Intermittent discrimination and guaranteed enemies

Intermittent and petty discrimination seems like something one should laugh off—until one thinks about it as guaranteeing a steady supply of personal enemies.

This morning I listened to an interview with Carole Simpson on The Madeleine Brand Show. (The podcast isn’t available as I write this, but when it is it will be here and you can subscribe.  Update: it’s now available; you can download the .mp3 directly from here)  Summarizing from memory: Simpson said that the racism and sexism early in her career were constant and pervasive. She was called a “ni—- slut”; male colleagues would unzip her dress or plunge their hands down her blouse; when she started out, assignment editors would enjoy the “joke” of telling her to cover an event but giving her a time that was well after it was scheduled to end.

But when Brand asked whether the sexism and racism had “dissipated” over time, Simpson said no.  “Every six to nine months” until she retired, she would get an email or a call, or encounter something in person, that reminded her that in someone else’s eyes she was “just a black woman.”  Simpson’s examples made it sound as if “black” retained much more salience than woman: One colleague offered to fetch her a “collard green sandwich”; an executive, encountering her at an office party in business attire, still assumed she must be a maid.

Still, to complain about discrimination that occurred “every six to nine months” might at first hearing sound a bit bit petty.  Surely that can be laughed off? Not so fast.

Back when I taught a course on affirmative action, I remember reading an author (it might have been Glenn Loury, though I can’t lay my hands on his book at the moment) point out how such intermittent discrimination has real costs when reckoned over a career.  Consider that most people get a big break on a personal level—a boss, colleague, present or former co-worker, ex-college buddy, etc., remembers you as competent and chooses you for a job or promotion—every few years.  Now assume that those breaks happen, because of racism or sexism, once every five and a half years instead of five, because one in ten people is a little bit biased, which seems not a radical estimate.  Worse, assume that once in a few years somebody with a bit of power wishes you ill instead of well and quashes the promotion instead of facilitating it.  Multiply that by a whole career and suddenly everybody who isn’t a white guy ends up at least a level or two below where he or she would have been without bias.  This happens even if one doesn’t assume high or pervasive levels of animus and even if one doesn’t take the psychic costs of racial and sexual insult into account (though the latter seems unfair, especially since the souls of conservative white males seem acutely sensitive to the slightest accusation of racial insensitivity, and is of course not how our civil rights laws see things).

I suspect that one reason that most white males like me find this whole process hard to credit is that we don’t have a personal analogy: it seems there’s nothing in our experience that this intermittent animus closely resembles.  Actually there is, but we don’t think about it that way, and the frame of “institutional” racism obscures it: intermittent racism is like a guarantee that somebody in every workplace you experience will be a personal enemy.

Define an enemy as someone who for no good reason (as you see it, anyway) has it in for you.  Such enemies don’t intend to break your legs or kick you out of your house, but hold you to much higher standards than they hold everyone else to, as well as much higher standards than everyone else holds you to.  For most of us, if we’re fairly decent people and team players, such enemies are uncommon—call them one co-worker in a hundred—but when they appear they really rankle.  They make the workplace unpleasant; they make every meeting fraught; we remember them for years; we’ll do all we can to get rid of them (in the process becoming their enemies) and if we can’t, might well change jobs to avoid them.

Now imagine that in your workplace, one out of every fifteen or twenty colleagues is such an enemy.  Further imagine that your enemies are much more often than not more powerful than you are, since enemy-of-you, while still an uncommon descriptor among those with more power than you, is still highly correlated with having more power than you.  (Translation: most white people don’t hate have it in for blacks, but by far most people who hate have it in for blacks are white.)  This means that you probably can’t fire your enemy, but your enemy may over time be able, especially by biasing job assignments and assessments so that non-enemies come to think ill of you, to get you fired or at least not promoted. Finally, imagine that each of your enemies will have every interest in concealing that enmity, because it’s socially taboo, as well as every possibility of concealing it, because asserting the continued existence of such enmities is also socially taboo.

