A New York Times piece about racial bias at Amazon got me thinking about one of the most common misunderstandings that smart White people have about racism.
I’ll call it the “color of money is green” theory.
Here’s the theory, as it might be used to defend Amazon:
“Come on man, Bezos didn’t start the company to do racism, he’s trying to make money and innovate in a hurry. They need smart people constantly — why would they deny promotions to qualified Black and Latin people?”
Of course, this theory is partially right. There’s a lot that it correctly understands about the importance of competence in overriding racial prejudice. In the past few generations, plenty of racist White people who would have preferred a White doctor or lawyer or teacher, ended up choosing a Black doctor or lawyer or teacher because they were simply too excellent at their profession to deny.
But the same argument can be flipped on its head. Amazon, and other companies in a hurry, often respond to the pressure they’re under by going with the flow wherever possible — which can mean accommodating racism and sexism.
Giving vital people whatever they want — including excluding people they aren’t interested in working with, even if this is done without a coherent plan — is one of the many practical compromises that organizations make. We’ve seen it with high-level executives at companies like Uber, whose long-known toxicity didn’t threaten their jobs until they endangered the solvency of the entire company.
The lectures of Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, collected in the book Zero to One, are refreshingly candid about the usefulness of excluding competent people for narrow reasons. Thiel tells of a PayPal interviewee who was impressive, but who made a fatal mistake — they mentioned casually that they liked to “play hoops”.
That’s it. They were done.
Thiel justifies this by arguing that it’s practically helpful to have a culturally homogenous team. My point is not to denounce Peter Thiel: he’s just saying out loud what thousands of leaders and managers know and act on daily. That’s how racism works, a lot of the time: it is conducted by people who don’t set out with the intention to be racist. It’s just that perpetuating racism is convenient to their power.
That is, the color of money may be green, but it is no guaranty against racism. In fact, it is often earned with a little help from racism.
This is yet another problem that comes from the misconception that someone needs to be motivated by racist animosity to qualify as racist; and the misconception that racism is something people are, rather than something that people do, or that institutions build into their structure.
This sort of racism happens constantly. Often it’s hidden behind euphemisms and personal judgments that align behind the status quo; but often it’s blatant.
A few years ago, one Asian-American woman I know was part of a hiring process that came down to a choice between two candidates: one a White man, the other an Asian-American woman. The gap in qualifications — in the woman’s favor — was unmistakable; it was a research position, and the woman had more than three times the number of significant papers published.
Also, most of the hiring committee was White and male. And what these White men kept coming back to — and what ended up leading to the White man being chosen — was their so-called intuition.
They said, “I can really imagine working with him.”
They said, “I’m just not sure if she would fit in.”
Again, these White people and men were not aiming to be racist or sexist in and of itself. They were just using racism and sexism as practical tools — to feel less threatened, to feel in control, to provide people they imagine are more likely to be friends, to have less impressive competition, to protect their own chances for internal promotion.
That is, in any organization there are strong reasons to prize competence, and also strong reasons to oppose competence. Racism, sexism, and transphobia offer not only destructive motivations in and of themselves. They also offer useful, plausibly deniable, surprisingly palatable tools to oppose competence.
What, then, really is the color of money?