Not Every Organization Needs to Reflect the Community

A few days ago, Anthony Tommasini wrote an Op-Ed at the New York Times titled “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions.”

Blind auditions vastly increased the number of females in orchestras, but it hasn’t increased the number of minority players–well, it hasn’t increased the number of Black and Hispanic players. Asian and Pacific Islander musicians have increased.

Tommasini says this isn’t good enough. He writes:

The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.

He’s wrong.

The ideal situation isn’t to make every organization reflect the community. As my friend, Amy Alkon, points out we need to ask why.

We have no problem respecting the racial makeup of professional sports teams because we can all observe the merit of each player with our own eyes.

It’s a bit more difficult to tell the merit of individual musicians. Unless you, too, are a musician, it can be difficult to tell the difference between two musicians. But, expert musicians can tell the difference between good enough and really good. And the really good deserve the spots in the orchestras.

Here’s the truth about being an expert in music: you need training and you need to focus your time on learning. If you want to increase Black and Hispanic members in professional orchestras, focus on increasing funding for music programs in schools. Provide scholarships for students to study privately with good teachers.

And, it’s okay if not all groups place the same focus on classical traditional music lessons. Not every group needs to have a precise racial and gender makeup. What isn’t okay is discriminating on the basis of race or gender to get a magical balance on paper. That doesn’t help anyone.

Blind auditions are the gold standard of orchestral auditions. It’s one of the few fields where you can truly judge someone by their skills alone without unconscious bias creeping in. Let’s keep it that way.

Photo by Roxanne Minnish

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18 thoughts on “Not Every Organization Needs to Reflect the Community

  1. It all depends on what the real goal is. For an orchestra, one might reasonably presume the goal is to produce the highest quality music, above all else.

    For a NYT op-ed writer, one might reasonably presume the goal is to promote a particular political agenda, above all else.

    The day op-ed writers get to decide how orchestras hire people, there will be no more orchestras, only political propaganda tools.

  2. Considering the NYTimes ownership has been shown by historical records to slave ownership and had continued support of the Confederacy leadership through friendship, NYTimes needs to stop presenting itself as a woke bias paper and present facts in the true non-biased journalism. If it continues to encourage cancel culture, it may be destroyed by the cancel culture for this reality. The biased agenda has no place in journalism.
    As for pushing diversity in music, the first goal is to have programs that encourage musical training and development. It is the same argument being used to eliminate STEM program requirements to create diversity. These are skills that need development, one does not just show up, and instantaneously have the skill. Eliminate what is holding up the development. I can only guess it has to do with how the money is spent.

    1. “The biased agenda has no place in journalism.”

      There is no journalism (or reporting).

      There is only The Narrative.

  3. These kinds of dynamics apply to my field, too, and the ramifications may be even more obvious. My background is in aviation, and pilots at the major airlines tend to be very white and very male. But the thing is, COVID-19 aside, you just can’t tell United Airlines to hire more people from X demographic. Why? Because pilots are licensed by the government, and for the major airlines, require a significant amount of experience to be deemed “qualified”. The upshot, though, is that those qualifications are quantifiable and unambiguous.

    To get more non-white guys hired as pilots, we need to get more non-white guys in the training pipeline. The irony, for lack of a better term, is that pilot training/competency is the great equalizer. Pilots are generally evaluated on a pass/fail basis — either you meet the requirements and can safely fly the airplane, or you can’t.

  4. Studies show children from wealthier families are NOT inherently more talented or more able. Therefore outcomes couldn’t be equal until interests were culturally uniform, and opportunities were more equitable.

    1. Thats the real kicker – oppurtunity. There is also resources for training. Growing up I played trombone and all of my directors really wanted me to take lessons. I was naturally very good! But without expensive one on one lessons that wasnt going to go anywhere.

  5. Instead of a somewhat shitty and insensitive take on this, it would have been refreshing to read about digging deeper than blind auditions and hearing more about getting lower income and disenfranchised school districts access to the same music training as those with the generational wealth that allows them to afford it.

    Organizations should reflect the communities they serve and this kind of sounds like you’re giving the undeserved communities the same middle finger they always seem to receive.

    1. I’ll be the bad guy here: WHY should organizations reflect the communities they serve?

      Statistically speaking, if you divide people into groups (by ANY method, even “Draw a card; your suit is your group”) there will be some groups that have more people interested in a given field than other groups. That’s not problematic, that’s the way statistics work. (This isn’t denying the existence of systemic racism; I’m demonstrating why even a system without systematic racism will not show equal representation within each group.) So even if opportunities are 100% equal for the supergroup, and interest is 100% evenly distributed among the supergroup, once you subdivide it into groups and then pull people from those groups into another composite group that composite group is unlikely to reflect the supergroup. This is a lot easier to explain on paper, but that’s the gist of it. Biologists deal with this all the time; it’s one of the things that complicates sampling efforts.

      Secondly, why should we expect different groups to have the same level of interest in every organization? Classical music is a distinctly European affair; we should expect Asian, African, and Native American groups to be significantly less interested in this type of music than those of us of European ancestry. The reason is pretty simple: those regions have their own culture and their own classic musical styles. So given equal opportunity to join an orchestra (a product of European musical tastes), we should expect to see folks of Asian, African, and Native American ancestry to be under-represented, because they’ll be pulled off to their own musical heritage.

