it comes down to is that if we can’t openly and honestly talk about what the problems are, they will be impossible to solve. And part of me thinks that’s the point. For a lot of powerful people, the system we have is working great for them and their kids, minus a pesky lack of diversity where they work or where their kids go to school. If they can just tweak that — and it’s certainly getting easier to do given the aforementioned burgeoning middle class of talented non-white Americans — then their world will look pretty good, pretty just. And they can get there without ever having to really question, let alone act contrary to, their own material self-interest.
Questions? Comments? Quick-fix solutions to all the problems? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The graphic of a bunch of individuals and small groups networked together comes via Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images.