People working against racism — aptly called "America's original sin" — often call for "social (or racial) justice." Justice being unequivocally good, it would seem that social justice must also be good. But justice and social justice can sometimes be incompatible.
Music critic Anthony Tommasini recently demanded that symphony orchestras stop auditioning musicians behind screens. He complained that "blind" auditions render it impossible to make orchestras more diverse racially.
Ironically, blind auditions were introduced in response to accusations that orchestras discriminated against minorities. Critics had argued that the best players should be hired without regard to their race.
Blind auditions indeed changed major orchestras. Tommasini notes that only 6% of these orchestras in 1970 were women. Today women are a third of the Boston Symphony and half of the New York Philharmonic.
But, complains Tommasini, racial minorities haven't increased. In the New York Philharmonic, "in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black." And, he thinks, blind auditions make it impossible to do anything about the "appalling racial imbalance" in these organizations.
I don't want to pick on an excellent music critic. But Tommasini's reference to an "appalling racial imbalance" offers an unusually clear recognition that social justice is a statistical concept based on groups.
Social justice regards individuals as "representatives" of a race or gender (or some other category of people). It assumes that the ideal situation is proportional representation of each group in all high status positions.
Plain old justice, on the other hand, requires that individuals be judged on "the content of their character" (as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it) or ability to do the job — not on skin color or group membership. As reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping noted, "It doesn't matter if it's a black cat or a white cat. As long as it catches mice it is a good cat." (He got in big trouble from Communist ideologues for saying this!)
Since social justice assumes that races should be "represented" proportionately, Tommasini concludes that it requires judging musicians on the basis of their race, which blind auditions make impossible.
But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, this would conflict with ordinary justice. Apparently we can either have justice here, or we can have social justice. The question then becomes: which kind of justice is more fundamental?
The answer is clear: orchestras play better if they select musicians based on their individual performance rather than striving to achieve the "correct" mathematical numbers: racial balance.
Justice is best promoted by procedures designed to produce it, the famous procedure for dividing cake between two children being a notable example. In symphony orchestras the procedure guaranteeing justice in hiring is blind auditions.
Treating individual applicants justly can sometimes also produce social justice. For women players, blind auditions greatly increased their "representation."
Making the opportunity to study music equally available to all children would increase minority presence in orchestras without requiring abandonment of blind auditions. This could be a job for the public schools.
But it would be tragic to abandon a just procedure in order to promote achievement of a preconceived mathematical ratio between musicians of different races, especially since nobody knows what that ratio ought to be.
I would argue that the ratio ought to be whatever composition is produced by treating all individual applicants justly.
The New York Times complains constantly about "underrepresentation" of minorities in every conceivable organization, not just symphony orchestras. It is hard to find an issue containing no such articles. "Social justice" is obviously very fashionable in liberal circles.
And it sounds good, until we look at the details. But as someone once said of Richard Nixon, we ought to give uncritical advocacy of "social justice" at any cost our undivided suspicion.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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