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Nov 17 2011

Breathing rarefied air

…or not, as the case may be.

So this morning I tilted my hand a bit, talking about lack of representation from visible minority groups in political circles, particularly at the municipal level. While serving in elected office is certainly an important way of contributing to society, it is not the only one.

As I mentioned, there are many potential explanatory factors for why members of visible minority groups might not run for office, not the least of which is the possibility that they may simply be uninterested in politics, but are instead focused on their careers. If it’s simply the case that the best and brightest are pursuing success in the business world, then we should see (assuming that the disparity is caused by factors other than racism) correspondingly high levels of business success. After all, these elite-level people who are eschewing a life in public service are still in the job market, and the kinds of personal skills and savvy that make for successful politicians also makes for successful CEOs. Those who aren’t running for city council must be running things from a board room, right?

Corporate Toronto lags significantly behind the public sector in the diversity of its leadership, according to a major report released Tuesday. Just 4.2 per cent of the members of corporate boards and executive teams in the Greater Toronto Area belong to visible minorities. That’s by far the smallest proportion of any of the six sectors surveyed, according to the report. Nearly 80 per cent of corporate boards and 75 per cent of corporate executive teams have no visible minority representation at all, the report found.

The corporate world compares unfavourably with the public sector, where more than twice as many leadership positions (8.8 per cent) are held by visible minorities. Government boards, agencies and commissions have the highest proportion of visible minority leadership at 22 per cent.

One of the central tenets of free-market capitalism is that the market is blind to everything except merit. If a company does things well, then it will succeed. Consequently, companies who hire the person that is best for the job will outperform those that have discriminatory promotion practices, because those companies will not necessarily have the most qualified candidates. This is the conservative response to affirmative action – that not only is it racist for putting white people at a disadvantage, but that it is entirely unnecessary because free-market forces are sufficient to mitigate the effects of racism.

And yet, when we look at the evidence, rather than the ideology, we see a very different picture. Whatever the forces at play are (and I continue to feel it necessary to point out that I don’t think that intentional racism is the largest explanatory factor), Toronto has an incredible wealth of diversity except in its positions of power. Toronto is not a city with a recent immigrant influx, either; there are a great many 3rd and 4th-generation immigrant families living in and around the GTA – more than enough time for people to become educated and climb the ladder. Even the most superficial look at the demographics at play here – a city with 40% minority population compared with 80% of boardrooms with no minority representation whatsoever - should be enough to make us strongly suspect that something is up.

It should be noted, however, that Toronto is trying to do better, and is having some measured success in that endeavour:

The report concludes that “subtle but positive” progress has been made over the three years since the first DiverseCity leadership report in 2009. Overall the proportion of visible minority leaders has increased by roughly 0.5 percentage points per year since the survey began, to 14.5 per cent in 2011.

The greatest change has been driven at the ballot box. The diversity of elected officials jumped to just less than 20 per cent in 2011, up from 16 per cent in 2009. City council is up 30 per cent. In the education sector, more than two thirds of GTA school boards and more than 80 per cent of college and university boards of governors have at least 20 per cent visible minority representation.

It has been my position, and continues to be, that if we continue to simply wait for the situation to improve through passive market forces, we will see only moderate change. It is rarely the case that a problem simply solves itself spontaneously. In a time when we are looking for innovative ways to spark the economy (although, arguably, that’s always the case), what sense does it make to cut ourselves off from a potential avenue of untapped insight and experience? Not to say that all negroes are magical, but that our current system seemingly has its doors closed to a broad swath of our society.

There may be, as I suspect there are, additional benefits as well:

The number and proportion of educated and skilled visible minorities that live in poverty belie market neutrality and speak to the objective and subjective ways that talent is overlooked. For example, an objective qualification may demand Canadian experience, but this may not be relevant to the job. Subjective assessments about “fit” and leadership may be culturally restrictive. In a 2005 report titled “The Diversity Advantage,” RBC estimated that these immigrants would add $13 billion to the economy if they were hired in the same proportion as those born in Canada, and urged governments to establish programs to better integrate them.

Failing to address the systemic and unexamined racism that exists in our society is hurting us, not only in a touchy-feely humanitarian way, but in tangible and expensive ways as well.