All this might make you want to quit your job and take another.  Unfortunately, you can pretty much guarantee that exactly the same circumstances will obtain in every job. A one-in-fifteen or -twenty rate of enmity obtains in society as a whole.

Welcome to contemporary American society—and to the grand costs of continued petty racism, even assuming that most people don’t practice it and that the way they practice is much less violent than it once was.

Update: I’ve replaced “hate” by “have it in for” to stress the non-virulent quality of the enmity at issue.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

34 thoughts on “Intermittent discrimination and guaranteed enemies”

  1. It would not have been assumed she was a maid if she were not (also) female. Just saying. But a very interesting if sad post.

    Btw, I think your estimates of the prevalence of bias are way too low. I think all of us, of every color and sex, struggle with this in terms of against/for "our" group, and every other. It's a smorgasbord of error! The miracle is that we get along as well as we do, given the history.

    And one of the few disadvantages for white men, if you can call it that, is the ignorance many of them live in as a result of their perceived? position, which makes the rest of us less likely to complain and thereby, maybe not fail to enlighten them, but at least make them aware that there's another side. In a workplace, that's a lot to expect of someone with less power, but at the same time, those are the only people who really know that side of you.

  2. Doesn't this analysis implicitly assume the non-existence of personal allies? IOW, assume that racial bias runs only one way? What if some people you run into are biased against your race, and won't give you a break, but some people you run into are biased in favor of your race, and cut you breaks where others wouldn't?

    How this would net out would be much less predictable.

  3. When you reach the point in your career, a couple of rungs down from where it would have been likely you would have been at this time, given your education, experience, and excellence, that you select a date for retirement and step away from the promotional ladder, it is very liberating. Free at last! The sensation of lightness, free from the burden of what the dominant ethnicity males project onto you, is breathtaking.

  4. The mental model I use for pervasive low-intensity discrimination is the uranium enrichment cascade. Each centrifuge or whatever only separates U-235 and U-238 very inefficiently, as the weight difference between the isotopes is only 1.3%; but repeat enough times, and you can get the 95% pure U-235 you need for a bomb.

  5. Do you think this also applies in the classroom? I think this sort of stuff happens even earlier than when a person enters the work force.

    So, how do we combat it? Everyone admits they're racist and sexist (and heterosexist and classist and etc.) and try to make decisions that ignore their biases?

    Anyways, happy MLK day. I work in Watts and so I forget thing have gotten somewhat better regarding racism, but they have… somewhat.

  6. Brett,

    Everywhere I've worked, the downchecks on your record have much more influence on your career than the successes. Business is a risk-averse environment, and one bad thing outweighs a thousand attaboys.

  7. So, how do we combat it? Everyone admits they’re racist and sexist (and heterosexist and classist and etc.) and try to make decisions that ignore their biases?

    Well, one good way to start would be to acknowledge that affirmative action exists precisely to overcome these biases, conscious or un-, and is therefore justified.

    As for whether gender discrimination is no longer salient: tell that to every woman who's every been cut off in a meeting because men are sure they're entitled to the floor, or endured any of the other thousand ways in which our input is diminished or discounted. (Amazing how many great ideas don't get recognized til a man mouths them.)

  8. One of Brett's points is interestingly illustrated in the Carole Simpson biography link provided by Andrew. According to it:

    "Station management was so impressed with her talents as both a hard news and feature reporter that they promoted her to a weekend anchor position. Though Simpson was rising quickly through the ranks in the industry, she was realistic about it. 'I can't deny that my color and my sex helped me get jobs,' she told Karen Peterson of the Chicago Tribune, 'although I like to think it was more because I could do the work.'"

    But also:

    "Never quiet about any racism she encountered, Simpson was aware of the consequences of being outspoken. 'It probably has hurt my career,' she said in an interview with Essence."

