Equal opportunity

I am a firm believer in equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of their demographics. But that does not mean I believe we should or will see every occupation or area attain ‘equality,’ in the sense of seeing each demographic represented in the same proportions as they are represented in society at large.

Let’s take an example from real life. A few years ago, I looked up the highest paid players in the NBA. Although African-Americans make up something like 13% of the US population, the percentage of the highest paid players in the NBA who are African-American was substantially higher. I also believe that the overall number of players in the NBA identifying as African-American is substantially above 13%. So, the NBA certainly lacks demographic equality when it comes to its player base. But does this mean the NBA lacks equal opportunity?

There are three reasons, off-hand, why we might see this apparent ‘bias.’

  1. The NBA teams have an irrational bias against white people or in favour of black people; in other words, qualified white players are being overlooked in favour of less qualified black players. I don’t believe this one. NBA teams play to win. That’s how they make money. I suppose it could happen occasionally, but I don’t take it seriously.
  2. Black people are much more likely to have an interest in playing professional basketball than members of other demographics.
  3. The physique which is ideal for playing basketball is more common among people of African descent than those of European descent.

Personally, I believe that reasons 2 and 3 probably account for most, if not all, the apparent disparity among NBA players. And I believe that is perfectly fine. I don’t actually know if point 3 is true or not, but it’s a reasonable (and testable) hypothesis. I’m pretty sure point 2 is true, and again, it’s something that could easily be tested. The point is, I believe white people have the same opportunity as black people to become NBA players. They are just either less interested on average (2) or less qualified on average (3).

Now, such a view of the NBA is not controversial. Nor do we see anyone desperately trying to figure out how we could ‘get white people interested in basketball!’ However, such a view does seem to become controversial in other situations. For me, however, my analysis of the situation will be parallel to the analysis given above. When we ask ‘Why is demographic A under-represented in field X,’ we have three main reasons that could explain this.

  1. Irrational bias against A.
  2. People of demographic A tend to lack an interest in X.
  3. People of demographic A are, either through their upbringing or through a genetic correlation, less likely to be ideal for X.

Now, only in case 1 do I think there is a lack of equal opportunity. And generally, only if there is a lack of equal opportunity should we consider any sort of legal intervention with X itself. In case 2, I do not see how legal intervention could be of use. We could ask whether it would be desirable to try to change the subculture of A such that they are more likely to have an interest in X, but changing something like that is not really a legal issue. In case 3 likewise, we could ask whether a flaw in upbringing within A’s subculture could make their members more likely to be suited for X. If that upbringing is part of public education, then we need legal intervention in public education – for instance ensuring that males and females both have the option to study sciences (though for the record, women are now getting employed at twice the rate as men in most STEM fields) – but not in X itself! It is not the fault of X or of the organizations within X, that people from A are less likely to be qualified, due to their upbringing. And of course, if the issue is genetic/physiological, then there is nothing to be done anyway. A good example of the latter case would be any sort of job requiring hard physical labour, in that such an occupation will likely always have an under-representation of females, even if both genders are given equal opportunity to apply, simply because of the distributions of strength between genders.

So, if the problem is 3, then the only legal intervention that makes sense is to consider if there’s something missing from the public part upbringing of people within A. If the problem is 2, then there’s not much that can be done legally, except to again ask if there’s something missing from the public part of A’s upbringing. Only in case 1 do I believe it would be justified to have any sort of legal intervention in the field of X itself. More particularly, only in that case should we blame the organizations within the field of X itself for the problem. In all other instances, X provides equal opportunity – and that is all that we can or should expect it to do.


PS Note that occasionally, there might be a seeming bias against A which really falls under point 3. For instance, in acting in historical pieces, the actor needs to at least somewhat resemble the person they are portraying. Now, you could have a French person portray a Swedish person pretty easily, but a French person probably couldn’t pass as, say, Nigerian.


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