Complaint Ethics, With A Dash of Bias

My wife had to deliver some documents to my son’s school, one of those large mega-magnet schools that are locked up tighter than Alcatraz during school hours to keep out drug-dealers, assassins, and street  mimes. After being blocked at “Entrance One” by a big guy in shades and a starter jacket (he looked like a club bouncer), she was sent to “Entrance Two.” There she encountered another security obstacle, a desk commanded by an imposing looking woman. There were four others seeking access. One of them, a suited gentleman, presented identification. One was identified by the woman at the desk as someone “who went to school here last year,” and he was allowed to pass the checkpoint on her recognizance alone. Another woman, who said she was a parent, also said was there to pick up something. She had no I.D., however “I’m not going to make you go back for your purse,” she was told. “Go on in.” My wife, also without her purse, was told she did have to present I.D., and had to hike back to the car and return with her driver’s license.

Should my wife report this arbitrary and obviously flawed execution of security procedures to school administrators? And a harder question..

Should she make an issue of the fact that both the woman at the desk and the parent she allowed to pass without I.D. were African American, and my wife is not?

The first question is an easy one, I think. If a school is going to have security procedures, they need to be followed. A former student may still be up to no good; simply letting him pass because he’s familiar makes no sense at all. She didn’t even ask what he was there to do. Treating two parents arriving at the same time without ID differently looks unfair and incompetent, and is unfair and incompetent.

Whether to make an issue of the race of the two women is a complex question. No doubt: if a white employee let a white mother pass but sent the black parent to the parking lot, there would be hell to pay….even if the logic behind it had nothing to do with race. The disparate treatment still has the appearance of prejudice, and still could legitimately make the African American women feel insulted and abused. The administrators would need to be alerted to this as soon as possible. But does the same logic hold if the races are reversed?

Balanced against the appropriateness of complaining about possible bias is the danger of turning mere bad judgment into a racial incident, and perhaps causing a major job crisis for an employee who may have just made one careless decision in a weak moment.The Golden Rule would argue for letting it go. Nonetheless, I think the perception of racial bias needs to be raised in the context of the complaint.

Our culture is being pressed to adopt an unbalanced—and I would say, inherently unfair—approach to racism and bias, one that holds that minority groups may practice discrimination and racial preference, but whites may not. This standard, were it to become the norm, would undermine progress in race relations and guarantee resentment and conflict.

As Barney Fife would say, “You gotta nip it in the bud!” Appearances count, and if we don’t object to the mere appearance of bias, if that is all this was, we will end up accepting a lot of real bias as well.

I confess, however, that I am not 100% convinced that this is the right thing to do in this instance.

4 thoughts on “Complaint Ethics, With A Dash of Bias

  1. I’d say the right thing to do is make the complaint about the security procedures and point out the appearance of a race-based judgement.

    But that doesn’t mean go wild.

    The complaint should be raised to the proper authority figure in a discreet conversation which would apply the golden rule. To not raise the issue at all would condone the action, and your wife (and anyone else not responsible for the employee’s conduct) does not have the whole story.

    It could be that there were other incidents in the past and her supervisor is supposed to be attentive to any new issues that might arise. Keeping quiet doesn’t help him. Additionally, she might be the first person in a pattern, so omitting information at this stage won’t help the supervisor realize the pattern in a timely and effective manner.

    But remember, the golden rule must be applied and she must raise it as “constructive criticism” and less like a “complaint”.

  2. You have a good case for reporting the breach of security rules and the disparate treatment of the two women. I wouldn’t mention any suspicion of racial bias. I think the Golden Rule calls for assuming the best–in the absence of hard data.

  3. I don’t see why not to mention it in a constructive way, “the two people allowed through without ID were black, but I was required to have ID. This might look like racial bias”. However, getting all worked up and screaming “You people are bigots!” through a bullhorn in the parking lot is clearly uncalled for at this point.

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