  9. A better start would be to admit that discriminating against innocent people on the basis of their race is wrong, no matter what high minded motives those who would commit it lay claim to.

  10. Kelly: I didn't say that gender wasn't salient in general. I just said that the stories Simpson told on the radio regarding the last few years seemed to be mostly about race.

    Brett: you're right that the model (admittedly simple) doesn't take account of race-based allies, only enemies. But I think correcting this would cut the opposite way from what you suggest: racial minorities—and here "minorities" is the right word; numbers matter, not just power—are not only more likely to have enemies in the workplace, but less likely to have allies. That's one of the better arguments for affirmative action. Blacks don't need other blacks in the workplace because they can't get along with whites; they need other blacks in the workplace so that somebody will believe them when they complain about whites who can't get along with them.

  11. Excellent point on the effects of unconscious bias. If you want to get real worried about humanity, check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_bi

    This stuff is *so* difficult to quantify. But we know it exists, and have developed pretty predictive models for how and where it develops. I have zero interest in debating affirmative action. But I will defend it as an institutional response to a cultural cancer that is hard to pinpoint, but we know exists. Brett's response reminds me of the libertarian opposition to civil rights legislation on the grounds that it restricts freedom. In one sense affirmative action isn't "fair", but in another, it is very fair. In other words, the world without it would be less "fair" than the world with it.

  12. "Well, one good way to start would be to acknowledge that affirmative action exists precisely to overcome these biases, conscious or un-, and is therefore justified."

    And creates even more bias against minorities in the process.

  13. How does a beneficiary of affirmative action, as it is generally practiced in the US, overcome the assumption that sh/e got a jump in the race because of…something else? This is not a trivial question.

  14. And creates even more bias against minorities in the process.

    Yeah, white privilege is a resentful, hard thing.

  15. Andrew, for starters, look at your own reply: You're explicitly assuming that any race-based allies have to be of one's own race. But if that's the case, how did we get affirmative action in the first place? It's an entirely unrealistic assumption: If there are whites in favor of affirmative action, there are whites who will personally implement such plans in their own behavior even if they're not officially in place. Affirmative action in institutions not dominated by blacks is an existence proof for pro-black discrimination on the part of a significant number of highly placed whites. Because affirmative action IS pro-black discrimination, implemented by whites. If it can happen officially, it can happen informally.

    "Why is denying me an unearned advantage discrimination?"

    I don't suppose it is, necessarily, but I do suppose that question is packed with more assumptions, which you felt it important to leave unstated, than I have time to unpack before finishing breakfast and heading off to work.

  16. If there are whites in favor of affirmative action, there are whites who will personally implement such plans in their own behavior even if they’re not officially in place.

    That assumes that they comprise, in part or in whole, the body of people with responsibility for hiring, firing and promoting.

  17. CharlesWT: And creates even more bias against minorities in the process.

    Phil: Yeah, white privilege is a resentful, hard thing.

    I agree with Phil. Sounds like we're worrying about making racists even more racist. But that's a claim that needs evidence. A business making special efforts to hire more minorities, even if pissing off the resentful whites, is *hiring more minorities*. Maybe those guys can go get tossed. Again, their assumption is that there is no historical legacy of discrimination that has placed downward pressure on minority success. If they accepted that premise, the idea of making explicit effort to hire more minorities would be seen as a reasonable remedy, not "reverse racism". But I understand that accepting that premise is a bridge too far for many – especially those without the requisite knowledge of historical race dynamics in the past 200 years.

  18. Another unfortunate consequence of intermittent discrimination is that it's unwise to trust pretty much anyone you haven't known for a long time. They could have it in for you, or they could simply not understand the pressure you're under. Which of course is another kind of self-reinforcing problem. In fact, in lots of offices I'd say it's not the 1 in 10 who fairly actively have it in for the "other" as the 5 in 10 who rush to deny that there might be any animus, and put a black mark against anyone of another race or gender who is quick (as in "ever") to take offense.