Now I would be a pretty lousy skeptic if I threw out a ‘racism of the gaps’ argument – that it must be racism because it’s not these other things – but I would be similarly naive if I simply ruled racism out as a factor in a fit of arch-liberalism. When a phenomenon breaks across racial lines and disproportionately disadvantages people of colour (PoCs) – a phenomenon whose outcomes carry the same force and effect of overt racism – racism is a perfectly legitimate culprit to investigate. It will take courage and purposeful action to correct these injustices, because an entire sea change is needed in our collective consciousness when it comes to understanding race/racism; however, there will be great rewards to reap once we do.

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6 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    How much of this is the old-boys’-club factor: if you have a high-level job opening, won’t you be more inclined to give it to your boarding-school roommate/golfing partner than some stranger?

    Keep [x-group] out of those schools and country clubs (not necessarily intentionally, just by high fees), you keep [x-group] out of opportunities to climb the ladder – generationally, indefinitely.

    It would be entirely unfair to call this racism. Some might call it classism, but any such person would be by definition a radical leftist, and thus unfit for civilized dialog among Serious People.

    The racist effects are merely collateral damage. (Good luck applying for a grant to study same!)

  2. 2
    astrosmash

    Run for office…Please…

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    Hahaha. Maybe some day, but I’m kind of planning on at least turning 30 first. There’s that whole “relevant life experience” aspect to consider.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    That is a good question, and there is indeed some evidence to suggest that nepotism specifically plays a role at the top levels. The other potential explanatory factor that I’ve had suggested to me for this phenomenon is a cohort effect – that the people who are old enough to be executives grew up in a society that had very different attitudes about race, but as the younger generation moves up we will see those silos begin to collapse. I am skeptical about this, but I haven’t seen any evidence to refute the possibility.

  5. 5
    Retired Prodigy Bill

    My time in both academia and a Fortune 500 company provided me with much anecdotal evidence that “free markets” are a myth, as is the idea that the actors in such a market behave rationally. In the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” there is the head of an international company that fires people who wear the same color tie he does: this is not terribly far from reality.

    I’ve read several analyses of incompetence that show how bosses very often privilege socializing more than results, and socializing between cultures (including cultures based on ethnic identity) is, I would argue, a tad more difficult than socializing within an in-group.

    Conspiracy, straight out nepotism or conscious racism isn’t needed, just good old human irrationality and the friction of large organizations. It still has to be fought, but as the saying goes, “Against stupidity even the gods themselves struggle in vain.”

  6. 6
    Art

    I suspect that it has to do with a lack of black models of moderate public failure.

    Most of the public models of blackness include some level of success. Uncle Tom wasn’t remarkable because he did what the white folks said. He was remarkable for making it work. The stereotype of the pimp is one of relative success and wealth. The stereotype of the rapper/thug is one of relative success, respect, and power.

    Yes, they all have tragic ends. Uncle Tom ends in a pauper’s grave, the pimp gets knifed by a dissatisfied customer, the thug is shot by a rival, and all of them live with fear and violence, but they all live and die on their own terms with a level of success, respect and a name. None of them fit the classic loser profile.

    Look at the Cobby Briant story. He makes millions, is brought down by the dog fighting thing, but he is still there, with stacks of cash. No matter the scandal he is clearly making it, making it big.

    Even lower class models like the classic “Sanford and Son” were about people getting by. People respected in their community.

    Black comes in two media favors: The majority who are too insignificant to bother talking about, and a successful minority.

    The blow-back is the construction of a mythology that says that if you just try hard and work it every African-American can be a success. Which implies that all those not making it are, in some way, unworthy. It also implies that you have a good chance of hiring a dud if you hire a black man. Sure, you might get an overachiever, but even that isn’t necessarily good. Do you want to hire someone who might take over the place?

    For African-Americans in the US there are very few models of normal, every-day loser or winner behavior that doesn’t involve some huge character distortion. There is no middle ground. In football terms there is no ‘ground game’. It is either a series of hail-Mary passes, touchdown kickoff returns, or the players don’t make it onto the field.

    Of course this is also true of all media images. TV and movies are majority focused upon shimmer powdered vampires, entitled white kids awash in drama and hormones, slightly too good looking people who are famous for being famous, and none of them seem to do anything for a living. Either that or they play ‘victim number two’ or ‘wino’ in a police procedural. Hard to find a lot of models of people just living. Makes sense it is that way. My story wouldn’t make a good movie, or TV show. Unless you’re trying to cure insomnia.

    But for people who are not white it is even harder. For them there is either hero, thug, or hero/thug.

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