Thursday, July 30, 2009

Class Bias Part 1: Replay

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on em
Thats what the statue of bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, lets club em to death
And get it over with and just dump em on the boulevard.
Lou Reed, Dirty Blvd.

I have been asked to clarify my views on class bias in law school hiring. As I see it, there are three questions. What do I mean by economic diversity? Second, what does economic diversity bring to the table? Finally, how would one go about hiring for this type of diversity? (I’d prefer not to use the term “affirmative action” which seems to have different and shifting meanings.) Before addressing these issues – one per week – I want to add a qualification. My focus is purely utilitarian. Will an increase in economic diversity (assuming the premise that it does not currently exist is correct) enhance teaching and research? Although I personally feel that children of poor and working class families have been excluded and there are issues of equity to consider, that is not my concern here. For now at least, I am not willing to ask today’s taxpayers to compensate today’s working class children because of what may or may not have happened to their parents. In the context of public schools, that may be nothing more than an intra-class redistribution.

To me class differences in the classroom and in scholarship are not about likely positions on specific issues. If that is what I were after, I am not sure economic diversity would get me there. (Plus, to be honest I am weary of hiring decisions, particularly at my School, based on how the candidate is likely to vote on specific issues.) I am thinking about a different perspective or sensitivity. I know this gets uncomfortable but a good example of what I mean by sensitivity or awareness involves an experience I had a few years ago when I shared a cab with a very privileged colleague – one I have enormous respect for. It was a battered cab with a driver whose clothes and demeanor said “working class.” She noticed a radar detector on his dash and attempted to engage the driver in a conversation about it. He nodded in response to her attempts. Somewhere along the line she announced with a big grin, “We got our radar detector from the Sharper Image Catalogue!” (This was several years ago when the Sharper Image had just come on the scene and carried with it some status.) She said it as though they had now bonded and would begin sharing Sharper Image stories. He was deer in the headlights. She was clueless that she was from a class of people who were inundated with Shaper Image catalogues and he was from a class that had not heard of the Sharper Image. This is all very dated now. Shaper Image has been exposed is now discounting on Ebay. So, substitute in this story something like the Design Within Reach catalogue. Or, virtually anything from San Francisco, of course.

This is just an example but I see the same disconnect played out repeatedly. I have talked to students who were turned down by my colleagues for research assistant jobs, but I did not tell them that jewelry, wide lapels, crooked teeth, and make-up make law professors nervous. Similarly, I have been in job interviews for teaching positions that were dismal because the candidate could not connect with interviewers by name dropping Guido, Cass, Eric or Ian; discussing biking in Italy or anything in the New Yorker; and let it drop that having a brand new car, as opposed to a fashionably old Volvo or Mercedes, would be cool.

If you agree that there are differences, the next question is whether having people on a faculty with this different sensitivity would make teaching and research richer. I will have a go at that next week.

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