    (Meanwhile, I await from opponents of affirmative action the studies of the blighted careers of offspring and relatives of upper managers and top earners, who everybody also "knows" are getting a leg up because of their genetic heritage.)

  19. "That assumes that they comprise, in part or in whole, the body of people with responsibility for hiring, firing and promoting."

    Um, yeah. Hence affirmative action…

  20. As an immigrant who has been the recipient of this type of discrimination, it becomes difficult to justify the choice of becoming an American. In hindsight this may have happened in Canada or the UK anyway. Sadly the same experience was shared by my brother and I, but only realized by both after the fact.

    Why anyone would care to immigrate to the U.S. in light of this experience is beyond me. I would not even characterize myself as 'black' (perhaps 'brown').

  21. Graham Brown says:

    "Why anyone would care to immigrate to the U.S. in light of this experience is beyond me. I would not even characterize myself as ‘black’ (perhaps ‘brown’)."

    Better liars, please. Unless that border fence with Mexico is to keep people *in* the USA.

  22. Barry says:

    "Better liars, please. Unless that border fence………………….."

    This is American exceptionalism carried to it's most absurd extreme. I guess

    only uneducated immigrants are tolerated here. Or want in. Then keep them.

    Soon there will only be Mexicans and people like Barry to populate the place after Wall Street is done with the U.S.

  23. This reminds me a lot of Schelling's famous checkerboard model of housing, where very mild preferences about the race of one's neighbors leads to highly segregated residential patterns. Whether you think it describes the workplace accurately or not it certainly makes clear the potential for even small effects to add up. At a minimum it's a cautionary tale for those who think discrimination in employment has largely been eliminated.

  24. Bernard: Yes, the checkerboard model is very neat–but unfortunately, it doesn't resemble how things really happen. Surveys have shown that the problem regarding housing discrimination is actually different (though also counter-intuitive). Residents don't just have local preferences regarding immediate neighbors. They have preferences about the racial composition of their larger neighborhood. The good news is that most whites and most blacks want to live in a racially integrated neighborhood. The bad news is that they define "integrated" in ways that track race and are incompatible: whites want to live in a neighborhood that's "integrated" in resembling the racial composition of the U.S. as a whole (10-15% black); blacks want a neighborhood that's integrated in the sense of being about half black. (The surveys I've seen are fairly old. It could be that as hyper-segregation leads more and more blacks and Latinos to way overestimate which proportion of Americans are nonwhite, the gap between the race's preferences has actually increased.) More than about a third black and most whites move out; less than about a third black and many blacks are afraid to move in. The famous "Oak Park" strategy was to keep it at about a third. That sort of works–but is very hard to do without violating civil rights laws (and is mathematically impossible to extend to the whole country anyway).

    Short version: Schelling is a goddamn genius, but neither he nor anybody else can make a model that resembles the real world without gathering data about the real world. Needless to say, that's true of my Loury-derived hypothetical model as well. It could be that real discrimination doesn't work like that at all. The model only describes how discrimination *could* be both intermittent and distinctly harmful.

  25. The problem with "allies" as a counterweight is that, in the case that there is any in-group preference (which is ex hypothesi), just by being a member of the minority (again ex hypothesi) you have fewer of them by definition. Even if you make the (charitable) assumption that the two groups have equal numbers of alliances, the defining factor must therefore be how many enemies they have. QED.

  26. "The good news is that most whites and most blacks want to live in a racially integrated neighborhood. The bad news is that they define “integrated” in ways that track race and are incompatible: whites want to live in a neighborhood that’s “integrated” in resembling the racial composition of the U.S. as a whole (10-15% black); blacks want a neighborhood that’s integrated in the sense of being about half black."

