Minority Report: The Role of Race in Hiring

May 8, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

I started my professional career in recruiting when I was hired at a Native American casino to run the recruiting team. There was considerable consternation when I showed up because my boss had told people that I was an Indian, which had been interpreted to mean that I was Native American (I did wonder just how smart one has to be to think that someone with my last name was a Native American). Hiring Native Americans, especially for senior positions, was a goal of the casino and we were supposed to show preference in hiring to Native Americans. This was no easy task and my team was constantly berated for not hiring enough. Native Americans represent about 0.8% of the population, and of the ones that were qualified for senior roles had their pick of jobs.

This was when I learned just how much of a premium the claim to minority status can provide to a candidate. I had noticed that some of those who we hired didn’t look much like Native Americans, but more like Native Irish or Native Germans. Our only basis for classifying them as Native Americans were their personal claims about their ancestry, and apparently any claim was acceptable. I suggested that we ask anyone claiming Native American status for some proof, such as a tribal membership card, but was told that candidates would find this insulting — it was never explained why — so it went by the wayside. One of our managers was an African American individual who claimed that one of his ancestors, six generations back, was Native American. There was obviously no way to validate this and even if it was true it only made him 1/64 Native American but that was good enough for management and it got them off my back, so I didn’t complain.

The Diversity Dilemma

Employers are often desperate to hire minorities, which causes them to ignore obvious realities and creates incentives for candidates to lie. The case of Elizabeth Warren, currently running for a senate seat in Massachusetts, is the most recent reminder of how this works. Warren had described herself as a Native American while a professor at several universities, eventually making it to Harvard, where she dropped the claim. The school had claimed she was a minority as proof of its commitment to diversity. The claim was a dubious one: Warren is described as whiter than a polar bear with bleached teeth in a snowstorm. She supposedly had ancestors five generations back that was Native American. This may be impossible to prove, it’s equally impossible to disprove. This was obviously an advantage in getting hired at an elite institution. But once that goal was achieved, perpetuating the story would result in a stigma that she was hired because of her ancestry instead of her credentials and abilities.

One can hardly blame the university for accepting her claim — a Native American woman with an advanced degree in law from a major university … where would they find another? The number is so small that it doesn’t even register in the official education statistics.

The simple fact is that highly qualified minorities are still few in number. Recent census data show that the numbers of minorities with graduate degrees is only 4% of African Americans, about 3% of Hispanics, and 12% of Asians (compared to 8% of Caucasians). But in absolute numbers the quantities are small — only about 330,000 across all groups (compared to about 940,000 Caucasians). Add in the fact that a lot of advanced degrees held by minorities (other than Asians) tend to be in liberal arts or the social sciences and you can see that a minority candidate with an advanced degree in the sciences, IT, law, or business is a real prize catch.

You Get What You Pay For

If we reward minority status with advantages but expect people not to abuse them, we only have ourselves to blame. Take the venerable affirmative action programs as an example. The thinking behind affirmative action is to help disadvantaged minorities get ahead, but it produces some ridiculous outcomes — such as when affirmative action goals include Asians of all stripes. About 65% of people of Asian origin have a college degree and the majority have high incomes. The average person from India lives in a household that earns about $90,000 per year. This group hardly needs help getting ahead, and frankly to be labeled a disadvantaged minority is outright patronizing. There is some recognition of the absurdity of this approach, at least among colleges where programs in the sciences and technical fields are dominated by Asians, and the focus has switched to diversity.

I’ve long wondered why disadvantage is equated with race. Is everyone of a particular race automatically disadvantaged forever? They can’t ever get ahead without help? Talk about being patronized. If the goal is to help people get ahead, then shouldn’t it be based on economic status instead of race?

So long as government agencies continue to demand affirmative action as a condition of doing business with them we can expect to see situations like the Elizabeth Warren case. There are no statistics on how frequently these situations arise, but from anecdotal evidence they’re not uncommon. In 1988, the Boston Fire Department fired two firefighters for lying on their job applications, claiming to be African American. The two are identical twins — described as having red hair and fair complexions. They claimed that their mother had shown them an old picture of their grandmother and told them she was Black. The criteria for being classified as a minority was self-description, so having previously failed to pass the civil service exam they reapplied as minorities and were hired, despite getting low scores. The situation at the Boston Fire Department when they were hired was described as one where they needed to do something because they ran out of minorities on the list.

There are many Elizabeth Warren’s getting hired. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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