When Equalizers Are Thought To Be Biased

Writing in the New York Times this past Thursday, Anthony Tomassini called for ending blind auditions for orchestras, because the orchestras are not coming out diverse enough. What strikes me as odd about this is that the whole reason for blind auditions is to encourage diversity, by eliminating unconscious bias. The argument would go something like this: the orchestra is all white men, it’s highly unlikely that no women or POC are talented enough to play enough in the orchestra, therefore it’s probable that there’s bias in the selection process, but if we hold blind auditions, no one will know the gender or ethnicity of the candidate. And sure enough, while women made up around 6% of orchestras in 1970, today “women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic.” However, black and Latino artists hover around 2%. So Tomassini suggests that we now end blind auditions in order to purposely increase POC representation in orchestras. The article considers, but is dismissive of, the idea that the best way to get more POC orchestra members is to address bias issues in school music programs, so that more POC are going to the blind auditions. Tomassini rejects this on the grounds that at the top levels, everyone is pretty much as good as everyone else, so we might as well prioritize other values such as representation.

While I suspect it’s false that there is “remarkably little difference between players at the top tier,” my point today is not to argue against Tomassini’s conclusion. I don’t have particularly strong views on how orchestras should be constructed. Rather, what motivated me was that I was reading this story on the same day that my news feed brought me yet another article arguing that the SAT is “mired in racism and classism.” In both instances, we have something that was designed to eliminate bias being castigated for being biased. In the old days, admission to elite universities was largely a matter of connections – if you were white and wealthy and attended good prep schools, you could go to an elite university. If you were female, or Jewish, or low-SES, or non-white, or a recent immigrant, it didn’t matter much if you were very smart and industrious. The “old boy” network would have still excluded you. Standardized testing was meant to undermine that bias by providing objective evidence that a woman, or a Jew, or a recent immigrant from Italy, or an African-American, could be just as smart, just as capable of dealing with college, as the WASP boys were. And sure enough, the elite institutions diversified broadly. But. It’s generally well-accepted that you can get better SAT scores if you have lots of prep coaching, which the wealthier can procure much more easily, so despite the success of standardized testing in increasing diversity, concerns remain about bias.

Now I do have slightly stronger opinions about education policy than I do about orchestra membership, and I am not convinced that the SAT is as horrible as Teen Vogue makes it out to be. But even if it is, it’s far from obvious what the solution should be. If we eliminate standardized testing, college admissions would be based on something else. High school grades? Given the great disparity in schools, this would make the problem much worse, not better. The rich kids from elite prep schools, or even just well-funded suburban public schools, will have at least as much of an edge in terms of showing good grades as they do in test coaching. What about appealing to other things, like who is on the crew team? It’s obvious that that sort of metric would be biased as well. What about the personal essay? That’s even more susceptible to coaching and prep advantages than testing. To take a page from Tomassini, we might say “well, there’s remarkably little difference between students at the top tier,” so we can select for as much diversity as we like – except in this case we don’t yet know which students are in the top tier.

What both of these stories have in common is a tension between conceptions of equality. If selection for elite institutions is based on racial/gender/SES discrimination, that’s inegalitarian. But if mechanisms for routing around bias fail to eliminate all bias, or introduce new bias, what to do? Does meritocratic egalitarianism help, or hinder, diversity along racial/gender/SES lines? I am not sure there are easy answers here. One piece of right-wing snark I saw online said of the orchestra issue “this is the civil war between white women and blacks.” The implication there seems to be that gains for women come at the expense of gains for African-Americans and vice-versa. It’s a zero-sum game in the sense that there are only so many slots in a particular orchestra (or an incoming freshman class), but how those slots are filled is a values question. What is the main desideratum? Excellence? Representation? Preservation of status quo? Inclusion? Exclusion? Not all these are mutually incompatible: When baseball was segregated, you couldn’t really claim that excellence was the main value, because the great talent of Negro League players was excluded. Promoting a value of inclusiveness aided the promotion of a value of excellence. (So too with Ivy League schools ending their prohibition of females, Jews, blacks, etc.) But different institutions might seek different values. In professional sports, you don’t have to be a native of (say) Pittsburgh to play for the Pittsburgh teams. But in international amateur competitions, the team from Finland is made up of Finns. There’s no metaphysical necessity behind one institution having one rule and the other having the other. That’s just the way those institutions developed. But clearly there’s a difference between (a) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Danes allowed” and (b) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Jews allowed, even Finnish Jews.” So some forms of discrimination are more legit than others. But that doesn’t tell us whether to abolish testing for college admissions, or blind auditions. Those institutions need to clarify – both to themselves and to their public – what their chief values are. We won’t solve the problem by just assuming that all institutions have, or even should have, the same values and purposes.