      My biggest concern, though, is personal interest. If some groups–for whatever reason, once opportunities are equalized–are not interested in a particular organization, what do you do? Do you force minorities to join? Or do you limit the total number of applicants (and deal with the consequences of that) and mandate racial quotas? Personal choice is still what drives career selection in the United States, and that means that we should expect to see variation in racial composition; how do you deal with that?

      I’m not saying that there are not systematic issues here. What I am saying is that the metric of “same percent in the organization as in the population” is flawed, since even in an ideal society without racial prejudices it wont be obtained.

      1. Your comment makes a lot of assumptions. Why do you have an expectation that people will be drawn primarily to their “own classic musical styles”? White people sure seem to be drawn to rap. People can, and do love many different things, in and outside of their native culture.

        It isn’t about forcing anything but you don’t have the opportunity to know if you like or dislike something if you don’t know that it exists. If equal opportunity existed, you’d be surprised at how the percentages in organizations would shift.

        To answer the question of why should organizations reflect the community, part of it is because the white is right mentality has done a lot of damage to people and communities of color. It is time for everyone to see themselves reflected in everything. Most white people don’t understand what it feels to grow up and not see anyone who looks like you as successful. That does a lot of damage.

        If the world was less white supremacist, this wouldn’t even be a topic of conversation. It would just be something that happened naturally.

        1. “Your comment makes a lot of assumptions.”

          Granted. The point, however, is that BOTH of our arguments make a lot of parallel assumptions–and that the assumptions are equally valid. On the whole I do think my assumptions are better justified than yours; parents tend to want to teach their children about their own heritage, and children often become curious about it themselves. Ergo, we should, all else being equal, expect people with different cultural backgrounds to express interest in the music of their culture more often than they express interest in music of other cultures, and the interest should be expected to be deeper. Yes, there are white rappers–but there are far more white metal singers.

          “It is time for everyone to see themselves reflected in everything.”

          I don’t agree. Why should Africans, Asians, Native Americans, and the rest of the world expect to be judged by the standards of European styles of music? Why, in other words, are you accepting the use of the music of white people as the standard?

          “It would just be something that happened naturally.”

          No, it wouldn’t. What would happen is that instead of discussing “Why aren’t there more minorities in orchestras?” we would be discussing our favorite ongaku and Ethiopian performances. We would consider performances of Chinese, Cambodian, European, Australian, and Navaho music to be equally sophisticated, and hold musicians playing any of them on par with one another. My argument essentially is that the focus on European style music as the default musical style is problematic–and that in an egalitarian world we wouldn’t be so concerned with how many minorities were in European-style orchestras because high-level music would include so many other styles of music that the question would become essentially irrelevant.

          In short, I do not believe that the only thing that makes people interested in the cultures of their ancestors is white supremacy–an assumption that your criticisms of my arguments necessary entails. Obviously there will be people who explore cultures outside of their own–in fact, I would expect that, as in cooking, musicians would be encouraged to explore as many musical cultures as possible. But just as there are more high-end sushi chefs of Japanese origin than of Spanish origin, we would expect more high-level ongaku musicians of Japanese origin than of Spanish origin.

      2. Statistically speaking a simple random sample of appropriate size WILL have pretty equal numbers to the groups actual distribution. Thats fundamental to diversity and abundance surveys in biology so I am not sure where you are getting that statistics says samples are always disproportionate?

  6. Geez, this topic certainly inspired a lot of thinly-related — at best! — political commentary. The fact is that funding has declined for many programs in public schools, including — but not limited to — art, music, even physical education (PE) in some. I’m an old lady, but when I was a child, we had orchestras in public elementary schools, with free music lessons and instruments — even during summer vacation! — as part of our normal curriculum. Our periodic recitals were a big deal! Everyone dressed up and the girls were even allowed to wear lipstick! Now, few elementary schools teach orchestral music, and a lot don’t teach music — or art, or PE — at all. Systematic racism has resulted in ethnic minorities remaining economically disadvantaged in America. That means they’re more likely to be educated in free, public or charter, schools, and less likely to be exposed to orchestral music in school or to receive private music lessons. Reversing the defunding of public education and restoring art, music, physical education and other so-called “enrichment” programs to public schools will do more to address this underrepresentation than blind auditions can alone.

    1. Granny Bunny has it right, 100%.

      As for this: Secondly, why should we expect different groups to have the same level of interest in every organization? Classical music is a distinctly European affair; we should expect Asian, African, and Native American groups to be significantly less interested in this type of music than those of us of European ancestry. The reason is pretty simple: those regions have their own culture and their own classic musical styles.

      It’s so loaded with assumptions that it can’t be taken seriously. Nonwhite people have their own music so should not aspire to Eurocentric music? Racist and ridiculous!

    2. Winifred and Granny Bunny are absolutely correct. I am absolutely HORRIFIED that someone that says that they are an HR professional wrote this. This mindset is racist, insensitive, and has no place in Human Resources.

  7. I dream of a day when people are simply assigned jobs, and then we no longer need to worry that no all jobs attract equal applicants from every group.

    1. I dream of a day when everyone has equal access to work and life that matches their interests and talents and the positive contribution they can make to the world. As far as I can tell that’s planet Earth in episodes of Star Trek. We have a long way to go to ensure people who have systematically been denied access to opportunities have that access.

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