When I lived in the South many, many years ago, I had a long discussion about race with an elderly southern gentleman, who happened to teach mathematics at a community college. He was not, he insisted, a racist–no, he had supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But, he added, he could unequivocally state what he believed was a politically incorrect, but true, statement: Black people, he told me, were just dumber than white people. His proof of that was that in 30 years of teaching, he had never, ever had a black person get an A in his class.
Now, I hope you are as dumbfounded and horrified as I am by that revelation. I really do believe this person honestly believed he wasn’t a racist. But I’m also positive that his belief that black people were less intelligent had a huge impact on his grading and treatment of black people. I suspect he gave black people less credit on exams for identical performance, because he was convinced they just didn’t get it, no matter what their paper showed; I’m sure he gave them less time and attention in and out of class.
And I’m damned sure, that he shortchanged 30 years of black students by his attitude. It’s just simply not possible that not one black student ever deserved an A in his class. And instead of asking himself, “What am I doing to cause this unconscionable disparity?” he looked at an entire population and found them wanting.
A similar phenomenon was observed in orchestra hiring. The conventional wisdom was that women had smaller technique, and less artistic ability than men. It had nothing to do with sexism, the conductors who did the hiring insisted; women just weren’t as good as men, and they were selecting for quality. Political correctness was pointless. Then someone decided to implement a drastic technique–initial auditions were conducted behind a screen, so the conductor couldn’t see who was playing as he judged the merits of the performance. Needless to say, female participation in orchestras increased rapidly.
So when Publisher’s Weekly defends their all-male top 10 list by explaining that they chose what they believed to be the best stand-out books out there, but that they chose without regard to “political correctness,” you’ll have to excuse my bored sigh. Been there. Done that. Got the irrelevant T-Shirt.
I understand the argument about quality, and I don’t want Publisher’s Weekly (or anyone else) to bless any book with an imprimatur that is undeserved simply in the name of political correctness or inclusiveness or diversity. But their conclusion that including women on the list would simply be a matter of “political correctness” suggests to me that they’re asking themselves the wrong question. It looks like they’re asking themselves, “Why should we bend our standards to include women?” when they should be asking themselves, “Do our standards exclude women, and if so, are they good standards, and if not, how can we fix them?”