Monday, March 14, 2005

Counting certain noses 

The story could happen anywhere and the details would differ, but here's the one I get to live. A colleague from another department discusses your search for a new faculty member. You can't talk too much because of confidentiality, so what's out is saying much about who they are, what's their research like, how they seem they would perform in the classroom. But you're talking and it comes out that one of the candidates for your position is a woman.

"I hope you hire the woman," your colleague will say.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because you don't have that many in your department."

This conversation is an archetype: I have had it with several people in the university at various times over the last six years as we've hired four or five new positions. These people are well-intentioned but it causes me to bristle every time I hear it. We are trying to hire the best teacher and best colleague, and all these people think of is the sex of the candidate. And we have women in the department and have made offers to others who've gotten better job offers elsewhere ... as have other men.

The market sorts itself out; because there are fewer women in the field than men (still about 1-to-2 at the doctoral level, though it was 1-to-4 twenty years ago) and because of PC pressures in academia, women get premium salaries and go to better schools. Those of us teaching at Directional State University in Somestate, with limited budgets, seldom get them. And so it goes.

I thought of this again today after Mitch and Ed posted about this entry on Twin Cities Babelogue, which I take it is a reference to the Tower of Babel and not a travel guide to brothels. My NARN brethren are indignant about her coverage of Powerline's Farewell to Dan Rather tribute last Wednesday. The entry in Babeliciouslogue (those of you who've seen City Pages ads will get that) is by one Molly Priesemeyer, who from her archive appears to be a relatively young and new reporter for the City Pages. She writes:

Is it really white in here, or is it just me? En route to the Power Line/Center of the American Experiment Dan Rather retirement party, I rode in an elevator filled with white men in suits who made observations like "I can�t wait" and "This oughtta be good." These were received with hale-fellow-well-met white-guy laughter that abruptly stopped when the elevator doors opened to reveal a group of young black men in Roc-A-Wear gear who were apparently not attending the same event. Then the elevator doors closed and took the bunch of us back to 1952 for an event that felt like a dinner at a segregated country club in the days when Perry Como ruled the airwaves.
I am at a loss here. When I'm on an elevator with friends and a stranger comes aboard, I don't usually continue chatting loudly with my friends, regardless of the stranger. It's impolite to impose your loud voice on other eardrums.

My question for young Molly: Why are you counting the number of black people in the room? If Clarence Thomas' whole family was there, what would that prove to you? Kevin Garnett's family? 50cent's?

We fear the answer Molly would give: If your event has too high a proportion of white people, it might be racist. Just as if my department has a high proportion of males it might be sexist. Then, if you don't happen to like the political views of the people in the room as well, the might becomes a maybe, and in the effort to write a witty piece the maybe becomes a form of to be.

The correct answer to Molly is simple: How many would be enough. She counted three, one of them the video recorder of the event. Would five do? How about ten? How many noses of a certain color would verify to you that conservative hearts are not tinged with racism? And does it matter if they are middle- or lower-class? I mean, the event was a $35 ticket; chances are most poor whites were also not in the room. Any concerns there?

Molly's not alone, and I don't think the preconceptions she shows towards conservatives in that piece are any more egregious than the well-meaning friends drilled in political correctness on my campus counting how many categories we fill on an affirmative action report. But recognize it, please, for what it is: The perception that to the left, the right is not only wrong but morally suspect.

UPDATE: Mitch tries out as Scott Ott.