On one side of the ledger, there are young black men gunned down in the street. On the other side, there are old white men in positions of power. Is there a connection? Of course there is. Once the black faces aren’t presumptively more likely to be thought of as criminals, as worthless, throw-away lives, cops won’t be as quick to kill. But that doesn’t answer the question raised by the New York Times’ pictorial on the faces of power.
The Times runs through various palaces of power, from Congress to the cabinet, Ivy League universities to Hollywood execs, music producers to big city mayors, publishing houses to, well, you get the point. And what cannot be missed is that the people who control power in America are overwhelmingly white.
In a world where race, ethnicity, national origin was ignored, one would expect to see faces in relative proportion to people’s representation in the population. If the United States population was 13% black, then so too would be the members of the Senate, the heads of newspapers, the owners of basketball teams. But they’re not. Not even close.
This makes a point, premised on the presumption that there is no intrinsic basis for racial proportionality not to exist, that we remain a highly segregated society, despite all we do to end discrimination. But it’s an inflammatory point that offers no solution. While the Times’ images will get people worked up, outraged, about discrimination, it fails to raise, no less address, some hard, cold realities.
Let’s take the United States Senate, for example.
In the history of the Senate, there have been just 12 Republican and 14 Democratic senators who were not white. Six of them are now in office. Two of the three Hispanic senators – Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas – are running for president.
A bastion of discrimination? By the numbers, definitely. But we elect them. People run for office, and then voters get to decide who will represent them. Is the New York Times suggesting that the system be tweaked so that only minorities should run for Senate until there is proportional representation? Should voters be required to vote for a minority candidate? This is the problem, the optics are awful, but they reflect who runs and who gets elected.
But that only applies to elected office. What about, say, basketball teams, a particularly ironic group given the grossly disproportionate number of black players.
About 75 percent of players are black, but Michael Jordan is the only black majority owner among the N.B.A.’s 30 teams. While teams often have multiple owners, we show the ones representing the teams at league meetings.
Is this meant to suggest that a certain percentage of teams should only be sold to black owners? There are wealthy black people. Are they to be required to buy basketball teams rather than spend their money as they choose? Are white owners to be precluded from buying, from owning, ball clubs?
But then there is employment, that chief executives of businesses that exert significant control over what we see, hear, learn, know, are also quite white.
The people pictured here are among the most powerful players in the television industry. The group is not exhaustive, but we included the top producers and executives at major networks and streaming services. Channing Dungey, head of ABC entertainment, became the first black network president in February.
Television, as with all businesses, is in the business of making money. Not to be unduly crass, but if a business fails to make a profit, it ceases to exist. If it fails to make a sufficient profit, it is unworthy of investment. This basic detail tends to be ignored because it seems unfair to many who see business as an inexhaustible source of evil, though the people who refuse to grasp the fundamental nature of business change quickly when they have money to invest.
Boards of directors of corporations select CEOs based upon their determination that the person can manage the business well. By well, I mean profitably. Money is neither black nor white, male nor female, but green. It’s a waste of human capital to ignore a good manager based upon an irrelevant immutable characteristic. If a black woman CEO can run a business better, then that’s whom a board should select. It’s just money.
A stumbling block is that CEOs don’t pop out of the woodwork in the mahogany boardroom, but are developed in the ranks of lower management. If discrimination prevents the development of good managers based on race or gender, then corporations are impairing their ability to select from the best qualified candidates. They are harming their own prospects by neglecting people who bring skills they desire to the table. Smart money discriminates on ability, not color.
Discrimination isn’t foolish merely because we feel badly about the lack of black, Hispanic or female faces among the people in power, but because we lose access to those who would serve best in positions of power. If Cory Booker would make a damn fine Senator, who cares what color his skin is? But it’s not because he is black, but because he has the chops to do the job.
Yet, splaying the faces of power across the pages of the New York Times seems designed to evoke outrage at discrimination rather than address its irrationality. We’re up to our eyeballs in misdirected outrage, which promotes the trappings of discrimination, the hurt feelings over nonsense, at the expense of the substance.
In the movie, Trading Places, Eddie Murphy replaces Dan Akroyd on a bet, becoming a Master of the Universe as Akroyd turns criminal bum. It’s a very funny movie, but it’s just a movie. The real life answer is that you can’t just swap out the white guys for the black guys, and everything else remains the same.
But if you want a place to start, how about not treating every young black man as a likely criminal? Then making sure that the education given young people, all young people, provides a sound basis for their future.* Rather than foster race wars, gender wars, give everyone the opportunity to develop into the best they can be, whether that’s a good carpenter or Senator. And even so, you can’t force a woman to buy a football team if that’s not where she wants to put her money.
In a rational world, discrimination based upon immutable characteristics is bad business, an unsound use of human resources. Generating outrage by pictorial representations of the problem makes part of the point, but not the part that matters. We would do well to fix the problem rather than inflame counterproductive feelings and mindless divisiveness.
While the Times’ pictorial may legitimately be directed toward raising consciousness of the problem, demonstrating that discrimination still exists and the sea of white faces proves it, the current climate is one of anger and blind emotion. The story is more likely to drive mindless anger than thoughtful solutions. That won’t solve anything.
*Will the current demands on campus for mandatory critical race and gender studies develop the skills necessary to become a corporate CEO? While it may raises sensitivity to the existence of discrimination, although that too is a dubious proposition, it will do nothing to provide students with the skills needed to achieve success. No one will ever be picked to lead a television network because of their mad gender studies skillz. No one can ever be picked to lead a television network if they were needlessly killed by cops at 17.