Racism and discrimination

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I was prompted to write this post after encountering this story about discrimination: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2345741/Welsh-pub-New-York-FINED-race-discrimination-advertising-bar-staff-knowledge-British-culture.html

An interesting issue and one I might be wise not to wade into, given it’s such a highly charged issue. So let us begin, shall we?

The confusion isn’t helped by the headline. The owners weren’t sanctioned for race discrimination, but discrimination on the basis of nationality. The mistake the owners made, apparently, was saying someone British would have a leg up getting the job.

First of all, do we think bigots should have the right to be bigoted in their hiring practices? Canadian law says no. Clearly bigotry is ugly and a business that practices discrimination should be outed and shunned. Publicly-traded companies should be bound by non-discrimination rules. But I can see arguments for and against applying those same rules to small businesses. If a female business owner decides to hire her first employee and feels more comfortable working side by side with another woman, should the law force her to give equal consideration to a man? What about a person of one ethnicity who grew up in a neighbourhood dominated by another ethnicity and suffered bullying and abuse because of his race? Of course he shouldn’t hold that against everyone of that other ethnicity, but what if decades of animosity have made him uncomfortable with people from that race? Ideally, of course, he’d just get over it. But what if he can’t? What if we complicate it, and say the presence of people from that group causes him anxiety, even panic attacks?

None of this is simple, but that’s the point. Government edicts don’t account for the nuances of individual experience.  

This article also conflates nationality with race. The UK is a multicultural society. Being British hasn’t meant necessarily being white for a long time. The owners of the pub made no demand applicants be ethnically Welsh. But they do want someone who is very familiar with the culture of Britain.

That strikes me as very reasonable. This is a point worth stressing. Political correctness frequently marries culture and race, as if expressing preferences for one cultural practice over another is ‘racist’. This is false.

I don’t know if the Afrikaans apartheid regime in South Africa had broad support among the white populace of that nation or not. I assume they did but that’s not based on my knowledge of facts. For the sake of argument – in other words, I’m creating a hypothetical, so please, no outraged responses from Amherst’s large Afrikaans community – let’s say they did: Would disdain for the apartheid regime of South Africa mean you hated white people? Would it even mean you hated the ethnicity of white South Africans? Racism is dislike of biology. Discrimination against cultural practices – which can be ugly in its own right – isn’t racism, but cultural prejudice. Racism is always ugly, but cultural discrimination can range from ugly to reasonable. Should we not condemn the Taliban’s attitude towards women? How about the broad antipathy towards homosexuals in Nigeria?

So, back to the point: being British doesn’t mean being white. The owners have not said they only hire white people. (A further complication is that the Welsh consider themselves their own nationality, yet the bar owners are using a broader appeal, asking for those with knowledge of Britain).

The ad did state a preference for people who were British, and this definitely provides meat for prosecutors. Forget racial or ethnic prejudice, it’s undeniable the owners are discriminating in favour of people with a certain passport. That is discrimination. The question is, though, is it reasonable?

They haven’t said non-Brits need not apply. But they have given a portrait of the person they think would be a strong applicant. It stands to reason that a person from there would also know there, yes? But if I was a yankee Anglophile, perhaps I would also have sufficient knowledge to satisfy the owners.

And what about theme? Should a bar called Cowgirls have to hire male waiters? Should a Welsh pub be permitted to demand not just an English speaker, but an English speaker with an accent – an “authentic” Briton?

I realize this post is rambling a little, but that’s kind of the point. As I said above, these issues are complicated, multifaceted, and government rules are sometimes a ham-handed way of dealing with them. Do we really think the pub owners were “bad” because they had a particular kind of employee in mind? Not all jobs are open to all people. If you’re seven feet tall, forget being a NASA astronaut. Same applies if your brain doesn’t work that well.

Critics of my point would rightly note that it was government action that forced desegregation in the American South. It would be dishonest to say government has no role in preventing discrimination. But unfortunately, the sloganeering politicians use to push agendas – and the laws that come out of those efforts – tend to simplify what isn’t simple.

Of course the pub owners were discriminating. Every business owner “discriminates” when they choose one candidate over another: this one has more education than that one, this one has a more polished presentation than another. The question is whether the discrimination is relevant to the job. Yes, they may have overstepped when they suggested the candidate would be an ex-pat or Brit, but it isn’t at all clear their intent was inappropriate. Surprise, they want their Welsh pub to have a “British” feel.

Welsh purists might argue their biggest crime was not discriminating enough: Since when does being British make you a fit for a Welsh tavern?

(For the curious, I lived in Wales for a year – beautiful place. See a map here: http://www.mapsofworld.com/wales/map/wales-road-map.jpg)

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