    The good news is that, if you could solve the coordination problem, (Attempting to do so is probably illegal under current laws.) there are probably enough whites whose preferences depart from average in the direction of black preferences, (Whites don't, of course, have uniform preferences. Neither do blacks.) to satisfy the housing preferences of blacks, simply because the blacks only need a fraction of the white population to live in their neighborhoods to have their neighborhoods 50% white. While the whites, mathematically speaking, are doomed to be frustrated…

    Anyway, I was merely pointing out that a simplifying assumption had been made which was, first, demonstrably unrealistic, and, second, guaranteed the outcome of the analysis. I'm quite open to the possibility that a realistic, empirically based analysis would arrive at the same conclusion. It would just be a lot more complex, and not predetermined to so arrive.

  27. Barry says:

    “Better liars, please. Unless that border fence…………………..”

    Graham Brown says:

    "This is American exceptionalism carried to it’s most absurd extreme. I guess

    only uneducated immigrants are tolerated here. Or want in. Then keep them. "

    No, it's called 'facts'. The waiting lists for skilled immigrants is very, very, **very** long.

  28. Andrew,

    Thanks for the information on housing.

    Maybe another, simpler way to think about the issue you address is just that if a white worker has a 51-49 advantage over a black worker when it comes to raises, promotions, choice asignments, etc., that will definitely show up over time.

    It's roughly the house margin on casino dice tables.

  29. Bernard: I hope my comment on yours didn't sound too dismissive. It wasn't meant to; I just get frustrated that so many people forget that Schelling's checkerboard model was as hypothetical as it was.

    I like the "house margin" analogy. But since it seems so hard for people to realize that they're guaranteed to lose all their money if they play craps long enough, perhaps a more "personal" or "narrative" story is a more effective way of saying something roughly similar.

  30. I completely empathize. Racism still lives in American Society. Perhaps another kind of discrimination is just a prevalent. Age Discrimination is as pervasive in the Utility Industry as is gender and sexual preferance.
    I am targeted by my plant managers and my supervisor for two reasons. I am 60 years old with about 2 and half years to retirement. Add to this circumstance that I am a Union Steward and a member of My Local Union’s Executive Board. Discrimination has really been institutionalized ever since Warren Buffet’s Mid American Utility Holding Company took over Pacificorp Energy / Rocky Mountain Power here in Wyoming.
    “Define an enemy as someone who for no good reason (as you see it, anyway) has it in for you. Such enemies don’t intend to break your legs or kick you out of your house, but hold you to much higher standards than they hold everyone else to, as well as much higher standards than everyone else holds you to. For most of us, if we’re fairly decent people and team players, such enemies are uncommon—call them one co-worker in a hundred—but when they appear they really rankle. They make the workplace unpleasant; they make every meeting fraught”
    I find this statement to be a very accurate discription of what its like where I work. I couldn’t have described it better. My legal status is ignored and treated with total disdain and disrespect. I choose not to describe myself racially however. I am An American!!!! First and foremost I am a citizen of my community, my state and My Country.
    What I believe, is that the way our Capitalist Economy is structured, more that any other factor, it boils down to is that; “what do I have to get ahead?”
    I liken it to an ant hill with the hierearchical structure of how much wealth do we each possess. For me, I’m a Blue Collar Working Class guy. When I can come to work, do my job to the best of my ability and go home safe, then I’m satisfied with my role in this economic system. When this system evolves to the point where our fellow workers become obsessed with the “climb to the top of the Ant Hill” then everyone begins to suffer the consequences. I firmly believe that the struggle between the “Haves” and those who “Have Less” is crux of this discussion.
    Discrimination takes place out of fear of not having “control” over the world in which we live. Those who harrass and intimidate are insecure in their world view. For some sick reason, abusing their authority by abusing those with whom they work and live gives them satisfaction and a sense of well-being. That, to me is the reality of living in American. That is the reality of Economic Class Struggle. This is how the Wealthy Class controls the Working Class, by any means available. And they have a lot of resources.

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